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About the Author
Date of Birth:September 26, 1949
Place of Birth:Los Angeles, California
Education:B.A. in English, Vassar College, 1971; M.A., Iowa University, 1975; M.F.A, 1976; Ph.D., 1978
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Ten Days in the Hills
By Jane Smiley
KnopfCopyright © 2007 Jane Smiley
All right reserved.
Monday, March 24, 2003
Max was still sleeping, neatly, as always, his head framed by the sunny white of his rectangular pillow, his eyelids smooth over the orbs of his eyes, his lips pale and soft, his bare shoulders square on the bed. While Elena was gazing at him, he sighed. Sometime in the night, he had turned back the white comforter; its fold crossed him diagonally between the hip and the knee. The morning sunlight burnished his hands (right on top of left), and sparkled through his silvery chest hair. His cock lay to one side, nonchalant. Elena smoothed the very tips of his chest hair with her hand so that she could just feel it tickling her palm, and then circled his testicles with her index finger. She was sleepy herself, probably from dreaming of the Oscars. What she could remember were more like recurring images of the bright stage as she had seen it from their seats, smiling figures walking around on it, turning this way and that, breasting the audience suddenly as if jumping into surf--not unhappy images, but not restful. The bright figures had stayed with her all night, sometimes actually looking frightened, or turning toward her so that she had to remind herself in her dream that they were happy, well fed, successful.
She sat up quietly, so as not to disturb him. She saw that all of their clothes--his tux and her vintage gold silk-velvet flapper dress--were draped neatly over the backs of acouple of chairs. Her silver sandals and her silver mesh evening bag lay on the windowsill where she had set them when she walked in the bedroom door. He had taken her to the Oscars and then to the Governor's Ball, because she, of course, had never been, though he himself had an invitation every year--his movie Grace had won Best Screenplay in the 1970s (and in fact was listed on three "hundred best films of the twentieth century" lists that she had looked up on the Internet: seventy-seventh on one, eighty-third on another, and eighty-fifth best on the third). At fifty-eight, Max had a certain sort of fame in Hollywood: most people had heard of him, but lots of younger ones assumed he was dead.
Elena, who wrote self-improvement guides (she was currently working on Here's How: To Do EVERYTHING Correctly!, chapter four, "Eating and Drinking"), had also managed to earn herself a house, but it was a bungalow in the flats of Beverly Hills, not a mansion that cascaded down a mountainside in Pacific Palisades, looked across Will Rogers Memorial Park at the Getty Museum, and had five bedrooms, a guesthouse, and a swimming pool down the mountainside (three flights of stairs) that caught the morning sun. There were two gardens on other levels--the herb garden and flower garden, one level down from the kitchen, and the Japanese garden, twenty feet below the swimming pool, which was utterly cool and silent, as far away from Los Angeles as the island of Honshu.
Elena put her feet on the floor and thought of the war. The war had begun on Thursday. As soon as she thought directly of the war, which had been until this moment of her day a presence but not an object, her fragmented, Oscar-colored mood jelled into a general feeling of shame and fear. The fact was, the war was going forward no matter what, no matter how threatening and dangerous it was, no matter how many people were certain to die, no matter how many people protested and complained, no matter what a bad bet it looked like. Other people could understand the war and explain it--there was, indeed, something reasonable about the war that other people seemed able to comprehend--but for Elena the war was entirely counterintuitive. She supposed it came down to that very word--"war," a word she had avoided reading, saying, looking at for a number of years when she was a child during the Cold W--, when "war" meant annihilation, mutually assured destruction, better dead than red, except that as a child she had understood "dead" much better than "red"--she had understood "dead" perfectly. Elena remembered herself at eight, standing in the kitchen with the radio on and her fingers in her ears, blocking out the sound of the television in the living room that was reporting the random progress of various threats to her life. One name she remembered was "Francis Gary Powers," a man who endangered everyone by spying. After more than forty years, Elena could still remember that name and see his snowy black-and-white figure, a tall man with dark hair, being hustled from one room to another by other, more shadowy figures. She remembered him because she had known that there was a train of circumstances that could begin with Francis Gary Powers and end with her death. Even then, even at eight years old, Elena had understood that tipping over into mutually assured destruction would have been an accident. This war, though, was not an accident but an intention. People who knew people whom Elena knew planned to visit assured destruction on other people whom Elena didn't know. She sighed so deeply that Max turned toward her and opened his eyes. He said, "Did you have fun last night?"
"Yes, but I dreamt about the stage all night. What I liked best was that so many people were happy to see you."
"The troll emerges from under the bridge." He pulled up the coverlet. "It's always a pleasant surprise."
"It looked to me like they were genuinely happy to see you. Actual smiles that included their eyes. Involuntary twinkles and sparkles and body twitches."
"They're actors. Nothing is involuntary."
"Well, thank you anyway for taking me."
"The best part was them wondering who you were and where you got that dress." Now he rolled her into his embrace, right up next to his shoulders and chest. He kissed her between the eyebrows and pulled the quilt over her. "The worst part is that I think we have a house party shaping up."
"Isn't your friend Charlie Mannheim coming soon?" She had met Charlie the previous summer with Max on a trip to San Francisco. She had observed then that with men you often didn't quite understand why two people who became friends when they were ten years old remained in contact almost into their sixties.
"That, plus Stoney has to vacate his place while the floors are being redone. And Isabel wants to visit all of a sudden. I guess she broke up with Leo and he won't leave their apartment."
Stoney Whipple was Max's agent, a position he had taken over from his father, Jerry. Elena hadn't known Jerry. She'd met Max in the cheese section at Gelson's last Easter, when Max was buying a Piave and Elena was buying a Gruyère de Comté and their hands touched as they both reached for the Epoisses. Jerry had died by that time. She had come to understand that Jerry Whipple was, by all accounts, a legend. Stoney Whipple was sweet, Elena thought. He was in and out of Max's house in a way that reminded her of her Midwestern roots, and so she felt friendly with him for that and also because his career didn't seem to be shaping up into a legendary one.
But Isabel! Isabel was Max's daughter, whom Elena had not met. She said, calmly, she thought, "That's three. That isn't so bad. It isn't bad at all."
"Stoney can sleep in the study. He's going to be in and out."
Without wishing to, she felt a surge of nervousness. The spacious peace of this luxuriously sprawling house to be broken! Although Elena loved to contemplate pork roasts and thread-counts and bottles of spring water on bedside tables, having to provide them made her anxious. She said, "At least we got rid of Simon." Simon was Elena's own son, a senior at UC Davis, who, Elena thought, was spending too much time in L.A. and too little time in Davis. He had left only a week ago, after twelve lazy days of vacation during which he did not look for post-graduation employment.
Max said, "What do you want to do today?"
"Hide out from the war."
"Oh, that." He frowned and flopped over on his back. Max's feelings about the war, she knew, were compounded less of shame than of anger. When Elena said that the war was stupid and then Max replied that, yes, it was stupid, she then went on to point out that those prosecuting the war didn't comprehend the chaotic and agonizing nature of war, and he went on to exclaim, "What's the plan? It's evident they have no plan!" As a movie director, he had directed Bull Run in the late 1980s, an epic Civil War movie that ran three hours and five minutes, had taken eight months to make, employed hundreds of extras and horses, and had, perhaps, killed the studio that made it. When he talked about planning, she was sure he was thinking about projects he had planned and executed over the years. And he was thinking of the army, since he had been in Vietnam.
She lifted the quilt, then let it drop. She said, "The war is too much for your cock."
"I admit that."
"Say, did you notice that when I spoke to Michael Moore after the ceremony, about his speech, he seemed a little shocked by the booing? You don't expect Michael Moore to be shocked by anything. I was disappointed. I mean, if Michael Moore is intimidated by a little booing, what's going to happen to the rest of us?"
"But who was booing him? Studio executives. You don't want to be booed by studio executives, even if you are filled with contempt for them. Anyway, I bet by this time you're the only person in the world who knows he was shocked. I bet even he doesn't know he was shocked anymore. And who's to say that they were booing his remarks about Bush? Maybe they were booing his remark about having Canadian financing."
Elena smiled, then Max smiled. He said, "I want Canadian financing, too."
"A movie I am going to make about you."
"Oh, yes, about posture. I'm going to be sitting in my chair with both feet flat on the floor and my spine perfectly aligned, and then I'm going to rise from my chair and walk across the room without turning my toes out, pronating my ankles, or, God forbid, turning my toes in. We'll put small white circles all up my spine and across my shoulders and down the backs of my legs, so that my physiologically correct and evolutionarily correct posture will be evident to anyone."
"Then maybe I'm going to get stains out of some delicate items? Not just red-wine stains and bloodstains, but rust stains and grass stains and oils of various kinds? Using lemons and other citrus fruits?"
"No. You are not going to be useful in my film about you." He was propped up on his left elbow now, looking down at her. His right hand slipped behind her back and turned her toward him. She let her head loll backward, lengthening and exposing her neck, and he kissed her along her jawline. When she turned her head toward him, he kissed her on the lips. He had a certain way of kissing that Elena liked very much, not active but quiet, springy, and full of suction. During the kiss, she contemplated their connection--tight, warm, and comfortable. Everything promised was delivered, adjustments were made in which he claimed more and more of her lips, and then, in a moment of common agreement that she suspected was visceral or even biological, they broke apart, in order to kiss again. Each long kiss built on the previous one as more and more nerve endings came into play. Each kiss was a surprise to her lips. Her brain remembered that they had kissed and that the kisses were always seductive and good, but her lips were won over anew every time. Each kiss, also, she felt as a material and particular assertion of his masculinity--steady, strong, orderly, desirous, and, above all, intentional, as if kissing her were something that he paid attention to each time. Elena, of course, had been kissed thousands of times over the years--she was fifty, after all--and she had been married once, and of course there had been high school and college and graduate school, and if marriage was like a thousand-dollar bill, rare but tangible and possessable, and going steady was like a hundred-dollar bill--more common than you thought when you didn't have one--then kisses were like pennies, easily disregarded, hard to remember, or even inconvenient and annoying. And yet she could say with perfect honesty (and she was far too meticulous to allow any other kind of honesty) that Max's kisses were always to be noticed, valued, and cherished, since they could not be preserved, which was, by the way, too bad.
Excerpted from Ten Days in the Hills by Jane Smiley Copyright © 2007 by Jane Smiley. Excerpted by permission.
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Reading Group Guide
“A blazing farce, a fiery satire of contemporary celebrity culture and a rich, simmering meditation on the price of war and fame and desire.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading and conversation about Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills, an extraordinary reimagining of Boccaccio's Decameron set in the Hollywood hills in the early days of the Iraq war.
1. The story opens just after the Iraq war has begun and Elena is thinking about the war, as she will throughout the novel. “Though no theory worked, she couldn't help toiling at her theorizing. …Each new theory was accompanied by a momentary sense of uplift—oh, that was it—fear, native aggression, ignorance, disinformation and propaganda, a religious temperament of rules and punishments. But in the end, it was that they didn't mind killing; they didn't think killing had anything to do with them or their loved ones” [p. 22]. Why is Elena the character most affected by the outbreak of war? Are you sympathetic to her thinking? Is she the most morally engaged character in the novel, or is she, as Charlie thinks, over-reacting?
2. Consider the book's structure: 10 characters spend 10 days together in two different houses. What happens? What develops? What is resolved, if anything? What is the effect of Smiley's taking Boccaccio's fourteenth-century premise (10 characters take refuge from the plague for ten days of pleasure and storytelling) and transposing it to 2003? [See Smiley's description of The Decameron below]
3. A recurring comic allusion to what Elena calls “the manliness problem” is found at the beginning of the book with regard to Max, to Saddam Hussein, and to actors such as Hugh Grant and Ed Harris [p. 19]. Elena worries that, since “the Big Classic” is malfunctioning, she has unmanned Max with her fears about the war. What is “the manliness problem” and does it in fact relate to the war?
4. Consider the ways in which the three main couples—Max and Elena, Stoney and Isabel, Paul and Zoe—are sexually attuned to each other. What does Smiley seem to suggest about their relationships, given the ways they make love with each other? Does the sexual bond between Isabel and Stoney suggest that they should be together, despite the difference in their ages?
5. What does the juxtaposition of war with sex, food, storytelling and movie-watching signify?
6. Smiley describes the marriage of Zoe and Max as follows: “To Max (Elena was sure), Zoe felt like the main event of his life, but to Zoe (for some reason) Max felt like the opening act. Elena understood that this was a common pattern in Hollywood, where the calibrations of success, especially for 'talent,' were highly refined, and every marriage was simultaneously an assertion of who and how important you thought you were at a particular moment in your career and a sign of how you were to be treated by others” [p. 41]. Does the fact that Elena is not in the movie business mean that her love for Max (and his for her) is not bound to this hierarchy of social status?
7. Is Hollywood meant to be a microcosm of America, or is it seen to have a bizarre culture all its own? Why might Smiley have chosen to set her reprise of The Decameron in Hollywood? What is the relation between movies and storytelling, since both are so fundamental to the conversations and activities that we see throughout the novel?
8. In a discussion about a newspaper article on civilian deaths, Charlie stares aghast at Elena when she says, “The U.S. is a pariah in world opinion today” [p. 210]. Given the time that has elapsed since the beginning of the Iraq war and the publication of this novel, how do Elena's fears and opinions come across? What might the book be like if the same ten people got together now, nearly five years into the war?
9. John Updike, writing in The New Yorker, observed that the novel's “sexual descriptions set a new mark for explicitness in a work of non-pornographic intent. Smiley works in close focus, and from a male as well as a female point of view” (The New Yorker 1/29/07). Discuss what is unique or remarkable about Smiley's descriptions of sex. What is she expressing about the emotional and physiological effects of touch and physical response, and what is particularly impressive about the descriptive prose in which she does so?
10. Sexual infidelity finds its place in the story when Zoe sleeps with Simon [p. 245]. Why does Simon punch Paul? Why does Zoe react as she does, and why do these events lead to her breakup with Paul?
11. Why is Paul an interesting character? Is he a charlatan? Is he wise? What do you think of his spiritual perspective, particularly in juxtaposition to the other characters and with the background of Hollywood?
12. Elena is a writer of self-help books like Here's How: To Do EVERYTHING Correctly! She worries that she suffers from a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder and that because of her preoccupations she lacks a sense of humor. Does Elena come across as a likeable person? Why or why not?
13. On the seventh day the group moves to the Bel Air mansion of the Russian millionaire Mike. How does the change in setting affect the characters? Why might Smiley have chosen to move her characters to such a house?
14. Regarding Elena's love for Max, we're told, “what created this love was a suddenly vast sense of every story he had told her…" [p. 424]. Does this mean that Max has in a sense created himself, for Elena, out of stories? Or that she loves him for his past, his perceptions, and his sensibility? What does this statement tell us about the importance of the stories people tell each other?
15. In what ways is the novel funny? In what ways is it satirical? Consider the scene in which Cassie and Delphine plan to go food shopping and they survey the dietary needs and preferences of the group [p. 86]. Is the scene meant to stand, comically, in contrast to some other cultural or social reality?
16. Max's movie Grace won an Oscar in the 1970s but his career hasn't moved forward much since then. He does not seem troubled by this and doesn't want to take Stoney's advice about Taras Bulba. He would prefer to make My Lovemaking with Elena. Does it seem likely that either of these movies will see the light?
17. Consider what it would be like to make a list of the many movies mentioned or watched by the characters in the story, and to actually watch all of these films. How would it change your perspective on reality? On Hollywood? On the different ways that film and fiction tell stories?
18. The novel ends as Zoe receives the package containing the painting, which is not by Vermeer but instead by a woman artist named Judith Leyster, “the only woman artist of her day” [p. 449]. She is humming the song “So in Love,” and thinking about the girl in the painting. What is the effect of this ending?
On The Decameron, from Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel:
“Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron … takes place during the Black Death. … Here were the characters … making up their minds to go out into the countryside, to take a break from the devastation, and to entertain themselves with stories. … They do find repose and they do entertain themselves, and most important for readers, with their tales and their discussion, they reconstitute what it means to be human and civilized even while civilization is disintegrating around them. And they do it with good humor rather than grief. Many of the stories are jokes; many of them are intended to evoke laughter and pleasure. … I thought it was a reminder of human resilience—not merely that humans survive, but that as they survive, they can't help re-creating complex culture, which includes aesthetic, moral, political, sexual, and sensual ideas” [pp. 273-74].