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Smiley's Tinseltown novel is a slow, tedious climb

Think of it: Jane Smiley as Scheherazade in a sweeping 21st century saga, part Arabian Nights, part Decameron!

Place this grand concept high over Tinseltown, people it with movie folk and -- you would assume -- "Ten Days in the Hills" couldn't miss. Yet, curiously, it does -- even though the novel is brilliant, as Smiley is brilliant, and some film zealots may find it enthralling.

But those of us used to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Smiley's quick, clever plotlines and fascinating situations are in for a long, tedious trudge here with some of the most self-serving, self-absorbed and single-minded human beings imaginable. Even the protagonists seem to sense a futility in spending time with them.

At one point, Paul, the therapist-boyfriend of a film star, thinks, "I am wasting my time here."

"It was as if," Smiley writes of Paul, "he had somehow embarked on a cruise, something he had avoided all his life, and suddenly here he was, far out in a sea of languor with a group of people who on land could be avoided, and were therefore fine enough, but here, on this cruise, were insufferable.

"He sighed. They made him sigh. It was not precisely that they were boring, but more that they caused the expansion of time, so that every second, every moment, swelled to infinity..."

And then there is the sex, unambiguous, endless sex, some of it along with incessant talk (in one case while a participant is on her cell phone), almost all of it seeming but a way to pass the time.

Perhaps it is part of Smiley's point, to show a certain shallowness -- and empty privilege -- in the personal lives of these movie rich. But, as Smiley fans, we cry out for people we can care about, wishing she had immersed herself for her Decameron in some more rewarding culture.

But, if the characters in Smiley's ambitious undertaking are mediocre, the mounting of her grand production is not. As Boccaccio's Decameron had the Black Death of the 1300s as its backdrop, "Ten Days in the Hills" has the war in Iraq -- and, in fact, begins in March 2003 only days after U.S. troops first fired missiles in Iraq.

Max, a widely admired movie director, and his girlfriend, Elena, a successful self-help writer, are awakening after a night at the Oscars. Soon, Max's "luxurious sprawling" home above Hollywood will fill, for seven lost days, with eight more individuals:

Max's spoiled 23-year-old daughter, Isabel; her mother, the self-possessed actress and singer Zoe Cunningham; Zoe's Jamaican-born and imperious mother Delphine; Max's agent, Stoney, Isabel's secret lover (since she was 16); Zoe's current lover, Paul; Delphine's Hollywood connected friend Cassie; Elena's 20-year-old son Simon, a fledgling porn film maker, and Charlie, Max's friend since his childhood days in New Jersey.

Before this deluge, Max and Elena have (of course) while establishing two of the book's themes -- Elena's preoccupation with the just-begun war in Iraq and Max's desire to make an "intimate" movie like "My Dinner with Andre" that would, privately, be a film about Max and Elena. When Max later broaches the subject to his agent, Stoney, he says, "I would like to do a movie like 'My Dinner with Andre' except that, instead of talking in a restaurant for two hours, the two characters make love in their bedroom for two hours."

Stoney asks, "Do they make love in some new way that allows them to keep going for two hours?"

"No, they mostly talk," says Max, noting: ". . . in this draft of the script, they are talking a lot about the Iraq War. She's more interested in it, really, that he is . . . For him, it's just another screw up, but for her, it's the big screw up, the screw up that changes history, and her entire view of human nature . . ."

"Ten Days in the Hills" is clearly a departure for Smiley -- a brave one. After doing her customary unstinting homework on the ways of Hollywood, she has left the sure confines of form and plot for the free flowing tales that, as in the Decameron, fill the days. More tales, as in the Arabian Nights -- and private screenings of films -- fill the nights.

The parallels don't end there: Almost every character summons thoughts of another, here from Greek history and lore -- Elena/Helen of Troy, Delphine/the Delphic Oracle, Cassie/Cassandra and so on.

Smiley has certainly pulled out all the stops here. The question is: How many stops can her readers bear?

Karen Brady is a former News columnist.

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Ten Days in the Hills

By Jane Smiley

Knopf

449 pages, $26

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