When social historians look back at 2003 to discover America's psychological state as 9/11 gave way to the Iraq War, they'll learn more from Jane Smiley's decadent fantasia Ten Days In The Hills than from the period's cable news or talk radio. Not that Smiley documents reality. Instead, she uses a novelist's imagination to extract telling details from the crazy-quilt of heightened emotion and fear that accompanied the war's onset. Then she sets those details in a sprawling story-universe constructed collage-wise from the endless conversations of privileged Californians: the aging director, his chanteuse ex-wife, the instruction-book author he lives with, their children, assorted in-laws, agents, lovers, and hopeful hangers-on. The Oscars have just taken place as the novel opens, and the bombing of Baghdad began three days earlier. These events, as every screenwriter will recognize, are not unrelated.
Inspired by Boccaccio's Decameron, the novel follows this ungainly ensemble through 10 days of gourmet food, uninhibited sex (spiced with the threat of impotence), and almost endless anecdotes, jokes, movie pitches, reminiscences, and other tall tales. The director, Max, half-jokingly plans an indie-style feature, in the vein of My Dinner With Andre, called My Lovemaking With Elena—90 minutes of sex and conversation. But his agent brings him an offer from mysterious Russian billionaires who want to remake the obscure 1962 Yul Brynner/Tony Curtis Cossack epic Taras Bulba. The entire moveable feast decamps to the Russians' mansion in Bel Air, where servants lead guided tours of rumored Vermeers and suites decorated with trompe l'oeil scenes of Renaissance history. Most of the time, the hosts and houseguests avoid mentioning the war; one of the attractions of the Bel Air mansion is that there are no televisions. But the Californians' fatal habits of frankness and therapeutic avoidance of avoidance mean that the war, bubbling underneath every stray story about Henry Miller or Lee Strasberg or the private pornographic productions of famous Disney animators, sometimes becomes the actual topic of conversation.
And at those moments, words fail these articulate, perfectly transparent people. Their stories about what happened become muddled with wishes about what should have happened—the movies that never got made, the promising projects ruined by commerce—and the hazards of living on the cusp of history become disturbingly manifest. As one character obsesses about the arguments she'd have with Condoleezza Rice if only she could, the devastating "Why?"s that would cut through the administration party line, the disconnection and powerlessness felt by millions of Americans become incarnate in the dreamlike Hollywood hills.