Smiley’s People


The latest from Jane Smiley, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Thousand Acres, follows the exploits of one small enclave in the hills of Hollywood as they react to the Iraq War over the 10 days following the 2003 Oscars. Our cast includes Max, a faded but beloved film director and his 50-year-old, self-help-book-writing lover Elena, who narrates this magical misery tour; Max’s ex-wife, exotic movie star Zoe Cunningham, and her mountain-climbing guru Paul; and Charlie, an irritable dirigible of conservative warmongering and hot air. Cloistered in Max’s mansion for a prolonged house party,the gang argues about war as filtered through the rose-tinted glass of a flat screen, with emotions running the gamut from shame to helplessness.

Smiley writes with cinematic verve and is nearly without equal when it comes to crystallizing the vagaries of a woman’s inner narrative—musing, meandering, and weaving as it does, free and insouciant even in the face of the withering male ego. Elena’s narrative is shot through with frank talk that results in a fresh, oddly romantic way of approaching sexuality—and there is as much action as there is talk. Although it’s supposed to be an update of Boccaccio’s
Decameron, the book more closely resembles Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel
. It’s not a scandal to watch the bourgeoisie tear itself apart anymore, though. Confession, in front of so many people all at once, is now considered a positive thing—it’s good for ratings.

Boccaccio’s characters were necessarily trapped together due to the threat of imminent death from plague; Smiley’s characters are brought together by a slightly more gruesome potential fate: death by boredom. But, just as Donald Rumsfeld once remarked, ”
You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have,” the underlying message of this tale is that you love your friends in the world that you have, not the world you would like to have.