So much piety attaches these days to the idea of storytelling indeed, to the very word that any book designed to celebrate the power of story might well inspire a certain mistrust. In our identityobsessed age, telling a story usually means telling your story, an act of confession that is also a celebration of authenticity and a demand for respect. The very word "story," as opposed to the more aesthetic "fiction" and the more technical "narrative," has acquired a dismayingly wholesome flavor. Telling a story is something you do at a child's bedtime or around a campfire, or else in a seminar room.
The great pleasure of Jane Smiley's "Ten Days in the Hills" (Knopf, 449 pages, $26) is to kidnap the art of storytelling out of this nurturing milieu, to give it back its languorous, erotic, aristocratic birthright. Ms. Smiley has always been a profuse, unstinting writer, more in love with plot and character than with style. (It makes sense that she wrote a short biography of Charles Dickens if novelists are divided between the school of Dickens and the school of Nabokov, Ms. Smiley definitely belongs in the first camp.) Now Ms. Smiley sets out to channel the ghost of one of the first and most prolific European storytellers Boccaccio, whose "Decameron" is the blueprint for "Ten Days in the Hills."
The "Decameron," like the "Canterbury Tales," is less a novel than an excuse to tell stories. In both works, the point is not originality but sheer narrative gusto: Boccaccio assembles 100 stories from all manner of sources, from Italian folktales to early Christian legends to Indian and Persian romances. These stories are organized with a frame narrative: during an outbreak of the plague, a group of 10 Florentine aristocrats escape to the country, where they pass the time telling each other stories. This combination of danger and leisure, of gilded youth and black death, is what gives the Decameron its peculiarly Renaissance voluptuousness.
You can only admire the invention and intrepidity with which Ms. Smiley sets out to rewrite the Decameron for our own time. "Ten Days in the Hills" (the title puns on Boccaccio's Greek, which literally means "10 days") is set in Hollywood, just after the 2003 Oscars. The setting gives Ms. Smiley the chance to assemble a group of characters as privileged and self-absorbed as Boccaccio's the louche nobility of the movie world.
Max, a late-middle-aged screenwriter turned director, won an Oscar himself decades ago, but hasn't worked in years. The only idea that inspires him now is a "My Dinner With Andre"-style film about his lovemaking with his girlfriend, Elena, a perfectionist who writes comically bossy how-to books ("Here's How: To Do EVERYTHING Correctly!"). Their idyll in Max's Hollywood villa is soon interrupted by the arrival of Max's daughter, the humorless, resentful Isabel, and Elena's son, the careless, charming Simon. Isabel's mother, Max's ex-wife, is Zoe Cunningham, a dazzling, narcissistic movie star; she shows up accompanied by Paul, her Buddhist guru. Then you have Zoe's mother, the inscrutable Delphine; Delphine's gossipy friend Cassie; Max's oldest friend, the vulgarian Charlie; and Max's agent, Stoney, who is secretly Isabel's lover.
If this catalog of characters (exactly 10, as in Boccaccio) seems hard to keep straight, that is no more than Ms. Smiley intends. A sense of swarming profusion is the keynote of "Ten Days in the Hills," and its most authentic debt to the Renaissance, whose aesthetics and erotics can be summed up in a single word: more. Nowhere in the book is this clearer than in Ms. Smiley's description of a modernday palace, the mansion of a Russian billionaire who wants Max to make a movie based on Gogol's novel "Taras Bulba." (This is just one of dozens of books discussed and alluded to in "Ten Days" the fruit, it seems, of all the reading Ms. Smiley did for her last work, "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.")
Ms. Smiley takes such obvious joy in describing this house its themed guest rooms, its tapestries and paintings, its woodwork and tiling and gardens and aviary that she makes it sound like something out of "The Faery Queene." Even the meals served there are meticulously detailed: "rack of lamb with a reduction of red wine and woodland mushrooms, braised bitter greens, and roasted potatoes, plus an artichoke-andcaramelized fennel frittata for the vegetarians, followed by pistachio biscotti and blood-orange sorbet made with Grand Marnier."
The challenge for Ms. Smiley is to reconcile this Renaissance ideal, which exults in adding detail upon detail, with the expectations of modern readers, who have been taught by the novel form to prize depth over breadth, momentum over accretion. Her solution is to reverse the balance of elements in the Decameron: to reduce the individual tales in size and importance, and to elevate the framing narrative to something more like a fullscale novel.
The result is that "Ten Days" does not read like a collection of stories, but like a novel in which the characters never stop talking. Ms. Smiley is endlessly resourceful in coming up with stories for Max, Elena, and company to tell, and with reasonable occasions for telling them. They tell trivial stories from last week and secret stories from their early childhoods; they recount articles they read in the newspaper, and summarize the plots of movies they have seen. (Those movies are both real and invented one of the most brilliant things about "Ten Days" is the way Ms. Smiley invents films that do not exist, but seem like they should.)
The obvious problem, and one that Ms Smiley never really overcomes, is that these stories are not the kind of stand-alone tales Boccaccio collected, and so they are not as inherently interesting as they need to be to justify their role in the novel. "Ten Days" requires us to function at two speeds at the same time: actively, the way the novel reader does, and passively, the way the story listener does. But it is hard to disengage our readerly expectation that every piece of gossip or remembered episode will serve to advance the novel in some way to reveal the truth about a character, or bring two people into conflict.
If the action of the novel is anemic, however, Ms. Smiley compensates by raising the temperature with sex and politics. As one would expect from a group of bored, isolated, beautiful people, the characters in "Ten Days" have a lot of sex; each chapter has at least one graphic sex scene, which Ms. Smiley writes with rare grace and conviction. As one might also expect from a novel set during the first weeks of the Iraq war, these men and women spend a lot of time talking about the war and American politics; and in true Hollywood fashion, they all share the same political opinions. Because these opinions anti-war, anti-Bush also seem to be Ms. Smiley's, however, they become a bit claustrophobic, and it is harder than it should be to decide whether the characters' smugness is being satirized or shared.
The novel's self-righteous politics also obscures the effrontery involved in comparing the predicament of Los Angeles liberals in March 2003 with that of Florentines during the plague. We cannot forget that Ms. Smiley's people are never really in danger, the way Boccaccio's were. It makes you wonder what "Ten Days in the Hills" might have been like if it were set in the days after September 11, 2001, when the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty was genuinely explosive. This is one of several ways in which Ms. Smiley's noble experiment does not entirely succeed, even as it remains stimulating and original.