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by Marty Demarest & r & Ten Days in the Hills by Jane Smiley & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & or me, one of the greatest pleasures of reading a novel by Jane Smiley is peeking at her picture on the dust jacket. Spry and slightly mousy, the middle-aged Smiley smiles back looking exactly like the thoughtful Letter-to-the-Editor writer that she is. There's nothing in her face to suggest the staggering wealth of characters with which Smiley has populated her novels.





But there are a few traces of the author in her books. The theme of gourmet home cooking recurs. And Smiley is a virtuoso of styles. Whether she's writing fake official college documents (Moo) or delving into obsessive minds (Horse Heaven), Smiley lets her characters take over in their own voices, inner and outer.





The random cast of characters in Ten Days in the Hills is gathered in the house of a semi-famous screenwriter shortly after the launch of the Iraq war. Through various contrivances, they manage to stay together for 10 days, taking a "vacation from geopolitics" and engaging in political dialogue and sex. Lots of sex. The ways in which Smiley's characters have sex is almost as diverse as the ways in which they speak.





Echoing The Decameron (the medieval collection of 100 novellas set over the course of 10 days), Smiley's characters tell each other stories -- long stories, short stories, specific and abstract stories. Before long, it starts to feel as though Smiley's characters are trapped in a novel, not a house. Even when making love, they stop to deliver two-page soliloquies.





Gradually, her characters fall apart. The token conservative becomes a whipping boy as the other characters in the house give vent to their anger at the ongoing war. Despite the household's vast range of esoteric knowledge, nobody cracks a single joke about their lives being like The Decameron.





Nevertheless, Smiley is a master, and her prose glides perfectly in the service of navel-gazers. Her middle-aged folk, however, apparently think that younger adults only contemplate professors, parents and videogames (which she misspells, differently, twice). "Typical fuzzy thinking in the older generation," Smiley writes for one of her characters. At least I agree with that.

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