Carry around Claire Messud's latest book, The Emperor's Children, and you're likely to hear, from anyone who pays attention to such things: "Is it good? Do you like it? Everyone did." The novel is a little, one-volume literary celebrity, and one might well wonder why. It may be fruitless to ask why some books—and some authors—become the darlings of the critical press, that arm of publishing that canonizes what has already been anointed by another branch of the literary industry. But what about the books themselves? How do they carry their cultural freight? Is there something about the shape or features or substance of a book like The Emperor's Children that identifies it as an exemplar of the "literary" novel of our day? [End Page 355]
And what of a "literary" author like Jane Smiley, whose books it's safe to admire even if your not-so-discriminating sister reads them? After fictional forays into farm life and academia, horse racing and real estate, Smiley has entered, most recently, the culture of filmmaking. Her novel, Ten Days in the Hills, and Messud's The Emperor's Childrean, arriving at virtually the same time and both making structural use of a significant current event, present an opportunity to consider that mysterious territory where the literary and the popular, the historical and the contemporary, the promotional and the critical uneasily meet.
In Smiley's book, the real-life event is the onset of the Iraq War. Retreating to the Hollywood hills to avoid the unbearable news, Smiley's ten characters discuss and argue, somewhat exhaustively, the politics and policy of the moment. And, invariably, they talk about sex—as if, perhaps, between current affairs and affairs of the heart there is a natural connection. Such a connection is clearer in Smiley's model, Boccaccio's Decameron, in which ten people remove to a villa in Italy, escaping the Black Plague, and tell stories of love, one each for ten days; this is, manifestly, putting love in the way of death. Smiley's people, however, go first to one Hollywood mansion and then to another to escape the Iraq War and tell stories of love to each other, and have sex of one kind or another, and talk about sex, until they go home. The implied analogy, of a plague to a war brought on by human folly, is not a felicitous one, but it does raise a good question, which the book briefly engages: what exactly can we do about such matters?
The book's answer, though I'd be reluctant to call it Smiley's answer, is: nothing. The Iraq War, so exercising the woman we'd likely call the main character, Elena, beats the plague for opportunities for opinion, of course, but also renders that very same opinion-making and -stating quite fatuous. Elena's lover, moviemaker Max, says to her at one point, "You've done everything you could. You've protested and voted and marched and written letters to the editor. You've subscribed to progressive newsletters and magazines. You've signed petitions and . . . You've sent money and you've made signs." What's a citizen with liberal convictions—or, really, any convictions—to do? The question resonates, sometimes softly, sometimes with a true clunky clang, through this book, which is, finally, a novel about the value of conversation and the usefulness of discourse and the possibility of activism in a supposed democracy like our own. In response, we have characters like Elena alternately paralyzed and ineffectually eloquent; Max planning My Lovemaking with Elena, a movie something like My Dinner with Andre; Max's ex, "the pop icon and sex goddess Zoe Cunningham"; Zoe's current paramour, a "healer" who's convinced her that she's a reincarnated deity; and Charlie, a school friend of Max's, who in reality would never be a member of this party, but is needed as the lone conservative—or even regular Joe—voice...