For a debut novelist with a quiet literary sensibility to take on the bloated, overexposed milieu of celebrity culture – and to approach it as a head-on dissection – requires a certain bravado.
The soul-sucking Hollywood machine is an area well tread by journalists, memoirists, filmmakers and, of course, novelists – from Nathaniel West and Michael Tolkin to Bruce Wagner, who recently published his seventh Hollywood-rooted novel, “Dead Stars.”
Christine Sneed’s “Little Known Facts” doesn’t exactly fulfill the promise of her book’s title. Many of her insights into Hollywood culture feel all too familiar. But it is an entertaining, formally inventive read.
Renn Ivins is a twice-divorced, charismatic A-list star – a Clint Eastwood- or Robert Redford-like character with artistic integrity and sex appeal who, in his early 50s, has turned his hand to screenwriting and directing. He also founded the requisite charity, a Katrina-relief organization called “Life After the Storm” that’s conveniently in sync with his most recent film, “Bourbon at Dusk,” filming in New Orleans.
Renn is like a swirling black hole around which the people in his life orbit. His daughter, Anna, is a medical intern brimming with talent, but she has also succumbed to an affair with her much older, married attending doctor, a cliche she’s all too aware of. Renn’s son, Will, flounders, directionless, in his father’s shadow, seemingly paralyzed by privilege. One of Renn’s ex-wives has just published a tell-all memoir, and his young strawberry blond starlet girlfriend is fraught with conflict over her feelings for Will, who’s in love with her.
What makes this book so different from the standard Tinseltown saga is the way Sneed tells her story. She is a lauded short-fiction writer – her collection “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry” won numerous awards – and “Little Known Facts” feels almost like an anthology of linked short stories. Each chapter is told from a different person’s perspective, and it’s through these supporting characters that Sneed paints an intimate, well-rounded portrait of Renn, illuminating, from the inside, our society’s almost maniacal obsession with celebrity.
Narratives alternate between the third and first person and take many formats. In one chapter, an embittered freelance prop master with kleptomaniacal tendencies does an imaginary Q&A with Renn, fantasizing what he’d ask the actor if he were a highfalutin’ film writer.
There are also excerpts of Renn’s movie reviews, snippets of poetry, love letters and Renn’s own journal entries, as well as notes from the writing of his ex-wife’s scathing memoir, listing what Renn spent his money on and memorable “things he said.” Such as, after the bombs started dropping on Afghanistan: “If I were a younger man, I’d go to Kabul and teach drama classes for a year.” The movie reviews are effusive and overblown; both the Q&A and memoir outtakes are purposefully trite. It’s all a successful, if obvious, send-up of the types of pop cultural offshoots that celebrity culture generates.
Ultimately, the rigor of Sneed’s prose, her well-drawn characters and her eye for precise, telling detail aren’t quite enough to counterbalance that her narrative offers few Little Known Facts about Hollywood or, even, about the more universal struggles of familial strife and the search for love and finding one’s place in the world.
One almost wishes she had applied her sure hand to a more benign but perhaps more fertile topic. Like, say, a twice-divorced zoologist rather than the simultaneously larger-than-life and suffocatingly small world of movie stars.
That said, those who enjoy reading about celebrity culture will find that the world that Sneed creates in “Little Known Facts” – a blend of truth and fiction that weaves real life actors and directors into Renn’s everyday life – makes for a clever take and a fun read.