• Little Known Facts: A Novel
    Little Known Facts: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed
  • Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories
    Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories
    by Christine Sneed
  • Paris, He Said: A Novel
    Paris, He Said: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed
Sunday
Jul072013

New York Times Book Review (cover review with Teddy Wayne's The Lovesong of Jonny Valentine), February 24, 2013

I suspect I’m not alone in feeling as if, at some point, I accidentally earned a Ph.D. in Brangelina. It’s not just that I can tell you the names of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s six children; I also can tell you their birth order and country of origin. I could write a dissertation, or perhaps teach a graduate seminar, on Pitt and Jolie’s past relationships, political activism and respective tattoos.

How has this information attained permanence in my brain when there is so much else I can’t remember, of both the “where are my keys” and the “what’s a mortgage backed security again” varieties? While I respect Jolie and Pitt’s humanitarian work, I’m not exactly a fan of either of them, nor do I faithfully see their movies. In general, my celebrity expertise — which is hardly limited to this particular couple — makes me vacillate between defensiveness and shame.

On the one hand, is following the personal lives of good-looking actors any more pointless or shallow than following professional sports? Aren’t most celebrities complicit in their own exposure? And how about the research indicating that humans are biologically programmed, from our Stone Age roots, to gossip? Certainly among my female friends, celebrities provide ample conversational fodder, especially if we don’t have co-workers or neighbors in common to analyze and dissect. On the other hand, the fact that I can describe the locket of Billy Bob Thornton’s blood that Jolie wore around her neck during their marriage but don’t know the name of China’s president — should I be able to live with myself?

The good news for anyone who shares my predicament is that Christine Sneed has written a novel just for us: “Little Known Facts” is juicy enough to appeal to our prurience but smart enough not to make us feel dirty afterward.

At the book’s center is the 50-something movie star Renn Ivins, an idol along the lines of Harrison Ford, or George Clooney if he had adult children. When the novel begins, Renn is directing a movie he hopes will win him an Oscar or two. Twice-divorced, he’s dating his hot and talented 24-year-old lead actress, who’s close in age to Renn’s daughter, Anna, a medical student, and Renn’s son, Will, who, gripped by the inertia of the pampered, mostly does nothing.

Not surprisingly, Renn is the defining presence in the lives of his family members. Watching his father and a companion head to a restaurant, Will thinks that if he joined them, “no one would really notice him. He would feel as incidental as the salt and pepper shakers, part of the scenery and not even an important part.” Yet in spite of Renn’s outsize influence, Sneed chooses not to grant him a disproportionate number of pages in the novel. Of the 11 storylike chapters, just one concentrates primarily on Renn. Meanwhile, Will and Anna get two each, as does their pediatrician mother. (The remaining four go to Renn’s girlfriend, Elise; Renn’s second ex-wife; Will’s girlfriend; and a crew member on Renn’s movie.)

Of Los Angeles, the crew member explains: “If you want to be rich and famous, this probably isn’t the best place to start, paradoxical as that must sound. You would probably be better off writing screenplays and making short films in Omaha or Minneapolis for a while and approaching Hollywood from an oblique angle instead of head-on like I did.”

As it happens, in withholding the movie star from a novel about a movie star, Sneed herself often employs an oblique approach to Hollywood. Instead of giving readers what we’d most expect — a scene at an awards ceremony, say, or a character overdosing in a hot tub — Sneed offers details about the film industry and fame mainly as background. Some of these details are informative, like the placement of a boom mic or the precise responsibilities of a propmaster. Other details are more titillating: Renn’s habit of ignoring the strangers who take photos of him with their cellphones, Elise’s deflection of a director’s advances by pretending to be religious. But Sneed’s real interest isn’t the treachery of Hollywood; it’s the more universal treachery of the human heart. Repeatedly, Renn and

Repeatedly, Renn and his children make romantic choices as ill advised as they are understandable. That they themselves recognize their own mistakes neither prevents nor solves them.

One of Sneed’s most impressive feats, which justifies the decision to alternate points of view rather than staying with a single protagonist in a deeper and more sustained way, is that the characters appear believably different from different perspectives. In his parents’ eyes, Will is basically a wastrel. But in the eyes of Elise, Renn’s actress girlfriend, Will is like a younger, less egotistic version of Renn; Sneed makes a case for why the unaccomplished son might be a more desirable boyfriend than his successful father.

Sneed is an intelligent and graceful writer, and the elegance of her prose, coupled with her sure-handed observations about human folly, tends to obscure the fact that not all that much happens in most chapters. Major plot developments — breakups, movie premieres — are likelier to occur between chapters than in them. Much of the novel is summary as opposed to real action, but it’s a testament to Sneed’s gifts that it rarely feels stagnant; on the contrary, her sentences are strangely hypnotic, casting a spell that makes it hard to put the book down.

Less successful is the atypical structure of three chapters. Rather than straightforward narrative, they appear as, respectively, an imaginary interview between a propmaster and Renn; notes for a memoir by Renn’s second ex-wife; and a transcript of a recording Renn makes for “an authorized biographer after my death.” Reminiscent of the derailed celebrity interview in Jennifer Egan’s “Visit From the Goon Squad,” the propmaster’s imagined interview fails to cohere; that it never took place, even within the made-up world of the novel, is one contrivance too many.

In general, however, Sneed is such a gifted writer that she can get away with a lot. Indeed, “Little Known Facts” is the kind of book that makes you curious about its author and how she came to tell this particular story. Although it’s Sneed’s first novel, she wrote the critically acclaimed 2010 collection “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry,” in which a couple of stories also revolve around characters in the entertainment industry.

When I finished “Little Known Facts,” I looked at Sneed’s Web site, and only after not finding them did I realize I’d been searching for mentions of her experience working in film, or, at the least, living in Los Angeles. Instead, I learned that she earned an M.F.A. from Indiana University and currently resides in Evanston, Ill.

I still don’t know if Sneed has firsthand ties to Hollywood, but I’ll say this: I’ve spent years of my life reading People magazine, as well as its more sordid counterparts, and her depiction of both proximity to celebrity and celebrity itself had me totally convinced.

 

Curtis Sittenfeld’s fourth novel, “Sisterland,” will be published in June.

Also read at NYT.com here.

 

Saturday
Feb092013

Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 10, 2013

Christine Sneed’s impressive debut novel, “Little Known Facts,” is a Hollywood tale that aspires to complicate the traditional Hollywood narrative. Its characters want to swap sincerity for surface, real anxiety for contrived problems. But these dream-factory occupants, Sneed suggests, have a hard time telling one from the other.

At the novel’s core is Renn Ivins, an aging yet still virile actor-director who’s making a play for an Oscar with a film about post-Katrina New Orleans. His celebrity is a kind of human tractor beam: He’s “an institution, a movement, a cult with numerous irrational adherents,” as one of his ex-wives puts it. Shifting among different voices in Renn’s life, Sneed constructs a kind of cubist portrait of the man. For Renn’s daughter, he’s a model for her own ill-advised romances. For the Katrina film’s female lead, he’s a romantic dream. To another ex-wife, he’s a preening narcissist. And for his son, Will, the novel’s emotional center, he’s what keeps him from pursuing anything ambitious, lest he fall short of dad’s glory.

“His main goal each day is to resist inertia,” Sneed writes of Will, and the plot of the novel is largely about his efforts to generate his own forward momentum. He drifts from working with dad on-set to making an adolescent play for dad’s girlfriend to running off to Paris to distance himself from Renn’s ­impossibly large shadow.

No cataclysmic surprises spill out of that effort: Sneed’s prose is clean and dry as L.A. air, unadorned and disinterested in musical effects. The book thrives instead on Sneed’s skill at conjuring multiple voices. Each of its 11 chapters focuses on a different character, and Sneed is remarkably attuned to the way each person postures to present him- or herself in the best possible light. An excerpt from wife No. 2’s memoir encapsulates the tell-don’t-show style of Hollywood gossip, while Will’s chapters evoke the subtle pleading and self-pity of a rudderless man. Renn himself is bare-chested, arrogant and guilt-ridden: He confesses that he keeps two journals, like a corrupt bookkeeper.

“I wonder this — if you don’t have to struggle, why would you?” Will’s mother and Renn’s first wife asks. Money isn’t a concern for any of the people in this novel, but they’re unstable regardless. “Little Known Facts” is a kind of romance novel — Topic A for everybody is where their lusts and affections are best served. But there’s little contrived sweetness in this book, just a recognition that the Hollywood glamour that was supposed to make everything easy in fact made everything harder.

Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at markathitakis.com.

Monday
Jan212013

Booklist, Oct. 15, 2012, "Spotlight on Debut Novels" Issue

(Starred Review. Little Known Facts): In his silvered fifties, Renn Ivins extends his reign as a Hollywood sex symbol, adding screenwriting and directing to his accomplishments. Twice-divorced, he also embarks on a closely observed relationship with his movie’s ambitious star, Elise, who is younger than his two children, Will and Anna. Sneed follows her award-winning short story collection, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry (2010), with an ensnaring first novel that delves into the complex challenges and anguish of living with and in the shadow of celebrity. Sneed’s wit, curiosity, empathy, and ability to divine the perfect detail propel this psychologically exquisite, superbly realized novel of intriguing, caricature-transcending characters and predicaments. Lost-soul Will knows he “should be happy,” but instead he is adrift and angry. A medical student emulating her steadfast pediatrician mother, the novel’s moral center, Anna seems immune from the toxins of family notoriety until an untenable love affair exposes her vulnerability. As Sneed illuminates each facet of her percussively choreographed plot via delectably slant disclosures––overheard conversations, snooping, tabloids, confessions under duress, and journal entries, among them—she spotlights “little known facts” about the cost of fame, our erotic obsession with movie-star power, and where joy can be found.— Donna Seaman

Monday
Jan212013

GQ UK 

On page p. 52, January 2013 issue:

Three hip-lit debuts and the writers they remind us of (with reviews of Amanda Coplin's The Orchardist and Gavin Extence's The Universe Versus Alex Woods):

"Jennifer Egan's meta-fiction; Richard Ford's Americana; Daniel Kehlmann's preoccupations":

Little Known Facts

by Christine Sneed

What it's about: The children of a famous film star, wrestling to define their lives away from the pull of Los Angeles glitz.  As they do so, layers of family intrigue unwrap around them.

Sunday
Nov182012

Kirkus Reviews 

www.kirkusreviews.com


LITTLE KNOWN FACTS
Author: Sneed, Christine

Review Issue Date: November 1, 2012
Online Publish Date: October 11, 2012
Publisher:Bloomsbury
Pages: 304
Price ( Hardcover ): $25.00
Publication Date: February 12, 2013
ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-1-60819-958-7
Category: Fiction

Sneed’s debut novel, which follows a short story collection (Portraits of a Few People I’ve Made Cry, 2010), goes beyond the tabloid headlines and chronicles the lives of those who orbit a famous actor.

Celebrity has its perks as well as its drawbacks, and revered movie icon Renn Ivins’ life is no exception. Adored by fans throughout the world, those closest to him also are affected by his aura and not necessarily in a positive way. His earnings provide financial security for his children, ex-wives, family members and girlfriends, but Ivins’ fame is a double-edged sword. Both of Ivins’ adult children become involved with lovers who secretly thrill at the chance to be connected to his inner circle. Will, his son, coasts through life engulfed in a sea of contradicting emotions. He loves Ivins and inwardly strives to please him, but he also resents his father’s interference and feels as if he will never measure up to his expectations, so he compensates in other not-so-healthy ways. At the same time, although he despises himself for it, he uses his father’s name to impress others. Anna, Will’s sister, is a brilliant but naïve medical student who rationalizes her questionable choices and has more in common with her father than she realizes. Time has more or less softened Ivins’ first wife’s attitude toward him. A successful pediatrician who has lived a solitary life since their divorce 15 years earlier, she still watches all of his movies. And then there’s Ivins himself. Fodder for a bitter second wife’s book and a boon for his much younger girlfriend’s career, this author of two journals—one for posterity, the other more personal and destroyed each year—knows the allure of his public persona. It’s what he cultivates when he donates to charities and signs autographs. And it’s much easier on the ego to believe his own press.

Sneed effectively blurs the line between fact and fiction and brings each character to life.