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.