If Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins had an illicit affair, Christine Sneed’s Little Known Facts might be the love child. The intertwining threads of pop-culture obsession, romantic triangles, and experimental form make for a comparable offshoot, but burrowing deeper into the DNA of Sneed’s debut novel, her own unique thumbprint emerges. Although this is her first published novel, this is the fourth Sneed has written, and it’s a follow-up to her 2010 award-winning short story collection Portraits of a Few People I’ve Made Cry. Sneed’s maturity as a writer shines in Little Known Facts, bringing compassion and a hard-earned patience to her characters trapped in the bittersweet spiral of living within the inner-sanctum of celebrity.
The cast of characters revolve around the patriarch of a southern California family—Renn Ivins, an aging but still highly revered Hollywood actor (picture Harrison Ford or Robert Redford), whose fame overshadows the personal sagas of all the principals and bystanders in his wake: his son and daughter; ex-wives and current lovers; his cast and crew members; his publicist, driver and psychic; and the myriad autograph seekers. Being situated in the kingdom of Hollywood royalty merits a salacious tale of jet-setting and wealth, sex and Valium, yet as the extraordinary pros and cons of fame exacerbate each character’s struggles, at the core of this story lies a basic family drama. “There’s so much pressure on families to begin with,” says Sneed. “I was really interested in how, if you have this larger-than-life personality in your family…how does that effect an already fraught relationship?”
Renn Ivins may not equate to your crazy Uncle Joe, but hiding behind his Oscars he’s a hyper insecure man. Even as Renn makes some deplorable mistakes as a father and romantic partner, he has many sympathetic qualities—he has the understandable difficulty of communicating with his children and sustaining intimacy with his love interests; he’s an everyman who keeps Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on his nightstand; he’s fighting to stay relevant in his youth-centric career. But what’s most endearing about Renn is that he—like others in this book—recognizes his flaws.
Most of the tensions surrounding these characters hinge on the double-edged sword of fame, but their challenges are also universal. “Accepting the circumstances of your life is hard,” explains Sneed. “The tenor of our lives is defined by how we deal with disappointment and self-doubt.” This throbbing tenor both connects and nearly tears apart the Ivins. Most adrift in this story is Renn’s son Will, who, fumbling in his father’s golden shadow, is unable to find his true calling because he’s never had to try to succeed. The novel opens with Will’s perspective (and by the end he gets at least double the attention on the page as his superstar father): “The unearned spoils of his comfortable life, the European stereo system, the nearly weightless down comforter, the copper cooking pots he almost never uses, all seem incidental, as if he has awakened in a privileged stranger’s home.” What at first might feel like poor little rich boy soon becomes a bigger existential crisis—not just in the expected 20-something’s plight to land a noble career, or find meaning in his new independence, but Will is utterly shaken by the loss of a love interest to his father. The depth of this heartbreak is revealed when Will finally begins to strike the chord of his soul as he suffers from insomnia, weight loss, anger, and resentment.
Alongside Will’s unraveling is his sister Anna’s. Anna seems to be the most resilient of the lot, soaring through her medical internship until she falls for her married advisor and is wrecked by her own double standards after having endured the pain of her father’s serial philandering. We become privy to this miserable web of infidelity through first-person chapters from the perspectives of Lucy (Will and Anna’s mother and Renn’s first wife) and Melinda (Renn’s estranged second wife.) These occasional first-person chapters shake up the more dominant third-person chapters, with each focusing around a single character’s perspective. Sneed’s elastic structure allows for each person to get his or her moment in the spotlight, even if they all continue to dance around Renn.
“I knew readers who would be happy to read books called novels that had multiple point-of-view characters,” says Sneed. She arrived at this form as a means to deconstruct the overwhelming task of sustaining the momentum of a situation into a novel, which actually began as a short story that Sneed was not ready to let go of. “I’m fascinated by film and family…so I finally realized, ‘Hey why not keep writing about these topics that I love?’”
By humanizing this family, Sneed pierces the overly triggered nerve in our culture that sensationalizes celebrity. After you’ve spent some time in the proscenium of fame you will want your exit back to civilian life—you are left without the desire to covet a celebrity’s life nor gloat at their demise. Instead you feel a great sadness and kinship for Lucy’s final lament – “The choices we make and the choices that we allow to be made for us: these are the raw materials that compose our lives.” The most true-to-life moment of this Hollywood story is the lack of a Hollywood ending. Sneed explains how many of her works lack closure because that’s reality, and in the case of the Ivins we are hopeful for where their trajectories may go, without end credits pouring over the final scene.
Bridgette Bates is a writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the Boston Review, Fence, American Letters & Commentary, and elsewhere.