James Frey might be the most inarticulate author alive. Also, if he is not one of the most boring, he is clearly the most bored, and his prose is so harried, so egregiously imprecise, that it reads as if it is trying to flee the very tedium of the subject matter. The characters in his new novel, Bright Shiny Morning, hail from “something, somewhere, anywhere here”; when they experience an emotion, it is “deep, it’s true, and it’s real real real” – it is, in fact, “as real as it gets in this world.” They “drive fast in the rain, slow in the sun” down highways where “each turn each slope each beach can take your breath away, make you question man god society your life your existence.”
Not surprisingly, Frey himself shares in his narrator’s inexactitudes. When he came to Princeton before fall break, he told a lecture hall of students that he “doesn’t care” about “society or religion,” and that he admires Henry Miller for writing about “art and sex and life.”
One wonders if this habitual (pathological) imprecision abetted Frey in his now-infamous decision to publish A Million Little Pieces, a work of fiction – under the title of memoir – and, by implication, of fact. “I think the word memoir is bullshit,” he explained. “We presented it to the publisher as a novel; I thought, I don’t care, it’s a book, it’s a work of art.”
It is as if the various terms in play – memoir, novel, etc. – administer realms too miniscule, too undifferentiated, to warrant individual consideration; indeed, it is as if Frey considers it an issue of mere semantics. And yet isn’t it precisely there – in semantics – that the writer resides? Maybe, but Frey considers himself “more at home in the art world,” where he doesn’t make stories with characters, but rather creates “art with words.”
Bright Shiny Morning is Frey’s first work since 2005, when the scandal erupted over the accuracy of A Million Little Pieces. Surprisingly, Frey and his publisher, Harper-Collins, have the gall to bill it as Frey’s first novel – and not, after his sham memoir, his second. Of course, this is a writer’s quibble, and it makes distinctions far too slight for Frey’s painterly broad-stroke, which requires for its application an object of comparable expanse. And yet, if basic, foundational categories such as truth and untruth, fiction and reality, are deemed to be somehow insufficiently capacious, the question arises: what subject is actually big enough to fill Frey’s elephantine canvas?
The answer – AMERICA, and more specifically, LOS ANGELES. From its clodhopping opening salvo (a quote from Columbus, followed by a small vignette of L.A.’s founding) to the grandiloquent, pluralistic fanfare of its outro, Bright Shiny Morning is unabashedly “about” Los Angeles, and constitutes an author’s pained attempt to insinuate himself into the pantheon of the American greats. However, in striving to be comprehensive, Frey has labored under the inaccurate assumption that his tools need be as large as his subject. Consequently, each sentence becomes a gush of verbiage, and each setting becomes the geopolitical situation; one protagonist becomes four, becomes sixteen, becomes a thousand, and all of them become stereotypes. Narrative becomes exposition, and literature, ultimately, becomes travesty.
To begin with, it is worry enough that Frey introduces five protagonists instead of one; it is even worse that, with the lazy amble of the stock character, each operates in a vacuum, tracing plot lines that are not related to anything else in the novel. There are Dylan and Maddie, two teenage runaways from Ohio who “have always been together in some way, even when they were too young to know what it was or what it meant, they were together”; Old Man Joe, a homeless drunk, whose hair went grey at 29; Esperanza, the hard-working daughter of Mexican immigrants, who is treated poorly by her white employer; and Amberton, a closeted movie star. Their various stories (Joe falls in love; Esperanza falls in love; Amberton falls in love; Dylan & Maddie navigate a treacherous situation with a biker gang) read like a hapless mélange of aborted screenplays. (In fact, Frey did mention having worked on a Hells Angels-related script).
For these narrative portions of the novel, Frey uses his “signature prose.” Not surprisingly, Frey is often heralded as something of a populist among prose stylists, employing a script that is both literary and still legible to a wide audience. While the author calls it “the absence of style,” it is rather the affectation of style, a gesture toward conventionally literary prose that approximates its luster but fails to achieve its innervating effect. It is as though Frey has only ever noticed a given author’s choice to take grammatical liberties, and not the revitalization that, in the case of good prose stylists, these liberties provide to the idiom. (Tellingly, Frey considers Miller a great stylist simply because he “writes in a pure way, there’s no filter on what he does, he uses the word fuck a lot and the word shit a lot.”)
To this end, Frey regularly excises commas, periods and quotation marks, stuffing his sentences with a breathless glut of actions. On the rare occasion that the style succeeds, it is because obvious logical considerations underlie its employment. For instance, when Amberton travels to a predominantly black neighborhood to lunch with Kevin (his crush) and Kevin’s mother:
“Amberton looks for Kevin, everyone in the restaurant turns and stares at him. Aside from being who he is, his is the only white face in the establishment. He hears someone say – Goddamn, it’s a white boy – he hears someone else say – Look, man, it’s that actor motherfucker. He looks for Kevin nothing. He looks for someone that might be Kevin’s mother nothing.”
Here, the lack of commas effectively (if rather too simplistically) illustrates the rapidity with which one action follows another, while the repetition of the roughly appended “nothing” renders wholly palpable both the perceived urgency of the situation and the blunt immediacy with which Amberton registers their absence from the crowd.
Alas, these stylistic techniques succeed all too rarely, and more often than not are applied in an apparently arbitrary manner.
“He sits stands. He steps out of the shower stands at his sink marble shaves with a straight razor stainless carefully uses his comb ivory when he’s done he stands and stares at himself he wants to air-dry so that the smell of the soap stays on his skin. Breeze drifts through an open window. The sun comes through another. Amberton stares at himself he likes what he sees he smiles, smiles.”
The “sits stands” is especially repugnant: why are two entirely antithetical actions folded into the same breath? The evident lack of stylistic intent reveals Frey’s boredom with his own narrative, which becomes all the more obvious toward the excerpt’s close: exasperated with their own content, Frey’s paragraphs often peter out, devolving into a string of hollow repetitions that gesture, unconvincingly, at things more profound.
Perhaps, it is in a desperate effort to attain precisely this profundity that Frey begins to incorporate historical data into his narrative:
“Having grow up during the Crack Age, and having witness the drug ravage Inglewood and many of the communities around it, through both addiction and violence, some of it gang-related and some not, Anika decided she wanted to study a subject that would allow her to come back and make their home a better and safer place.”
This is a tortured sentence, one that bears a syntactical structure belonging more to high school history writing than to works of literature. Unfortunately, these historical intrusions become only more frequent as the book goes on. We are told that Malibu was “developed in 1929, when the Rindge family, which owned a 13,000-acre, twenty-seven-mile oceanfront parcel, sold the land to the state,” and hear of Moliere, “a famous French playwright of the 1600s.”
As if novelist and historian weren’t quite enough, Frey also assumes the mantle of sociologist, and begins to add stand-alone chapters that address (what Frey considers) modern L.A.’s definitional characteristics, such as its preponderance of gang violence, legendary highway system, rising poverty levels and its quickly expanding community of artists (betraying, again, his “love” for the “art world”). These chapters are both digressive and doggedly self-satisfying, and permit Frey to introduce a new narrative register: glossy, adenoidal snark. We find that the 1994 earthquake was “the motherfucking Big One”; that “at the turn of the century…opium and cocaine were outlawed (yeah, both used to be legal, woohoo, woohoo)”; and finally, that while an L.A. highway may often witness “ROAD RAGE!!!!”, it is, nevertheless, “fun fun fun, it’s so much fucking fun!!!”
By the time Frey the Thinker completes his greedy eclipse of Frey the Novelist (around, eh, halfway through), you may as well put down the book, because the novel that started with impracticably huge aims manages, rather astoundingly, to get bigger and bigger yet – until we find ourselves adrift among “thirty thousand Persians” who flee “the rule of the ayatollahs,” “fifty thousand Ethiopians” who “eat every night,” and legions of terrorists who “learned their craft in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq” and now “wait to die and they pray to the East that they take you with them.”
Really, we should be so lucky.