Oh dear. What can I say?
You all remember James Frey, right? He wrote a hugely successful memoir about his experiences with addiction and recovery which I, along with millions of other people, devoured and found fascinating. I reviewed and commented upon it on my old blog, but strangely, it wasn’t till this woman named Oprah Winfrey read it that it really caught on.
So once James had been on Oprah and she was all lovin’ him up, some people started to investigate some of the claims James Frey made in A Million LIttle PIeces and its sequel, My Friend Leonard, and found that not every single thing was exactly true. Now, you can say that memoir is all about a person’s subjective memory of an experience, and James did indeed try to claim that, but it’s hard to convince people that you really remember spending three months in jail when in fact you didn’t do jail time at all.
So James Frey had to admit he lied about a bunch of stuff, and Oprah was mean to him, and I was pretty amazed he didn’t start drinking again the minute he left her studio because wow, people said nasty things. But then, he did MAKE STUFF UP AND CALL IT A MEMOIR. Bad move there, James. Should’ve called it a novel “loosely based on a true story.” I still think Million Little Pieces is a great book. It’s just … mislabelled.
Bright Shiny Morning, James Frey’s literary comeback, is mislabelled too. But it’s … not a great book.
This one claims to be a novel, and Frey has certainly learned his lesson, because there’s a disclaimer at the front saying that nothing in this book should be considered accurate in any way. OK, so it’s not nonfiction — but it’s also not really a novel, not in any sense I recognize.
Bright Shiny Morning is a book about the city of Los Angeles. It seems to me to be filled with a lot of interesting snippets of local colour, but I’ve read some reviews by people from Los Angeles who feel like it’s a rather superficial outsider’s caricature of the city — I guess kind of like Newfoundlanders feel about The Shipping News.
There are four main storylines in Bright Shiny Morning — four separate and unrelated groups of characters whose stories never intersect at any point. In between episodes in each of these stories are other, shorter stories, complete in themselves, about even more unrelated characters. Also punctuating the book are short essays, some serious and some tongue-in-cheek, about the city of Los Angeles, and lists of random facts about the city. And this is all tied together by — well, the binding of the book, and the fact that it all happens in LA. That’s it.
None of the four main stories is strong enough on its own to be called a novella or a long short story. Each is fairly predictable and cliched, though all have some fine moments. James Frey really can write — but he sure can’t edit, or structure anything. His characters often have strong dialogue (though he is one of the most egregious transgressors I have ever seen in the too-cool-to-use-quotation-marks category, and uses one of the most annoying devices for attributing dialogue that I’ve ever seen in this exquisitely annoying category).
The occasional fine moments (which did keep me turning pages, though with lower and lower expectations as the book went on) aren’t nearly enough to excuse the formlessness of the book or the aimlessness of the four main stories. Some of the kinder reviewers of this book have compared it to the work of greater writers, including Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I guess that’s based on Steinbeck’s habit of inserting essays about the broader state of American culture and economy at the time, in between the chapters of his story. But as I recall (it’s been awhile since I read GoW), those essays are always thematically linked to what’s happening to the Joads at the time, and there’s this single strong, powerful storyline pulling you along through it all. Frey has none of that. He has an untidy collection of pieces of writing about Los Angeles, some stories and some essays, of very uneven quality, thrown together and labelled as a novel.
There’s no such thing as bad publicity, of course. After all the excoriating of James Frey that was done by Oprah and others, the end result was to get his name far better-known than it would have been if there’d never been a scandal. Bright Shiny Morning is currently #158 on Amazon’s bestseller list, and I’m pretty sure the publisher who accepted it knew it would sell well in the wake of the controversy. There is no way a “novel” this sloppy and poorly put together — regardless of its occasional moments of brilliance — would have even been LOOKED at if it were submitted by a new or relatively unknown author. And maybe, as someone who’s still struggling with getting manuscripts accepted by publishers, maybe that’s what I resent most. As an “unknown” you have to work so hard to polish your work, to make sure every piece fits and sparkles and shines. And then someone who has James Frey’s brilliance and writing ability comes along and misuses it in this cavalier fashion, and his book’s a bestseller because everybody knows his name.
I wanted to like this so much, I really did, because after all the controversy I still love A Million Little Pieces and I still admire and respect James Frey in many ways. This book was a page-turner and it held my interest, but if Frey’s goal is still to be the greatest writer of his generation, he’s got a long ways to go.