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Why, Frey?

One might have expected James Frey to be able to write a pretty good novel. After all, his name has become shorthand for the memoir wars of the last few years, in which a series of popular and critically acclaimed books went up in smoke after evidence surfaced that their content was rather more fictional than had been originally claimed. The most famous of these, of course, was Frey’s addiction-recovery chronicle A Million Little Pieces, to which Oprah gave her imprimatur, then took it back during an on-air flogging in which she castigated the writer for his "lies."

Frey became the poster boy for this cultural moment not only because his implosion was so spectacular, but also because in the face of the backlash, he continued to insist that his story was true. He may have exaggerated or altered a few details, he admitted, but the fundamentals of his book--from the now-famous account of undergoing root canal surgery without anesthetic to the ghastly depiction of a decade-plus drug and alcohol habit that began at the age of ten--were true to the story of his addiction and recovery. As he remembered it, anyway.

But, as Joe Hagan reported in the New York Observer back in 2003, when A Million Little Pieces first appeared, the book was originally shopped as a novel. (Nan A. Talese, the book’s publisher, has repeatedly denied this.) More recently, in a Vanity Fair profile by Evgenia Peretz, Frey made explicit his literary intentions. Like his role models, who include Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Charles Bukowski, Frey envisioned writing about “my own life in some way that, in the best-case scenario, would constitute art or literature. I’ve never had any interest at all in being a journalist or writing some sort of historically accurate autobiography.” He might have mentioned it sooner! one can imagine Oprah screaming.


But while the reviews of Bright Shiny Morning have invariably included some tongue-in-cheek reference to Frey’s “first published novel,” it’s striking how sharply he has deviated from his successful formula. (A Million Little Pieces was followed by another best-seller, My Friend Leonard, which begins by describing the three-month-long jail term that Frey now admits never happened.) Rather than following an autobiographically based character through anything resembling a traditional storyline, Frey has constructed his novel out of fragments of contemporary Los Angeles--the stories of literally hundreds of different characters. Some of them merit only a line; others ricochet through this very long book on trajectories interrupted by tangents ranging from nuggets of L.A. history (“In 1886, while on their honeymoon, Hobart Johnstone Whitley and Margaret Virginia Whitley decide to name their country home Hollywood”) to lengthy discourses on the city’s neighborhoods and roads. In all this, it’s hard to tell whether the divider between fact and fiction is intentionally blurred or just sloppily drawn; bloggers have been getting a kick out of pointing out the fact-checking errors in Frey’s potted histories, but the book is prefaced by one of the most freighted disclaimers in publishing memory: “Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable.”

Unfortunately, Frey, indulging his imaginative exuberance, has overlooked the fact that fiction, too, needs to have a certain degree of truth if it is to be believable. The central characters are stock figures who could have been picked up off a B-movie lot. Amberton Parker is a closeted movie star whose life is a series of absurd excesses: “Dates an actress the biggest!!! actress in the world. Dates a model who goes by one name. Dates a debutante, an Olympic swimmer the winner of six gold medals, a prima ballerina.” Old Man Joe is a beach bum whose hair turned white overnight at the age of 29; he lives in a bathroom and survives on the pickings from dumpsters and his two daily bottles of Chablis. Esperanza is born just north of the border to two illegal immigrants: Her father picks fruit and her mother cleans houses. And Dylan and Maddie, both 19, are escaping Maddie’s abusive family and pursuing the American dream:

They can see the glow a hundred miles away it’s night and they’re on an empty desert highway. They’ve been driving for two days. They grew up in a small town in Ohio they have known each other their entire lives, they 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….

Screaming, he could hear her screaming as he pulled into the driveway. He ran into the house her mother was dragging her along the floor by her hair….

He picked her up and carried her to his truck, a reliable old American pickup with a mattress in the back and a camper shell over the bed. He set her in the passenger seat carefully set her and he covered her with his jacket. She was sobbing bleeding it wasn’t the first time it would be the last. He got into the driver’s seat, started the engine, pulled out as he pulled out Mother came to the door with a hammer and watched them drive away, didn’t move, didn’t say a word, just stood in the door holding a hammer, her daughter’s blood beneath her fingernails, her daughter’s hair still caught in her clothes and hands.

They lived in a small town in an eastern state it was nowhere anywhere everywhere, a small American town full of alcohol, abuse and religion.

This brief passage demonstrates everything that is terribly wrong with Frey’s novel: the deadening repetition and run-on sentences, the sentimentality (“it wasn’t the first time it would be the last”), the gratuitous gore, the incoherence (Ohio is not an “eastern state”). But worse than all these is the reliance on shorthand, Frey’s belief that he can sketch out a few contours and the reader’s imagination will fill in the rest (“a small American town full of alcohol, abuse and religion”). Without any narrative details provided, the details from which all realist fiction draws its sustenance, the reader can fill in only clichés.

Alas, this is Frey’s predominant technique. Everything is familiar: We’ve heard it all before, probably the same place he did. We are given a rape scene in a garage, a failed child star, a gruff biker, a football star who breaks his leg, anti-abortion protesters outside a clinic, even jihadis preparing for a terrorist attack (“They live on quiet streets and they wait to die and they pray to the East that they take you with them”). One section consists of potted vignettes of people who came to L.A. looking for fame: They start with long paragraphs (we learn about Kelly, once second-runner-up in the Little Miss Chattanooga Jr. Princess division, now a waitress at a 1950s-themed restaurant) and dwindle down to single-word sentences: “Tom. Screenwriter. Makes pizzas. Kurt. Actor. Delivers pizzas.” We meet Samantha, a child model and aspiring actress who turns to prostitution when her father gets sick: “They all knew it was bad, worse than bad, they knew how it was going to end. There was blood seeping out of the incision, and they knew how it was going to end.” As always with Frey, repetition substitutes for tragedy.

Sprinkled throughout these so-called stories are what Frey calls “facts” about L.A., which appear because “every city can be fun, and every city has certain elements, or facts, about it that are fun.” Such fun facts include that “the average citizen of Los Angeles consumes 250 tacos a year,” or that the Downtown Fashion District comprises 90 blocks of fashion. (“It can be overwhelming to think about, and it’s absolutely mind-blowing!!! Ninety fucking blocks of fashion. Yes, it’s true. All in one place. Ninety blocks.”) Of course, “not all facts are fun. Some are, some are really fucking fun, but not all of them.” Unfun facts include that “Seventy-five thousand people a year die in Los Angeles (really not fun).” At another point we get ten pages on the city’s highways: “Freeways! Highways! EXPRESSWAYS!! AN EIGHTEEN-RAMP INTERSTATE EXCHANGE!!!! Is there anything more fun than sitting in a vehicle on a hot, crowded, slow-moving stretch of concrete and blacktop?” Is Frey trying to co-opt advertising-speak? If so, he does it incompetently.

And when Frey does make an effort to flesh out a few of his characters, the results are laughable. Amberton and his wife Casey, business partners if not sexual partners, lead a version of movie star life that could only be a joke: “Their yoga teacher arrives, they go into the studio, and, as is the case from time to time, they do their yoga session in their thongs. When they’re finished they shower get dressed meet in the kitchen, where they have lunch with their children and their children’s nannies. After lunch they see their respective therapists (she has issues with her father, he has issues with his mother) and then they see a therapist together (they both have issues with fame and adulation). When they’re done with their therapy (twice a week, three times if it’s a bad week), they go back to their rooms change back into their thongs Casey wears a top because the afternoon sun tends to be more powerful they meet at the pool.” After Amberton, who has a taste for seducing men younger and less powerful than he, is rejected by his latest would-be conquest, Casey takes the blackmail upon herself, explaining to the low-level agent who rebuffed him: “Movie stars get what they want, when they want it, because we’re the reason people pay money to go to the movies…. Amberton and I are two of the biggest movie stars in the world. You work for the agency that represents us. That agency makes millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars, off of us. Their job, and your job, is to service us…. If we want you fired, it can be done with a phone call.” As villains, they are ludicrous; as movie stars, they are impossible.

Late in the novel, an exhausted-seeming Frey has perhaps realized that he is unable to invent characters and starts borrowing them from real life. So we are given the thinly fictionalized life history of a certain gossip blogger, born in Miami to Cuban parents, who gives his website a Hispanized version of the name of a socialite involved in a sex tape scandal; and a romanticized description of a famous business tycoon-turned-art lover who, despite a superficial resemblance to Eli Broad, is one of the book’s least believable characters: “He knew nothing but felt everything…. He started a foundation. He amassed the greatest collection on the planet. He did it all for love.”

“Scandal, motherfuckers, everybody loves a scandal,” Frey writes toward the end of the novel (it would imply too much intentionality to call it a conclusion). “Even if you try to turn away, you can’t, when you try to ignore it, you find it impossible. You know why? Because it’s awesome, hilarious, awful, it’s a fucking mess, and it almost always makes you feel better about yourself.” This aside to the reader, an obvious reference to the dust-up over A Million Little Pieces, seems intended to defuse any lingering doubts about Frey’s latest career move. But the irony, of course, is that Frey’s fiction is so bad it could almost constitute a brief in his defense. Maybe more of that memoir was true than we thought.


Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic.