May 13, 2008
"Bright Shiny Morning" is a terrible book. One of the worst I've ever read. But you have to give James Frey credit for one thing: He's got chutzpah. Two and a half years after he was eviscerated by Oprah Winfrey for exaggerating many of the incidents in his now-discredited memoir "A Million Little Pieces," he's back with this book, which aims to be the big novel about Los Angeles, a panoramic look at the city that seeks to tell us who we are and how we live.
Clearly, HarperCollins, Frey's publisher, expects a lot from this book; it reportedly paid a million and a half dollars for it. You can interpret that in a few ways: as a shrewd business decision (as of this writing, the novel is No. 52 at Amazon.com) or as yet another symbol of a book industry in crisis, with publishers grasping at whatever straws they can to manufacture buzz.
Ultimately, though, it is still what's on the page that matters, and "Bright Shiny Morning" is an execrable novel, a literary train wreck without even the good grace to be entertaining.
Written as an Altman-esque collage, it follows several parallel story lines that never coalesce. The idea is to trace a collective vision of the city, high and low, from Hollywood to the Valley to East L.A. -- an attempt to get at the fluidity of Los Angeles.
There's Old Man Joe, a drunk who inhabits a bathroom on the Venice boardwalk and seeks mystical affirmation in a daily ritual. Or Amberton Parker, a St. Paul's and Harvard-educated Oscar-winning actor, who lives a perfect life with his wife and children and has a secret. (Bet you can't guess what it is.)
As a connective device, Frey interweaves a series of short passages outlining the history of L.A., beginning with the founding of the Pueblo and extending to the present day. Yet this strategy ends up as a metaphor for all that's wrong with the book. These bits read like encyclopedia entries, devoid of soul or personality, so generic as to be inconsequential, as if Frey has no interest or engagement in what he has chosen to write about.
That's the issue with "Bright Shiny Morning" -- or one of them, anyway. Frey seems to know little about Los Angeles and to have no interest in it as a real place where people wrestle with actual life. There are obligatory riffs on freeways and natural disasters and a chapter on visual artists that lists "the highest price ever paid for a piece of their work in a public auction." There are also occasional installments of "Fun Facts" about the city, as if to give the illusion of a certain depth. Did you know that it is "illegal to lick a toad within the city limits of Los Angeles"? Neither did I. But I also don't know what this has to do with the larger story of the novel, except as another example of L.A. as odd and quirky, a territory in which we all "live with Angels and chase their dreams."
Frey, of course, intends this to be amusing, lighthearted and witty in tone. ("Learning fun facts is really an enjoyable, and sometimes enlightening process," he writes. "And, of course, it's fun too!!!") It comes off as two-dimensional, however, not to mention poorly written and conceived -- much like the book's narrative elements.
Esperanza, a Chicana from East L.A., forgoes a college scholarship after being embarrassed at a high school graduation party over the size of her thighs. Eventually she takes a job as a maid for a tyrannical white woman in Pasadena, only to fall in love with the woman's son.
That's nothing compared to the story of Dylan and Maddie, two crazy kids from Ohio who come to L.A. with only their faith in each other to sustain them.
After nearly 300 pages, living on $20,000 they've stolen from a vicious drug-dealing motorcycle gang, Maddie turns to Dylan and says: "You know how I read all the gossip magazines while I'm at the pool? . . . And they're all about these famous people, actresses and singers and models and stuff. . . . Well, I think that I want to be an actress."
"An actress?" he asks.
"Yeah, I want to be a movie star."
How do we reckon with a novel in which the desire to become an actress is treated as original and organic, in which the only Mexican American character is a maid?
How do we reckon with a book in which the city is flat and lifeless as a stage set, in which Frey uses broad generalizations ("Thirty-thousand Persians fleeing the rule of the ayatollahs. One-hundred and twenty-five thousand Armenians escaping Turkish genocide. Forty-thousand Laotians avoiding minefields. Seventy-five thousand Thais none in Bangkok sex shows.") to try to animate what his imagination cannot?
Yes, this is Los Angeles, in the way a cheap Hollywood movie is Los Angeles: superficial, a collection of loose impressions that don't add up.
Whatever else his failings as a writer, Frey was once able to move his readers; how else do we explain the success of "A Million Little Pieces"? It's just one of the ironies of this new book that his fictionalized memoir is a better novel than "Bright Shiny Morning" could ever hope to be.
David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.
Bright Shiny Morning A Novel James Frey Harper: 512 pp., $26.95