I once met an older Polish woman in New York who was writing her first novel. It was semi-autobiographical, she explained, and as such concerned the Holocaust. Having recently read several terrific novels on that subject—The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski, Anya by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer—I of course asked if she knew them. “No,” she replied. “But I doubt any convey the full horror of this event.” I then timidly asked if any single work of fiction could do such a thing. “Well,” she pondered, “if I can’t do it in one, I’ll have to write two.”
In Bright Shiny Morning, James Frey tries to convey the full horror of Los Angeles. He does so by writing four, possibly five books, four of them current-day romances, one—apparently for context—a history of the place. But it doesn’t quite add up to an entire whole, nor does it convey that horror. What you have here, instead—and Frey, up to now, has been both a successful screenwriter (Kissing a Fool, Sugar) and a notoriously novelistic autobiographer (A Million Little Pieces, My Friend Leonard)—is a treatment for something the late Robert Altman (Nashville, Gosford Park) might have directed, if, that is, the main stories were at all unusual and also if they ever came together. To be fair, though, these stories—such as they are—are very well told: one concerns a closeted film star and a crush of his; another, a homeless alcoholic and a drug addict he’d like to save; another, a Chicana maid and her employer’s son; another, lovesick kids from the heartland. Frey does know how to create suspense and resolve conflict. He even has an ear for dialogue. Individually, then, the stories might make for enjoyable if rather predictable movies—typical Hollywood fare (if only straight-to-video). And for all I know, they’re already in production.
Oddly, though, either Frey or his narrator (it’s impossible to tell them apart) seems to have nothing but contempt for such a picture:
The nannies put the kids to bed and Amberton and Casey [the star and his equally closeted wife] watch a film in their screening room. The film is a new drama starring two of their friends (though they don’t actually like them). It’s about a doctor and a photographer who fall in love while working in a third-world war zone. Just after they consummate their relationship during a mortar attack, the doctor (the woman) contracts a rare disease and dies. The photographer publishes a book of photos documenting her work and wins a Pulitzer. Shortly thereafter, he returns to the war zone and also dies. It’s a heartbreaking film that makes both of them cry.
Odder still, both author and narrator show contempt for the kind of highbrow literature Bright Shiny Morning itself aspires if not quite pretends to be. Or to quote an incidental character (simply called “Artist”): “To call L.A., then or now, a cultural wasteland, is in my opinion, an incredibly ignorant remark. Los Angeles is the cultural capital of the world. No other city even comes close to it. And when I say culture, I am talking about contemporary culture, not what mattered fifty or a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago. Contemporary culture is popular music, television, film, art, books. The other disciplines, dance, classical music, poetry, theater, they don’t hold any real weight anymore, their audiences are small, and they’re more like cultural oddities than the cultural institutions.” (The entire text, by the way, is just as ungrammatical and badly punctuated as this—the narrative parts even more so. I can’t say why. Nor can I say—other than that this is basically a treatment—why it’s so fond of the historical present. Nor can I say why it’s fond of incantatory repetition, other than that it’s simply pretentious. But I must tell you that in the uncorrected proof of Bright Shiny Morning—which is what I had to read—the plural “friends,” as above, invariably appears as “friend’s.” I know, I know, it’s unfair to quote from an uncorrected book, but my health was at stake. This is the kind of thing that gives me an aneurysm.) So when the “Artist” says “books,” he of course can’t be talking about the kind of precursor novels Frey seems never to have read—Balzac’s Human Comedy cycle, Zola’s Roucon-Macquart series, even The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West. (Or perhaps he has read them, but only with an interest in how they might look—indeed, have looked—on screen.) He’s talking about such middlebrow work as, say, A Million Little Pieces or Bright Shiny Morning.
At this point, though, I myself must emerge from the closet (yet again) to say that this Amberton fellow—no matter what actual star (or stars) he may be based on—isn’t very credible. For although I accept that gay men can be narcissists, and even that some of us, having narcissistic disorders, should be certified as such; although I accept that many of the latter have “borderline” personalities as well; although I accept that gay men—at bottom—can hate themselves; although I accept they can be infantile (like everyone else); and although I accept they can have eating disorders (in this case, bulimia)—I simply cannot accept that an upper middle-class, Ivy-educated white boy who also happens to be effeminate (Amberton, that is), will when given the chance to have his way with a big, beefy, and otherwise impeccably straight black man (Kevin, the crush), choose to “rape” him. I mean, come on. L.A. may be twisted, but it’s not that twisted. Couldn’t Frey—whom I’m certainly not calling homophobic, simply out of his depth—have done some fairly simple homework here? (I just wrote “fairily,” thinking no doubt of Amberton—but luckily, unlike the author’s it would appear, my computer has spell-check.) Couldn’t he, for example, have asked the very uncloseted columnist making an uncredited yet rather sympathetic appearance in the book—”Perez Hilton,” a drag-like name taken from Paris Hilton—what he’d let happen in this situation?
But enough about me. (What do you think of my “novel”?) But not, I’m afraid, enough about undone homework. Consider yet another incidental character, this one some Orson Welles wannabe—also named Kevin—whose own dreams, needless to say, will never come true:
Kevin’s parents always considered him odd. As a child he liked speaking in strange voices and making up accents, which he would attribute to imaginary countries. They tried to get him to stop, but he wouldn’t. …
When he was fourteen, he read King Lear. He was a bit young to try and digest such a profound piece of classic English literature, but he did it anyway, and boy oh boy, did he do it. He was overwhelmed, blown away. The words hit him, penetrated him, affected him, in a way unlike anything he had ever experienced. From that day forward, he devoted himself to the theater. … Needless to say, he got teased, got his ass kicked by football players, he was shunned by everyone, even the most unpopular of the kids at his school. He didn’t care. The words of the masters flowed through him, fulfilled him, and comforted him in a way none of them could or would ever understand. …
He left school at sixteen and went to England, where he was recognized as a prodigy. He spent two years as an understudy on the stages of the West End before returning to America, to New York, where the heart of American Theater beats so soundly and so loudly, and he enrolled in Juilliard, the most prestigious acting school in the country.
It was more of the same at Juilliard. He dazzled his professors. He outperformed his peers. He took on the biggest, most challenging roles and he made them look easy. Broadway, just a few blocks away, started taking notice. Talent scouts came to see everything he did, agents offered to represent him, producers wanted to stage plays around him. He enjoyed the attention, but had bigger plans, Broadway would always be there, he wanted HOLLYWOOD! He graduated at the top of his class, as expected, and as valedictorian, he gave the class commencement speech, which he did in the style of Molière, the great French playwright of the 1600s. He moved to Los Angeles the next day. He was twenty-two.
There’s never been any such “valedictorian.” Couldn’t Frey—or some editor—have called Juilliard to ask? (“Drama division, please.”) More to the point, doesn’t he know that only high schools have valedictorians? (Sorry, school’s.) And the book is filled with such howlers. To name another, Frey seems to think—though I can’t prove it—that if you go to the beach out there one morning you’ll see the sunrise in the west.
Such a passage, though, reveals more than just ignorance. It indicates just who the book’s addressed to. (Sorry, to whom the book’s addressed.) Frey’s ideal reader, that is, is someone who needs to be told who Molière is (“the great French playwright of the 1600s”). Someone like that “Artist,” perhaps. (“Dance, classical music, poetry, theater, they don’t hold any real weight anymore.”) The passage also indicates not only how impossible it is to distinguish Frey from his narrator, but also how utterly incoherent he is. To invoke Roland Barthes (the great French critic of the late 1900s), one never really knows who is speaking. Kevin “got his ass kicked by football players,” none of whom “would ever understand” him. All right, fine—that’s free indirect discourse. Such a kid, however, would never also use language like “such a profound piece of classic English literature,” nor, in a completely different register, “boy oh boy, did he do it,” nor in yet another one, “he wanted HOLLYWOOD!” And those uses reflect, on the one hand, someone rather reverent, and on the other hand, someone rather giddy, and on the other other hand, someone rather snotty. Numerous other passages I could cite, moreover, reflect someone rather potty-mouthed—and for no apparent reason other than, I guess, to show how rude this author/narrator is or perhaps pretends to be. (“So fuck you Oprah Winfrey, you stinking piece of shit“—he may as well have written.)
There are, incidentally, numerous cameos like that of “Perez Hilton.” The actress Lindsay Lohan makes an equally sympathetic appearance (or at least I think it’s her). Maybe other readers will enjoy recognizing their identities. In fact, a quick check of the blogosphere indicates they do. A “Lynsay Lambert,” for example, writes: “The cameos were great as well—did anyone spot one of Perez Hilton? They made me think a lot more about all the different types of people who make up a city, and how they may have ended up there.” So will someone out there please tell me who that “Artist” is—because I may have to kill him (the “Artist,” that is). Another reason I mention them is that the cameos reveal another, far more fundamental aspect of Frey’s incoherence as … all right, fine, as a novelist. The man—unlike Proust, for example (the great French novelist of the early 1900s)—simply can’t decide whether or not he hates not gay people but celebrities. (In Proust’s case, of course, substitute aristocrats for celebrities.) On the one hand, he clearly feels, the rich and famous are loathsome, especially if they’ve never done anything (like writing blockbusters) to deserve fame. Hence Amberton. Hence, for that matter, Paris Hilton. On the other hand, who in his right mind—or rather, what media-warped American—wouldn’t want to be rich and famous, so long as he must have deserved it. Hence Perez Hilton. Hence Frey himself. Hence, for that matter, Oprah.
That said, I do have some advice. First of all, move to New York. Oops, wait a minute. He’s already there, according to the dust jacket. Second of all, then, read Seymour—An Introduction (which may as well be set there), and without imagining the book as a film. In it, you’ll find some wonderful further advice from, well, it’s impossible to say if it’s from J.D. Salinger, another author with an ear for dialogue, from “Buddy” Glass the narrator (and Salinger’s alter ego), or from Buddy’s older brother Seymour. But it doesn’t really matter who. And here it is, in a letter from Seymour:
You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writidng ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. I’m a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good form or bad form while you were working on it. You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished—I think only poor Sören K. [the great Danish philosopher of the mid 1800s] will get asked that. I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions. If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.