About two weeks ago, I finished James Frey’s Bright Shiny Morning, a novel that follows a myriad of characters to and in LA. I’ve delayed writing a review because I’m conflicted about it. Let me explain…
In one sense, I loved the writing and was lulled into the rhythm of the rambling prose (akin to A Million Little Pieces), and tore through the book in just a couple of days. It was addictive to read, the equivalent of a reality TV show you casually flip to, and then end up getting sucked into, watching hours on end (am I the only one who does that?!)
On the other hand, it fell flat in imaginative fiction. There wasn’t enough distinction between the voices of the different characters, many of whom came across as cliches. Frey’s own voice – his commentary, struggles and perspective – was too prevalent in the characters themselves.
In one passage, Frey writes:
“Scandal, mothf*ers, everybody loves a scandal. 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 f*ing mess, and it almost always make you feel better about yourself. So admit, you love and your friends love and your family loves everyone you know loves a scandal, the bigger the better, the uglier the more fun, the more devastation the better you feel.”
This is quintessential Frey. Angry, frustrated, brutally honesty. A possible shout-out to his own struggles when he was outed for peppering his memoir with fiction, or lies (depending on your perspective.) This style was the backbone of the author’s initial success, but in Bright Shiny Morning, this same stream of consciousness and liberal use of F bombs don’t work.
For me, there are two main characters in this book: the first is LA itself, in all of its pain and grime, love and disappointment, drugs, violence, confusion. The second is James Frey, whose distaste for the current social hierarchy seeps through the fragile shells of the characters he’s created.
Would it have worked somehow as nonfiction? I can’t answer that.
The novel is disjointed, lacks character depth, and too often veers from the most interesting storylines with random flashes of data, e.g. lists of different ethnic gangs in LA, a timeline of southern Calif. natural disasters. (By the way, what ever happened to the mini-golf guy?!)
I wasn’t sure what style I was reading. While I would have preferred complete transparency back with his memoir, in the case of this novel, the lack of genre and tangible presence of the author’s voice were a distraction.
When the A Million Little Pieces controversy first broke, I was among the disappointed and angry population of readers. However, as I’ve learned more about the publishing industry and the pressures on authors, I’ve come to the conclusion that it was the publishing house and not Frey himself who was at fault for the dishonest, commercial metamorphosis of novel into true memoir.
I wanted to love Bright Shiny Morning, but for its merit as a novel, I didn’t. But (and this is a big But!), I do look forward to whatever he has to write next. There’s something about Frey that is so real (despite the “truthiness” scandal), readable (despite the lack of genre) and insightful (despite his cliches.)
When I figure out what that is, I’ll let you know!
Until then, I probably won’t stop thinking about this book…