Bright Shiny Morning, by James Frey

Tall tales lead to a tough read
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The Independent Culture

The spate of American literary scandals over the last few years has largely been driven by an obvious conflict: the American reader's desire for authenticity, and the American author's inability to deliver the truth straight. Whether it was novelist Laura Albert pretending to be a young hustler named JT LeRoy in order to curry favour with celebrities or James Frey exaggerating his time in jail from a few hours to 90 days to help sell what may have started out as a novel as a drink and drugs memoir, A Million Little Pieces, these stories seemed to be almost custom made for American internet investigative sites like The Smoking Gun to blow open.

While some in the media have attacked the authors for their mendacity (Frey was famously taken to task by Oprah Winfrey on her TV show after she included his memoir in her book club), others have been sympathetic to their situations, suggesting that the authors have been manipulated by publishers, or are fulfilling a public need, or should be celebrated for their inventiveness. Laura Albert was granted a long interview in The Paris Review (usually reserved for only the most accomplished authors in the prime of their career), while Frey was blessed with an astonishingly fawning profile in a recent issue of Vanity Fair exonerating him of most of his sins and plugging his comeback book, a long LA-set novel named Bright Shiny Morning, which comes with the humorous warning, "nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable." Clearly Frey's story is interesting, so Vanity Fair's interest is not surprising. Their enthusiasm, which has been shared by several American critics, including Janet Maslin of The New York Times, once one of Frey's biggest detractors, is harder to fathom.

Bright Shiny Morning is a tough read. Frey has boasted about his prose style being described as "the absence of style". Such descriptions are usually applied to minimalists, and given that this novel is a tale of Los Angeles's lost souls, it might be expected that he will emulate Fante or Bukowski's easy rhythms. Instead, Frey's absence of style suggests absence of an editor. If it is true that Frey was persuaded by his publishers to turn his earlier fiction into a memoir then they did him an enormous service. The scandal has made him a household name, and he has managed to handle it in such a way that he has come out of the deceit looking like an underdog, a wounded talent who has rallied against all the odds. Frey is in a curious position: financially secure and seemingly still able to count on the goodwill of readers, he has no reason to improve, but this still feels an amateur effort.

Just as he makes no effort with prose, so his characters seem almost defiantly clichéd. Among the most prominent is Amberton Parker, a secretly homosexual, married Hollywood star. Compared to the wonderfully nuanced insider Hollywood writing of someone like Bruce Wagner, this seems wilfully simple.

Although Frey is the author of a relatively successful Hollywood film, 98's Kissing a Fool, and thanks Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell in his acknowledgements, his description of a Hollywood premiere is completely colourless, and reads like he's describing the process to an alien rather than a readership who if they have not experienced such events will have surely read about them in an entertainment magazine or seen a behind-the-scenes documentary.

Other equally uninspiring characters include Esperanza Hernandez, a cleaner mistreated by the rich white woman she works for, and Dylan and Maddie, two teenagers who've run away from Ohio to set up home in LA and get ground down by their tedious jobs.

Not that these characters' stories are important; all that matters is that we see they are damaged people who are struggling. Or, for dramatic relief, struggling people who are damaged.

This is fiction as self-help manual. And as such, it has a certain brute power, although Frey never convinces as a social commentator, and struggles with any scene longer than a few pages. Nearly one fifth of the book is taken up with facts about LA, many a single sentence long, which bulks out the page count (this is yet another stab at the "Great American Novel"), but adds to the overall irritation.

Yet there are patches of the book which work, scenes that come frustratingly close to providing an entertaining narrative. Three more drafts, a hefty edit, and he might've had something. Still, it seems Frey's around to stay, so there's always next time.

Matt Thorne's latest novel, 'Cherry', is published by Phoenix