BRIGHT SHINY MORNING
By James Frey
Harper, 501 pages, $26.95
I WASN’T FAR INTO James Frey’s debut novel, Bright Shiny Morning—around page 50 of 501—when I felt a sense of déjà vu. The words weren’t stolen, but the story suddenly seemed so familiar.
This particular Carveresque passage described a married couple, Tammy and Carl, who live in a trailer park in the Pacific Palisades. They’d gotten pregnant young and come west from Oklahoma, dreaming of living near the beach. They had a bunch of kids who all grew up to be successful, but Tammy and Carl stayed in their trailer, sharing views of Malibu that others paid millions for. "Like hundreds of thousands of people a year," writes Mr. Frey, "[they] came to Los Angeles to make their dreams come true. Sometimes it happens."
A song started looping in my head: "Into the Great Wide Open," by Tom Petty. (It’s a song about a couple in L.A.—aren’t all Tom Petty songs about L.A.?—trying to make their dreams come true.) Later, at Mr. Frey’s mention of Reseda, a district in the San Fernando Valley, Mr. Petty’s "Free Fallin’" took over ("It’s a long day, living in Reseda/ There’s a freeway, runnin’ through the yard.")
That was it: James Frey’s book is one very long Tom Petty song.
And like a Tom Petty song—which is quite repetitive and predictable but which also sticks in your head in such a way that it becomes inextricably linked to some memory from your teens or 20s, of driving to Ocean City or to a football game or to a really good party—Mr. Frey’s book will stick with you, too.
BRIGHT SHINY MORNING ISN’T a great book, though it is, as Sara Nelson wrote in Publisher’s Weekly, "un-put-downable." Mr. Frey’s other books—the scandal-making memoir A Million Little Pieces (2003) and the quite obviously embellished follow-up, My Friend Leonard (2005)—were similarly addictive. His books are like crappy movies on a Sunday afternoon; you think, well, if I don’t like it, I don’t have to watch it. But then, you don’t really have anything else to do, and you get hooked—after 20 minutes, you have to know what happens to the druggie teenager—and, really, it’s only a few hours of your life. (Despite the length, the novel only takes an afternoon to read. More on that shortly.)
Still, Bright Shiny Morning isn’t very pleasurable. As always, Mr. Frey is obsessed with brutality, and few in his sprawling book escape to safety. There are four main stories: a superfamous Hollywood couple with a secret (their marriage is a sham—he’s gay and she’s bisexual); a young couple from Ohio escaping abusive families; a homeless man in Venice living an ethical, if drunk, life; and a young, smart Mexican-American woman working for an old, tyrannical white lady in Pasadena. All of these stories are crazy with violence.
Of course, that’s what makes the book a page-turner: Will Old Joe live after being assaulted by a bunch of meth heads? Will Dylan come back after being abducted by a biker gang? Will Amberton really order his lover’s mother to be killed? We have to know the answers to these questions, and Mr. Frey’s minimalist style is lighter than the breeze. At the same time, the stories are so over-the-top, the violence so grotesque, that it’s hard to take any of it very seriously. Which is unfortunate: Mr. Frey doesn’t intend for his novel to be read as a satire but rather as a hyper-realistic, this-is-the-way-it-is-out-there-motherfucker portrait of Los Angeles. He really believes that the world is relentlessly ugly. It isn’t.
BACK TO TOM PETTY, WHO tends to strike a more melancholy note in his odes to L.A. than Mr. Frey. Both trade almost entirely in stereotypes—that’s why Bright Shiny Morning feels so rote.
Of course the Mexican-American woman gets sidetracked from going to college and has to work as a housekeeper—and for a woman of particular cruelty and fierce physical strength. And of course the young couple from Ohio gets pregnant. Of course the big movie star is secretly gay. And of course the homeless guy has a heart of gold. These characters are supposed to be revelatory in some way, their stories tragic and shocking. But they’re just what we’ve heard a million times before. Girl moves to Hollywood to be an actress; girl ends up in porn. Boy moves to Hollywood to break into TV; boy ends up a junkie.
Mr. Frey writes like he’s sharing these stories for the first time. In a way, it’s charming, and the book’s insistence on its own importance is part of what keeps you reading. You can’t shake the hope that Mr. Frey will surprise you. But he doesn’t. Every story turns out just as you expect.
SPRINKLED AMONG THE four main stories and countless other mini-profiles of unnamed, central-casting sorts of characters are facts about the county of Los Angeles. In the beginning, full pages sport three or four lines of text noting some fact about the area (all that white space is one reason why the book is such a snap to read); later, Mr. Frey gets more ambitious, writing long descriptive passages about various neighborhoods.
Although he slaps a disclaimer upfront ("Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable"), these "fact" passages are a real problem. Yes, it’s a novel, and in a novel—as Mr. Frey was reminded time and again after the controversy over A Million Little Pieces—you can make stuff up. But not really—not if your book is clearly meant to be a sweeping history of a certain place. And given Mr. Frey’s track record, there are obvious questions looming: How accurate are these "fun facts," as he calls them? What are his sources? It doesn’t help that long passages read just like Wikipedia entries.
Bright Shiny Morning isn’t the disaster some Frey-haters probably hoped for, but it’s not special, either. A supposedly honest look at the nastiness of human nature, written without punctuation (though there’s more than you’d think!) and a fake urgency that should lead somewhere new, the novel merely manipulates you into doing exactly what James Frey wants. He leads you into the hills high above Hollywood, shows you the most spectacular view of the hideousness that is Los Angeles, and then abandons you to make the only choice you can: to jump.
Hillary Frey (no relation) edits the culture pages of The Observer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.