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Peer Review: Rumble in the Alley

By (June 1, 2008) No Comment

Bright Shiny Morning

By James Frey
HarperCollins, 2008


As in all insulated, interdependent cultures, the doings of the literary world are played out like a dance, with rules of procedure, sumptuary codes, and a great deal of importance set on appearances. Publishers need reviewers and reviewers need publishers; they both of course need writers (although, given the profitability of Idiot’s Guides and ghostwritten “James Patterson” novels, this link in the chain often seems unnervingly fragile) and writers need them both. So comity must be preserved, the rules of the dance upheld to ensure the success and enjoyment of all parties.

Hence the palpable politesse of book pages: reviewers are almost never corrupt but almost always conformist, careful and conditional with criticism, eager to change the subject if a book is bad (to the author’s back catalog or future promise, or to the general trends of the age), and, when all else fails, satisfied with taking refuge in reportorial neutrality. Naturally, there are the party crashers. Some, like B.R. Myers, rush in full of idealism, orating on the moral and aesthetic purblindness of some aspect of the dance; the response to these people is always murmured indignation and widespread dismissal. Others, like Dale Peck, crash the party purely for the sake of grabbing attention; these people are bemusedly indulged for a while, although one of the humorless butts of the joke will eventually get offended and throw a drink at them.

Sometimes, however, a partygoer is discovered in a transgression so embarrassing that he must be summarily escorted from the building, his invitation indefinitely revoked. Thus the Napoleonic exile of Judith Regan for joining forces with O.J. Simpson and attempting to profit from his murders, the expulsions of Kaavya Visnawathan and Brad Vice on evidence of plagiarism, and, most famously, the sad little passion of James Frey, betrayed by the very people who had convinced him to suborn himself in order to gain entrance to the dance in the first place.

In the parking lot outside the hall, the rules no longer apply. Here reviewers wait with brickbats to lay into the pariahs in ways that decorum precludes inside. And so, mere hours after its bookstore release, Frey’s new novel Bright Shiny Morning was greeted by one of these back-alley assault and batteries in a review by David L. Ulin. Ulin is a Los Angeles Times staff writer, but his brief piece was syndicated in smaller presses across the country and is easily the most-read judgment of the book. It begins like this:

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 a big novel about Los Angeles, a panoramic look at the city that seeks to tell us who we are and how we live.

Ulin goes on to call the novel “execrable” and a “literary train wreck without even the good grace to be entertaining,” and he offers a few damning examples of Frey’s prose, but it’s the relish of those first two sentences that gives Ulin away. After months of churning out soporific, well-heeled book reviews, he finally has the freedom to pounce, and the unaccustomed liberty leads him frequently astray.

For instance, the claim that Frey has shown some audacity in publishing Bright Shiny Morning is invalidated in the very next paragraph, when Ulin reveals that HarperCollins paid Frey 1.5 million dollars for publication rights. When someone is paid one and a half million dollars for anything short of a mob hit, chutzpah ceases to enter the equation. Later in the review, after some snide summarization and an (admittedly awful) excerpt of dialogue, Ulin asks,

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?

But how do we reckon with this criticism? Presumably the urge to become an actress is organic for most people who experience it, even if it’s also naïve or superficial. And we get the sense that if Frey had made his Mexican American character a Bel Air radiologist, Ulin would have kneecapped Frey for twisting reality in the service of political correctness. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Frey’s premises—and if he executed them poorly it’s Ulin’s job to explain how.

Ulin concludes, “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 the final fatuity of a sloppy review. As everyone knows, the success of A Million Little Pieces is exclusively explained by the recommendation of one woman, and her name ain’t Uma.

Also lying in wait is Adam Kirsch, whose review in The New York Sun is far more cerebral but no less savage—and no less problematic, either. Kirsch begins elliptically by relating an event from Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, in which the everyman narrator has a run-in with an aggressive criminal, the type of person Bellow refers to as a “reality instructor”:

In Bellow’s work, the reality instructors are always shown to be deficient in precisely the sense of reality they brag about…. Bellow’s narrators recognize that beauty, truth, and goodness are just as real as power and violence; they refuse to succumb to the reductive, brutalized version which holds that man is always a wolf to man, so you had better bite first when you have the chance. …They all triumph by remaining more sensitive and expressive—that is, more open to reality—than their would-be teachers.

The application of this lesson to Bright Shiny Morning, especially the “wolf to man” part, is obscure to me even after multiple readings (just as it’s hard to see why it’s specifically “Bellovian” to assert that sensitive, thinking people are better than criminals), but the point seems to be that Frey is a writer who purports to know the gritty way of the world, and imprints his characters with the same arrogant self-regard—the irony being that Frey is also a notorious liar. Frey’s hubris, as Kirsch sees it, leads to a kind of fictional lying, found, for example, in a character named Shaka, “the African-American golf-course manager, who lectures Dylan, the naïve white teenage caddy, on how it is at the golf course: ‘Whatever I say goes. There ain’t no debating involved. …There ain’t no democracy, and there ain’t no revolution. The one time there tried to be a revolution, I took the revolutionator and picked him up by the back of his pants and literally tossed him in the street. That’s how it goes here. That’s the way it is.” Or the subterfuge is found in one of the book’s plotlines:

Start with Dylan, a teenager who has just arrived from the Midwest, and gets a job fixing motorcycles for a vicious biker gang. When the gang leader happens to leave his safe open, Dylan steals a stack of cash from it—money he uses to start a new life with his true-hearted girlfriend Maddie, who has escaped from an abusive family. Will the gang notice the theft and track Dylan down?

To Kirsch, “these are not plots or characters, but ‘high concepts,’ the kind of bright, shiny clichés that Hollywood screenwriters use as the basis of their pitches.” The problem, though, is that such criticism isn’t justified by the examples. There’s no evidence that because Shaka is full of himself that Frey must be too; and even though it’s unoriginal, Dylan’s subplot is perfectly serviceable (as Kirsch himself points out, it was good enough for Cormac McCarthy)—the question, left unanswered, is how well it’s handled.

The truth is, the quality of Bright Shiny Morning is only glancingly investigated here, as demonstrated by the scarcity of quotes from the book. What’s really being denounced is James Frey, with his obnoxious (though only “reported”) tattoos, his scheming return to the limelight, and his failure to read enough Saul Bellow. Kirsch has a mind like a straight razor, but even at his best his tastes are narrow, and when he’s preordained to disapprove of something, his reviews turn into homilies. When this sermon ends with the absurdly obvious prediction that “Bright Shiny Morning will be a big best-seller,” he shows himself to be a deficient instructor in his own right.

Of course, Bright Shiny Morning has had its rogue defenders as well. Whereas Ulin calls it an “Altman-esque collage” whose story lines “never coalesce,” Steven Moore of The Washington Post claims that it has “enough cohesion” to keep it from being a kaleidoscopic collage,” and Janet Maslin of The New York Times calls it an “urban kaleidoscope”—she means this as a compliment. Yet those who praise Frey are prone to the same muddled hyperbole as those who attack him. Moore’s review begins with this:

Because I’ve been on a fool’s errand the past four years writing a history of the novel, I paid little attention to the big publishing scandal of 2006, when James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was exposed as being closer to fiction than to the heartfelt memoir it was marketed as. I couldn’t be bothered with the legal and moral issues because the history of this lawless genre is filled with such dodges. In the 2nd century, a fantastic fiction by the Greek satirist Lucian was cheekily titled a True History. Both Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels were first marketed as nonfiction accounts, and even included prefaces by their publishers swearing to their veracity. More recently, we’ve had autobiographical novels, the nonfiction novels of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer and some historical novels with more documentation than you find in scholarly tomes. There’s always been a blurry line between fiction and nonfiction, and Frey isn’t the first or last writer to conga on that line.

Well, at least Moore is being honest when he admits he wasn’t paying attention (the gratuitous self-promotion is far less stand-up). Frey was never congaing on any line between fiction and nonfiction; he was lying. He averred before a national audience that he had done things he had not in order to expand his fame. That’s a far cry from a publisher promising that there really is such a place as Lilliput.

Later, Moore tallies up some further disastrously grandiose comparisons:

His ambition may have been to write the definitive novel of L.A., to do for that city what Joyce did for Dublin, Dos Passos did for Manhattan or Durrell did for Alexandria. If so, he may have succeeded; Joyce boasted that if Dublin were to disappear, it could be reconstructed from his Ulysses, and Frey could make the same claim for Bright Shiny Morning….

It’s difficult to pinpoint just which of the qualifiers tips this passage from bad to meaningless, but I’m leaning toward that second “may”: if Bright Shiny Morning really is worthy of being grouped with Ulysses, USA, and The Alexandria Quartet, then it’s one of the most important books of the twenty-first century; if it’s not, then Moore is merely name-dropping. And shouldn’t Moore know whether Frey has written one of the definitive L.A. novels? It bodes ill for his history of the novel if he doesn’t.

Janet Maslin’s rave is blessedly free of the self-importance found in the reviews examined so far, and its marked weirdness is even a little refreshing. Maslin occupies a curious position at the Times in that she tends to be assigned the bestsellers, the fads, the highly-publicized gimmicks—in short, she reviews the crap, and one can’t blame her for trying to enliven her job with an experiment from time to time. To see what she’s tried, it’s again best to look at the first paragraph of her review:

He wrote a book but it was bad, liar bad, faker bad, it got him in trouble. A million little pieces. It was the name of the book. It was also how hard he got hit. He had to sit there on the couch. Everybody saw. The television celebrity book club woman got mad, she let him have it. He had to sit there on the couch. He squirmed, he cringed. Everybody watched, everybody blamed him. Then it was over. Then he was gone.

As many watchdog bloggers have pointed out, in tones that suggest they can’t believe their good luck, Maslin is channeling Frey in order to praise him. But the attempt backfires spectacularly. In this opening paragraph alone, a count of the infelicities—the redundancies and baby-talk reductions—would require two hands. One more passage will serve to make the case:

The million little pieces guy was called James Frey. He got a second act. He got another chance. Look what he did with it. He stepped up to the plate and hit one out of the park. No more lying, no more melodrama, still run-on sentences still funny punctuation but so what. He became a furiously good storyteller this time.

The way to channel Frey, it turns out, is to write badly, with a reliance on tautologies and clichés (and the claim that he’s put away melodrama is hopelessly dashed by the heavy melodrama of the style). If Bright Shiny Morning really does read like this, 500 pages of it would be unbearable.

Still, for all the wildness of the attacks on Bright Shiny Morning, and the flailing attempts to come to its aid, these reviewers have at least been game for some brawling. The majority of those that remain are still slavishly attentive to etiquette of the dance, and their reviews are characterized by a gabby and witless indecision that bespeaks an almost compulsive need to stay on the Evite list of every person in the room.

These reviews aren’t criticism so much as punchbowl gossip. In Publisher’s Weekly, Sara Nelson writes, “Bright Shiny Morning is a train-wreck of a novel, but it’s un-put-downable, a real page turner.” In The New York Observer, Hillary Frey (no relation, I’m guessing), writes that it’s “not the disaster some Frey-haters probably hoped for, but it’s not special either.” In The New York Daily News, Sherryl Connelly writes, in full-throated infomercial idiocy, “Bright Shiny Morning is a bit literary and a lot shlock. It’s also get-out commercial. Oprah won’t be reading it but maybe you should. It won’t improve your life, but your weekend maybe?” And doing duty for the Associated Press, Sara Rose boldly maintains that it’s “actually not a bad read.”

(It’s a disturbing sign of the times that no less than four reviewers mention that the book “reads quickly” as a decided mark in its favor, as though one of the criteria for a positive reading experience were that it end as soon a possible.)

In the end, only one reviewer succeeded in tackling the book and not the event, and yet turning in an unequivocal verdict as he did so. This is Thom Geier, who, despite the meager column inches he was allotted by Entertainment Weekly, produced the most convincing judgment of Bright Shiny Morning.

Geier is pressed for time, so he turns immediately to the oldest-known method for quickly summing up a book: “Imagine the movie Crash rewritten as a pastiche of Tom Wolfe, Bret Easton Ellis, and Jackie Collins—and you get a sense of the frustrating experience of reading this slack, self-indulgent mess.” An old formulation, it’s true, but the invocation of Collins is a funny twist that’s simultaneously descriptive and devastating. Geier goes on with some good dismantling plot description, but his strongest commentary comes in the review’s final paragraph:

In fairness, Frey is not entirely to blame for the failure of Morning, which reads like the overreaching first draft of a gifted M.F.A. student. Where was Frey’s editor at HarperCollins to guide Frey into pruning the clutter and dramatizing the themes in his fact-based tangents? As it stands, Morning is like L.A. at its worst: undone by ambition, sprawl and (verbal) smog. Not to mention a glib resistance to hard work.

There’s not simply a bad book being condemned here (or a bad city), but the rotted parts of an entire literary culture—indeed, the culture Frey was expelled from, which, in normal circumstances, complies in such laziness by politely ignoring it. The reviews of Bright Shiny Morning leave us with the sense that Frey probably hasn’t added any eloquence or truth to the world, but in this clear and unsparing paragraph Geier has done both. I’ll keep it in mind next month, as I return to the friendly confines of the ballroom to see what reviewers have to say about one of their most prestigious guests, Salman Rushdie.

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, thefanzine.com, and The Quarterly Conversation. He lives in New York City.

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