Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey – A Book Review
When Oprah Winfrey, darling of America’s daytime television gives you a very public dressing down, you are certain to gain overnight notoriety and instant fame. James Frey’s first novel, ‘A Million Little Pieces’, initially heartily endorsed by the talk show queen in her book club, provoked outrage and a literary scandal when she discovered that the events depicted were not strictly accurate. Frey using artistic embellishment told a story exaggerating much of the events in his drinking and drug taking ‘memoir’. Winfrey, outraged at the supposed deception Frey had perpetuated invited him back onto her programme to explain himself. Ultimately though ‘A Million Little Pieces’ is a work of fiction. Although somewhat marketed as fact it shouldn’t dispel from the fact that Frey is one of the most accomplished writers the USA has produced this decade. The novel and the subsequent sequel, ‘My Friend Leonard’ are compulsive page-turners and in essence isn’t that all we require from a writer?
After such public outcry concerning ‘A Million Little Pieces’ that even included the his publishers taking the unprecedented step of offering purchasers their money back, Frey would have been justified retreating into literary obscurity. But in remarkable resilience he has returned with a new multi faceted novel about life in modern day Los Angeles called ‘Bright Shiny Morning’.
Such was the public outcry, personal vilification and consistent negative press readers would either feel compelled to completely reject his latest offering, or look upon it with personal scepticism. But to judge the book knowing the chequered history of its author is to do it a monumental injustice. I make no secret of my admiration for Frey’s work. He is an author that consistently provides great characterisation together with intriguing stories that leaves the reader consistently wanting more. Indeed he openly acknowledges the events preceding the publication of ‘Bright Shiny Morning’ in the flyleaf of the book that carries the disclaimer, ‘Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable’.
I am in no doubt that the reviews of the novel will be undoubtedly mixed, but I am of the opinion that you must judge a book on its own intentions. Frey intended to write an honest, vibrant, tender portrayal of modern day Los Angeles and its diverse inhabitants and this he has achieved remarkably well. He has the ability to create interest in characters personalities, social interactions and situations in such a way that holds the readers attention, even if their worlds are completely contradictory to the realities of his reader’s day-to-day lives.
The novel is in essence a redemptive story and follows the plights of four very different stories of the inhabitants of Los Angeles. ‘Old Man Joe’ a homeless alcoholic living in the public restroom on Venice Beach, seems at the beginning the least sympathetic character. His world is alcohol. We are offered minimal explanation for his present circumstance other than Chablis is his drink of choice. Amberton Parker is a tremendously successful Hollywood movie star. He has money, fame, power, a beautiful wife and family. He has a lavish lifestyle and a beautiful Hollywood mansion. He is also a predatory closet homosexual, has serious insecurity issues has little empathy for anyone around him. His deliciously deviant character is among the most prominent in the novel and leaves an indelible imprint on the audience for no other reason than to guess just which of the current crop of Hollywood superstars could he possibly be? Dylan and Maddie are two runaway teenagers from Ohio who have journeyed to Los Angeles in search of a better life, though things do not go quite to plan. Finally, Frey introduces us the Esperanza a sympathetic and self-conscious cleaner with an abusive and racist boss. Her plucky determination is endearing to read, encourages the reader to pull for her and delights us when she seems to get what her heart desires. With a mixture of defiantly clichéd characters Frey creates a landscape to pull the novel in any direction he wants and the unexpected almost always happens.
The book contains historical vignettes of LA tracing its corruption and foibles until inevitably in the best novels the city itself becomes a character; a wild and volatile multi-faceted entity capable of bestowing immense hurt and true love to all those enmeshed within it. The book then transcends fiction to emerge as a searing critique of the world we have created.
Frey has created his own prose he calls “the absence of style’ which is demonstrated in abundance in ‘Bright Shiny Morning’. Reminiscent of Bukowski his voice is assured, yet compassionate. Each story thunders along at a tremendous pace with a certain brute power. Indeed the individuality of Frey’s writing is refreshing though occasionally cohesion is lacking in the overall structure of the novel.
For traditionalists James Frey’s ‘Bright Shiny Morning’ like his other literary offerings maybe a little hard to swallow. A literary patchwork quilt ‘Bright Shiny Morning’ is subjective to the reader’s individual opinions. His narrative maybe unusual but more importantly it is entertaining. He is certainly one of the most controversial writers to emerge over the last decade, but the consistency of his work leads me to the conclusion that his enlightened, cutting edge contemporary works are to be admired. I invite perspective readers to not cut their nose off to spite their face.