03 August 2008

Spoiling James Frey (If He Weren't Already)

There's a word I try to avoid using to review books 'round these parts, or in general. I think it's overused in life, and books of a certain caliber attract the tag just by what they set out to do in general. But if there's one word I would use to describe James Frey's first "official" novel BRIGHT SHINY MORNING, it would be: pretentious. If that's all you need to know, I urge you to go forth and use that estimation of the book at dinner parties. If you need specific examples, read on.

I hadn't even expected that as I kept the book out of the library for a good six weeks, putting it off in favor of more fun reads. I anticipated badly written, and there's some of that. I suspected generalization, and there's a lot of that. But pretension, I was not on guard for that. So here's your Wormbook whitepaper on how not to make your book pretentious, with spoilers. You've been warned:
  • We may or may not be in a recession, but there is no shortage of periods in this country. Frey writes all his sentences like this jams them together in an unhappy alliance. It's meant to move the speed of the book along it makes the book seem like it hasn't been proofread. I hope you are getting irritated already there were 400-plus pages of this. I don't know what's wrong with short sentences breaking your thoughts in half is not a big deal. Maybe it works for a memoir maybe it was designed for me to want to copy-edit my library book.
  • Adding one detail to your stock character does not make him or her less of a stock character. A daughter of hard-working immigrants who is forced to take a demeaning job to get by has a source of secret pain -- her thighs! Esperanza (and don't get me started on how bad books have ruined this lovely name for me) virtually goes into hiding after her dress accidentally flips up at a graduation party and lots of men get a look at the thighs she hates. So, what do you know, eventually she meets a nice man who loves them (and who happens to be the son of her mean employer). Another example: He's not just a wino, he's a wino who only drinks Chablis!
  • When bad things happen to stock characters, it's not Indicative of the Terrible Burden Of The City. It's an indication that the 19-year-old runaway trying to support his girlfriend shouldn't have stolen from the biker gang. Much has been made about the book's Los Angeles setting, and while there are cool things that can be done with it, BRIGHT SHINY MORNING really uses the city the way "Entourage" uses Hollywood -- as a shortcut to load a particular view in your mind so the author won't have to do the heavy lifting. I'm sure if you stole from a Minneapolis biker gang, they too would hunt you down and leave your pregnant wife to cry alone in an apartment she can't afford.
  • That said, there was one L.A. character I thought was well drawn. Naturally, he's a real person. Seriously, when are we going to get the Great American Perez Hilton novel? Minus half a point on the Pretensiometer for the 4-page excerpt on the gossip columnist America reads and pretends not to know about. Out of any profile I've read of Hilton (alias Mario Lavandeira) Frey's biography of him is probably the most succinct if not the best sourced. But it's pretentious to give us this glimpse of What Might Have Been. The fame-hungry, writing of the fame-hungry?
  • Non-diegetic sections get annoying the minute they start calling attention to themselves. I didn't bother to check the facts that Frey wrote into the book between chapters, because I assume they're a little skewed if not incredibly skewed. But there is one section where it really works, and I apologize in advance to you MOBY DICK fans out there: The section on the Los Angeles freeway system -- a largely narrator-free explanation of the different major highways, their local names and reputations -- was this book's "Whiteness of the Whale" moment, but (for me) actually interesting. So when Frey decides to later serve up multiple chapters of "Fun Facts Los Angeles," it just seems like he got too lazy to knit them into coherent discussions. And when you introduce a chapter with "Every city can be fun, and every city has certain elements, or facts, about it that are fun," I just want to hit you. We get it! You're so cool you don't care that this completely interrupts the narratives I didn't care about anyway!
I have read BRIGHT SHINY MORNING. Now let us never speak of it again.


Elizabeth said...

Just to give you a heads-up, I'm going to link to this post. That's what you get for using big words I have to look up and expand my vocabulary.

(I considered removing the period from the above paragraph to be cute, but it hurt to look at.)

Ellen said...

Elizabeth - that's fine, no need to warn me! But I'm sure Pretensiometer isn't a word.

Anonymous said...

This made me laugh! Great review and thank you for the warning.