Thursday, May 15, 2008

#34 - Bright Shiny Morning

I'm going to start off my review by confessing a number of things:

1. I work for the company that published Bright Shiny Morning.
2. I came down hard on the side of Frey over the whole Oprah debacle.
3. I did not read My Friend Leonard, but loved A Million Little Pieces.
4. I believe Frey to be an extremely talented writer.

Now with all of that out of the way, I think it's important also to note that it's impossible to read Bright Shiny Morning outside of the context of what happened to its author. The characters are all deeply scarred by life, by their own actions and by the harsh nature of the world in general. That's as far as I'll go in terms of imprinting an author's psyche onto his work.

When I started the novel on Friday evening on the subway ride home, I wanted to ignore the world and simply read it until I was finished. Lucky for me, my RRHB had to work on Saturday so I did not leave my room until I had read all 501 pages. And the thank yous. And my first thoughts upon finishing the book was not unlike what Thom Geier over at Entertainment Weekly opined. Once done, I said to myself, "Huh, where's the story?"

I got out of bed, pulled the covers up, tidied the pillows, sat back down and decided I was all wrong in my thinking. It's not so much where's the story but what's the story. And the city is the story. The book is Los Angeles. From its beginnings (told in chronological order in parallel to the various stories that have physical characters in them) to its current state: polluted, prolific, rich, brilliant, troubled, lost, found and a whole host of other descriptors pregnant with meaning. Throughout the novel, there are 4 key storylines that thread the book together, that break through the setting (which includes many, many other characters, which go beyond their usual narrative importance and simply become setting themselves) and hold the book together: a young couple that leave abusive homes to find their fortune in LA; an American-born Mexican girl struggling to find her way; a closeted superstar with a functional marriage and dysfunctional obsessions; and a homeless man who lives near Venice Beach in a bathroom.

Frey's unique writing style, his lack of punctuation, his driving, aching prose, reaches out off the page and right into your emotional core. When life collapses all around the characters, as it does, Frey's ability to convey the events that cause their downfalls is matter of fact. Not without emotion, but with a driving honesty that enables one to come to grips with the sheer force of unhappiness in all its glory. That's not to say there aren't happy parts to the book, but there's a lot of realistic unhappiness too, as if he's taking the Hollywood dream and showing it from every angle the cameras won't capture. It's as if he's taken the idea of honesty and pulled it apart, driven it to new heights, and then broken it all apart again just to make sure we get it.

And we do, get it.

By the end of the book, I felt despite the cliches (and there are some, they are unavoidable), despite the slightly frustrating epic-like lists, and despite my own craving for more about the 4 main stories, I closed the cover extremely satisfied. Satisfied in the sense that there are many writers trying to push the boundaries of fiction and the form of the novel, but none who can do it so publicly as Frey. His name will push the novel onto the bestseller list, but his work will show everyone what he's got in him: a tenacious ability to tell a good tale and a need to drive the form of the novel itself in a new direction.

I got up off the bed again, stripped off my pajamas, had a shower, and decided that yes, it's a freaking good book. My thoughts now far more in line with what the NY Times had to say. And I'd highly recommend it to anyone who asks, and I still think Oprah was a fool over it all.


joemmama said...

I read A million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard and I really liked them both. I think Oprah went way overboard, and am looking forward to reading this one. I have heard only good things about it, and I am glad he is still telling stories. I feared, that the abuse heaped upon him, might discourage James Frey, so I am glad to see him return in triumph!

Beth said...

I loved A Million Little Pieces. Memoir? Fiction? In the end, it was still a great read.
There's an interesting article/interview of Frey in this month's Vanity Fair. (I like the guy.)

Zesty said...

I agree with Beth. I really liked the Vanity Fair article too, although I was a bit surprised in that Frey comes across as surprisingly unsympathetic as an individual. I thought they'd give him an easier ride. It was also interesting how the article raises the issue that the publishing industry as a whole hasn't been honest with itself, never mind readers when it comes to the whole "true memoir" issue. Interestingly, part of why this never blew up in court [I suspect, the article doesn't come right out and say so] is that Frey actually had documentation from the early days of working with his publisher that noted he considered the work to be one of fiction. He ended up settling out of court with the publisher.

I did enjoy A Million Little Pieces and I really love Frey's style of writing, but did find the book rife with cliche in parts.

As for the whole Oprah thang, I'm sure people will enjoy our back and forth in the comments section! LOL!

I still think if he believed in his work that much, and as one of fiction to boot, it was even more important to step up and get that straight before the book ever got published, and certainly before it ever got the Oprah Book Club sticker put on it.

Zesty said...

Actually, I just checked and the back and forth was on my blog. LOL! It will be interesting to see how this all pans out. America loves a comeback.

Zesty said...

Ok I've checked again. Maybe it was all on email? LOL! Ok. I really shouldn't post comments at 3:30 a.m. when I'm ill.

Turnstyle said...

Totally loved A Million Little Pieces and totally agree that Oprah went waaaaay overboard.
I still haven't read My Friend Leonard... Although it is on my list of books to pick up. And now that I have read your post I have to add Bright Shiny Morning to the list as well...