Book Review: "Bright Shiny Morning"

May 14, 2008 6:53:05 PM PDT
"Bright Shiny Morning" (HarperCollins, 501 pages, $26.95) by James Frey: In this age of controversial pseudo-memoirs, James Frey, the man who started it all, leaves his past behind and tackles Los Angeles in his new novel. With a nod to the massive problems caused by his highly fictionalized memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," Frey begins with the disclaimer that "Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable." Yet "Bright Shiny Morning," with its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to the past, present and future of Los Angeles, may be his most truthful book yet.

Like the city itself, "Bright Shiny Morning" is sprawling and disjointed. So we don't accuse him of forgetting something, Frey saturates the pages, beginning each chapter with a history lesson and including characters ranging from an oversexed child star to drug-dealing bikers. Sifting through the true history, made-up history, lists of facts and multitude of characters, what slowly emerges is a surprisingly authentic and at times quite touching (though manipulative) picture of modern-day L.A.

Frey is still flashing his big neon "Look at me, I can write!" sign, and his style - lack of commas or quotes, incessant repetition - can still be irksome. Add the audacity of attempting to encapsulate one of the wildest, most fabled environments on the planet, and there are many ways this novel could have gone wrong. But he stays on a utilitarian, albeit bloated, course.

When not resurrecting L.A.'s history or making lists - gangs, museums, universities, nationalities, homicides, artists, and on and on - Frey focuses on four main stories: Old Man Joe, a 39-going-on-75-year-old homeless alcoholic whose attempt to help a meth addict goes terribly wrong; Amberton, a top actor whose obsession with a young man almost shatters his perfectly constructed life; Esperanza, a first-generation Latina who finds herself denying her intelligence and her family's dreams for her future just to survive; and Dylan and Maddie, a young couple fleeing abuse and violence in the Midwest who come looking for a house by the ocean only to find a new brand of horror.

Mingling with these archetypal L.A. residents are various others. We've met them all before, so Frey finds no real need to dwell on them. It's enough to remind us that they exist; that they are living and breathing with stories that will repeat and repeat as more and more people surge to L.A. searching out their dreams. L.A. will continue on. The rich and poor will continue in their separate worlds, killing and loving each other, colliding occasionally with either unhappy or happy outcomes.

Given Frey's history, many may be inclined to approach "Bright Shiny Morning" with a roll of the eyes, discounting what is actually not a bad read. It's too long, too cliched, too repetitive, too self-conscious, too skimmable and Frey's rhythm will infect your mind. But for a long book it reads quickly, and Frey has proved that these old stories do have a little life left in them.