James Frey doesn’t lack ambition. In his first official novel, Bright Shiny Morning, the notorious ex-memoirist tries to capture the entirety of Los Angeles, that vast, heterogeneous city that’s both a destination for dreamers and a dumping ground for urban bottom-feeders. 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.
While Frey has done loads of research on L.A., he seems to empty the contents of his notebooks rather than integrate them into a coherent story. He produces lists of gang names, eight pages describing the city’s highways, five pages of natural disasters in its history, another five naming patients in VA hospitals, eight pages of ”Fun Facts” and ”Facts Not So Fun.” The lists go on. And on.
He introduces scores of characters, some briefly (”Ron. Bodybuilder. Wants to be an action star. Works at a gym”) and others for a few pages (an online gossiper who’s clearly meant to suggest Perez Hilton). Ultimately, four principal plots emerge. Two are rather conventional tales of the downtrodden: There’s Joe, a 39-year-old homeless guy near Venice Beach, and Esperanza, the U.S.-born daughter of illegal Mexican immigrants, working as a maid to pay for college. Meanwhile, Amberton Parker, an A-list movie star who, like his actress wife, is deeply closeted, risks his career by sexually harassing a junior exec at his talent agency, an African-American former college football star. (Collins’ prurient romps are more believable.) Frey’s strongest creation is Dylan, a teen who steals his girlfriend, Maddie, from her abusive Midwestern home to forge a new life in L.A. Like the character ”James Frey” in the author’s previous books, Dylan is a basically nice guy from Ohio with a penchant for big risks and affectless banter, and a hunger for a surrogate father (in this case, Dylan’s boss at a golf course). While Maddie remains a cipher, Dylan’s story manages to rise above its implausibilities and suggest the compelling novel Morning might have been. But Frey never achieves narrative momentum — he’s too easily distracted by, say, a list of customers at a local gun store.
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. D+