A controversial author says that the City of Los Angeles “was founded by a major water source”
Bright Shiny Morning. By James Frey. Harper, 501 pp., $26.95.
By Janice Harayda
Evening came early for Bright Shiny Morning, a novel that appeared in May and that apparently had tanked at bookstores by September. And the premature nightfall befit this dark, postmodern tale of Los Angeles.
Bright Shiny Morning is a flat-footed converse of A Million Little Pieces, the discredited memoir that turned James Frey into a literary pariah. If much of that book was fiction posing as fact, much of this one is fact posing as fiction.
Frey tells the interleaved stories of stereotypical characters — a Mexican-American maid, a closeted gay male superstar — that don’t converge. He pads these with so many set pieces and trivia lists, you almost expect a recipe for huevos rancheros. The stories typically begin on right-hand pages and face, on left-hand pages, snippets of Los Angeles history that read like Wikipedia entries. Frey in effect juxtaposes two books — one fiction, one nonfiction — each of which makes sense without the other. It’s an interesting device, and a better stylist might have pulled it off. But much of Bright Shiny Morning reads like the work of an also-ran in a David Foster Wallace imitation contest. And some of its lines are almost comically inept. “The City of Los Angeles,” Frey tells us, “was founded by a major water source.”
A theme of Bright Shiny Morning — to the degree that it has one — is that people stay addicted to the dream of Los Angeles long after reality has impinged on it. Joan Didion said as much in her wonderful essay about the San Bernadino Valley, “Some Dreamers of Golden Dream,” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. More than 40 years later, Frey may tell you less about Los Angeles in 501 pages than Didion did in her one-line comment that this is the place where “a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into to a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity.”
Best line: Frey reports that Los Angeles has the “world’s first video graveyard,” where TV screens play, for 24 hours a day, videos of the people buried beneath them.
Worst line: No. 1: “As is the case with most of the world’s megacities, the City of Los Angeles was founded by a major water source.” Bright Shiny Morning also has many lines like No. 2: “He said she would have a better life the sun shining every day more free time less stress she said she would feel like she had wasted a decade trying to get to the major leagues only to demote herself once she got into them.”
Second opinion: Read a review by David Ulin, book editor of the Los Angeles Times.
Furthermore: Bright Shiny Morning was one of Entertainment Weekly’s five worst books of 2008. It was a selection of Oprah’s Book Club. The paperback edition is due out in March 2009. Frey lives in New York.
One-Minute Book Reviews will post the shortlist for the Third Annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books on Thursday, Feb. 26. The finalists will be announced at roughly 20-30 minute intervals beginning a 11 10 a.m. Eastern Time and the full list posted by the end of the day. The winners will be named on March 16 (instead of the usual March 15, which falls on Sunday this year).
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.