James Frey-the whining, lying-ass, horrible writer who was probably never seriously addicted to anything in his whole sad, pampered, no-talent life-may have duped The New York Times into giving his new novel a drooling rave. But he received much saner treatment from David L. Ulin at The Los Angeles Times. "'Bright Shiny Morning' is a terrible book. One of the worst I've ever read [...] Two and a half years after he was eviscerated by Oprah Winfrey for exaggerating many of the incidents in his now-discredited memoir 'A Million Little Pieces,' he's back with this book, which aims to be the big novel about Los Angeles, a panoramic look at the city that seeks to tell us who we are and how we live."
"Bright Shiny Morning" is an execrable novel, a literary train wreck without even the good grace to be entertaining.
Written as an Altman-esque collage, it follows several parallel story lines that never coalesce. The idea is to trace a collective vision of the city, high and low, from Hollywood to the Valley to East L.A. — an attempt to get at the fluidity of Los Angeles.
There's Old Man Joe, a drunk who inhabits a bathroom on the Venice boardwalk and seeks mystical affirmation in a daily ritual. Or Amberton Parker, a St. Paul's and Harvard-educated Oscar-winning actor, who lives a perfect life with his wife and children and has a secret. (Bet you can't guess what it is.)
As a connective device, Frey interweaves a series of short passages outlining the history of L.A., beginning with the founding of the Pueblo and extending to the present day. Yet this strategy ends up as a metaphor for all that's wrong with the book. These bits read like encyclopedia entries, devoid of soul or personality, so generic as to be inconsequential, as if Frey has no interest or engagement in what he has chosen to write about.
That's the issue with "Bright Shiny Morning" — or one of them, anyway. Frey seems to know little about Los Angeles and to have no interest in it as a real place where people wrestle with actual life. There are obligatory riffs on freeways and natural disasters and a chapter on visual artists that lists "the highest price ever paid for a piece of their work in a public auction." There are also occasional installments of "Fun Facts" about the city, as if to give the illusion of a certain depth. Did you know that it is "illegal to lick a toad within the city limits of Los Angeles"? Neither did I. But I also don't know what this has to do with the larger story of the novel, except as another example of L.A. as odd and quirky, a territory in which we all "live with Angels and chase their dreams."
Frey, of course, intends this to be amusing, lighthearted and witty in tone. ("Learning fun facts is really an enjoyable, and sometimes enlightening process," he writes. "And, of course, it's fun too!!!") It comes off as two-dimensional, however, not to mention poorly written and conceived — much like the book's narrative elements.