Thursday, December 9, 2010

Public Enemy Number One, pt. 2

This is part of a series about James Frey—
Introduction (why this guy?), Part 1 (on the memoir), Part 3 (on the fiction factory)
On the (new) novel

BRIGHT SHINY MORNING, which is either James Frey's first published novel or his second, depending on when you started the meter, is made up of several loosely connected narrative threads, featuring a diverse collection of characters in the LA area.  Frey includes all types, and believe me, they are all types: a vain and secretly gay movie star, a sad but hardworking Mexican-American maid, a struggling but upwardly mobile African American couple (whose mamas got their backs), a philosphical hobo and the teenage runaway he takes under his wing, and a couple of crazy-in-love kids who go to the City of Angels to seek their fortune, only to incur the wrath of an evil gang of motorbike riders.

Yes, you heard that right.  An evil gang of motorbike riders.

One could argue that the prose here invites comparisons to Raymond Carver.  Here's the one I would make.  Imagine an uneven short story collection by Raymond Carver.  Now imagine that Ed Wood writes a screenplay based on that short story collection.  Then imagine somebody hires James Frey to write the novelization of that screenplay.  That would be the book BRIGHT SHINY MORNING.

Such a comparison is the only way I can think to explain the rapid tonal shifts of this book.  Every few pages, the writing veers from the effectively sentimental ("It took four surgeries to put his legs back together.  His football career was over.") to the half-baked hardboiled ("Young, angry men, often without stable homes, are given money, guns, a sense of respect, a sense of belonging, and turned loose to buy, sell, rob and kill... There is little the police, or anyone, can do about it.  Arrest one and there are ten more, twenty more, fifty more.") to the sexploitational ("He is an American hero.  Amberton Parker.  Symbol of truth and justice, honesty and integrity.  Amberton Parker.  Public heterosexual.  Private homosexual.").

Yet these shifts in tone are rarely accompanied by the other shifts -- in diction, in sentence structure -- that we might expect in a book that delves into so many different lives and subcultures.  Frey's voice, the same "tough guy tells it like it is" tone of his memoir first novel whatever, doesn't allow us to access the inner worlds of these people, the intricately woven threads of their internal logic.  Frey announces their emotions in quick cliches -- "it broke her heart," "he was reduced physically and mentally," "she did what she could to bolster his spirits" -- and sometimes we get a character's stray thought (for example, the Mexican-American maid contemplates saying fuck you to her boss, though that "would go against everything her parents had taught her").  But the self-awareness is missing.  The characters that Frey holds up as admirable here are selfless strivers who never look inward; they're forever single-mindedly focused on doing honest labor to get ahead, sure, but more importantly (and without exception) to support dependent family members.  No one -- except for bad boy Frey himself, of course -- calls bullshit on the system.  The characters' occasional retreats from contemporary culture, always into inarticulate depression, are self-indulgent fugues that they eventually snap out of, for the good of their loved ones.

At times, these characters remind me of the characters in the great social-realist novels of the 20th century: Sister Carrie by Dreiser or The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck.  Those novels were content to depict ordinary people primarily as the unwitting fuel for the cruel machinery of capitalism, rather than as complexly thinking individuals.  Yet what machinery is Frey protesting against here?  It doesn't seem to be capitalism, at least not exactly.  In the world of BRIGHT SHINY MORNING, the busy worker bees confront obstacles, but as long as they don't set their sights unreasonably high, they're able to achieve their dreams.  Illegal immigrants raise their daughter up right; despite a sports-career-ending injury, the African-American football player and his wife have an idyllic marriage and a small home; the Mexican-American maid finds love and a job at Staples; even the crazy-in-love kids have a cute wedding (though they shouldn't have crossed those motorbike riders).  And it's abundantly clear that the hobo's status on the outskirts of society is the result of his alcoholism: his primary virtue is in trying to help his meth-addled charge avoid the same fate.  The game isn't easy, but it also isn't rigged, and hard work, however humbling, results invariably in the spiritual payoff of contentment.

What Frey does see as nasty, demeaning, and fruitless is the attempt on the part of any ordinary person to enter the glittering world of LA's entertainment industry.  In what I see as the novel's iconic scene, Maddie (Crazy-in-Love-Kid: Female) whispers to her lover, "I think I want to be an actress... Yeah, I want to be a movie star."  "Really?" he replies with some chagrin, and then, "If that's what you really want, give it a shot."  But of course she's just kidding: "It's not what I really want...I got what I really want."  What's that?  "I'm pregnant." 

OK, so this girl isn't exactly a fount of intelligence, imagination, or ambition, and I can't say I expected her to do anything much more interesting (April Wheeler she's certainly not).  But what is Frey actually trying to say here, and in the rest of this novel, which he has set so squarely and insistently in Hollywood USA?  It seems to me that the main theme of this novel is that creating art, creating entertainment, is inherently vain, selfish, and false.  The pure of heart don't allow themselves to be drawn to its artificial glow; instead, they keep their eyes on the things of this world: the broom in their hand, the baby on their lap, the time-tested rituals of graduation, marriage, the keeping of a home.

Nowhere in the book is this theme more clearly explored than in the section -- starting on page 229 of the paperback edition and continuing through page 240 -- that lists dozens of aspiring entertainers, the age at which they arrived in LA, the age that they are now, and sometimes, their day jobs, which range in quality from lousy to tragic.  Here are a few examples (direct quote).
Katy.  Actress.  Left her husband and three children to become a star.  Works at a grocery store.  Cries herself to sleep every night. [...]

Lee.  Actor/model.  Moved to Los Angeles at 21.  Waiter and occasionally a bartender.  He is now 27. 

Brad.  Actor.  Moved at 20.  Works as a bartender.  He is now 27.

Barry.  Singer.  Moved at 18.  Works in the ticket window at the Wax Museum.  He is now 31.

Bert.  Writer.  Moved at 24.  Bartender.  He is now 50.
And this doesn't even include the ones who have turned to prostitution.  Oh, they're victims, and it's sad, so sad: Frey practically orders us to pity them.  But there's something more going on here.  If we're to assume that, despite their time downwind from the fragrant streets of San Francisco, these folks are still capable of rational thought, then they can't just be victims.  They're chumps. 

And Frey's pity for them is well seasoned with condescension.  By choosing to list their ages or their menial day jobs, rather than, for example, why they love the movies, what inspires them, or what their greatest creative achievement to date has been, he's implying a couple of things.  First, he's suggesting that the time spent in pursuit of their dream has been entirely wasted; that the quest itself (for an acting career, or a screenwriting career, or a directing career) has resulted in no personal artistic satisfaction for these people; that it's impossible to produce anything of value without being successful, and that success always means industry recognition and more important, fame.  Second, he's suggesting that their perseverance is not admirable, but pathetic. It may be sad for a 20-year-old to want to direct films, but it's even sadder for a 30-year old to want to, and when a 40-year-old is still trying, it's flat out heartbreaking.  Third, he's making these characters interchangeable with each other, and with anyone else who has the same aspirations.  "It is estimated that 100,000 people a year move to Los Angeles to pursue careers in the entertainment industry," he gravely informs us, in a paragraph that reads like a PSA.  "They come from all over America, all over the world.  They were stars at home, they were smart or funny or beautiful.  When they arrive, they join the 100,000 that came the year before they did, and they await the 100,000 who will arrive the year after, the year after, the year after."  In other words, these people aren't making a conscious choice to live their lives pursuing their passion.  Instead, they're stunted, they're delusional.  They're losers who either can't or won't grow up, who aren't willing to accept the self-evident truth that they aren't special.  Because their work has been deemed unworthy by the industry, because they haven't been chosen, they deserve our pity but not our ear. 

And that's the thing: unlike, say, Jonathan Franzen, who locates someone very like himself in an unsuccessful screenwriter in his novel THE CORRECTIONS, or John Kennedy Toole, who allowed us to see both the lunacy and the majesty of his crank writer's prose, Frey does not bother giving even one of these wannabes a subplot. I think of a line from Aaron Sorkin's screenplay for The Social Network: "If you'd invented Facebook, you would have invented Facebook." This seems like something Frey might say. In the aforementioned passage and others, he comes across like the self-defeating voice in the back of every creative person's head. If you really wrote a screenplay, he seems to say, if you really knew how to act or sing, if you really had a vision as a director, wouldn't we have heard of you by now? Those people with regular 9-to-5 jobs, with marriages, with families -- those people really have something. What do you have? 'The work'? Give me a fuckin break.

Let's face it: not every creative person will achieve something like this in his lifetime.

And what about the successful entertainment-people in this book?  Well, they're even worse, because the only way to that type of success, as Frey sees it, is through a mile-long shit-filled pipeline of total ethical corruption and megalomania.  The novel's one villain (OK, except for those pesky motorbike riders) is Amberton Parker, the "public heterosexual, private homosexual."  A matinee idol along the lines of a Brad Pitt or a Tom Cruise, his entire life is about keeping up appearances -- to others, but also to himself.  He's obsessed with the way he looks, his clothes, his hair, and obsessed with being loved.  As the novel progresses, he uses his wealth and power to enslave Kevin Jackson, a young agent at the talent management firm that represents him, in a kind of bizarre sexual servitude.  But even as he blackmails this dude into sleeping with him, he's still not satiated -- he still wants Kevin to admit that he does, in fact, love Amberton, despite all appearances to the contrary.  "Do you love being with me?" he asks.  "Do you love making love to me?... Do you at least love my body?"  Kevin's responses are "No," "No," and "No," but Amberton is unfazed: "You're hot when you're angry," he says, and forces himself on the guy once again. 

Amberton, the only character in the novel who has chosen to make a life in the arts, is a kind of vampire.  He doesn't care about the work itself, just about how big an ego boost it will provide; he chooses projects based on the fawning letters that accompany the scripts, or on the basis of "which movie will make the most money and take the shortest time to shoot."  We never see him actually at work on a movie set or thinking about acting.  All we see is the opulent life this fame has given him, and the fact that for Amberton that's still not enough -- it still feels empty.  And it's empty, at bottom, because it's founded on a lie. 

In Amberton's case, that lie is his supposed heterosexuality.  But I don't think Frey is really interested in the fact Amberton is gay; what Frey hones in on is the falsehood.  In the passage that introduces Amberton, Frey hits us over the head with this again and again.  Amberton dates "the biggest!!! actress in the world.  Dates a model who goes by one name.  Dates a debutante, an Olympic swimmer the winner of six gold medals, a prima ballerina."  Amberton even gets married to a woman and has three children.  And because of all this -- and ONLY because of this -- is he allowed to become a major action star and romantic hero.  Long before Kevin arrives on the scene, we see Amberton is corrupted: he's betrayed his true self, sold his soul, and as he roams the world searching for someone or something to fill the void inside him, he's aware he's done it knowingly, that he's brought this on himself.

I mean, the guy even "wr[ote] a memoir."

So, in the world of BRIGHT SHINY MORNING, creative people are one of two kinds: chumps or vampires.  And although we pity the chumps, we can't exactly hate the vampires either, because fame, once tasted, cannot be untasted; the ego's mad craving never stops, and nothing is ever enough again.  Or so James Frey would have it.

continue to Part 3...

1 comment:

scott g.f.bailey said...

I continue to be amused by Frey's stance as a literary bad-boy with a take-no-prisoners, break-every-rule approach to writing, and all the while he pens books that do not experiment or push the form at all, and his newest focus (which I assume will be Part 3 of this entertaining series) is a YA factory. Yes, the novelty is that it's a Dickensian factory, but the product is the most lowbrow, high-concept, commercial stuff requiring the least-possible level of artistic risk.