Bright Shiny Morning
by James Frey
Published by Harper
502 pages, 2008
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
Considering how he got here, it was inconceivable that James Frey’s first work of actual fiction not be brought to Earth on a wave of controversy. I myself came to Bright Shiny Morning fully prepared to loathe it. How could it be otherwise? Frey had gotten his shot with a couple of well-published and well-promoted biographies. He’d gotten his shot and blown it in a grand and noisy style. Shouldn’t Frey, in the tradition of historical wannabes everywhere, just go off with his tail between his legs and leave us alone on our various paths to finding books that matter?
But he did not. Instead, he took himself quietly off and emerged with a stout and ambitious book. Inevitably, fire was drawn.
Like many others, and with an admittedly jaundiced eye, I started to read. And was astonished. Bright Shiny Morning is not perfect. There are weirdly wide flaws. But it is utterly, completely original. More: the book’s flakey, broken narrative and bumper-to-bumper pace captures the feeling that is Los Angeles while its sharp little vignettes grab some of the context. The shabby piece of a heaven in a Pacific Palisades trailer park. The gay action hero who believes his own hype. The young midwestern couple determined for a slice of something better than what they left behind. The vagrant who followed the country until he came to the end and then stopped. The brilliant Latina held back only by her view of her own thighs. Though you wait for a connection between the stories, it doesn’t come. What does come: tiny bytes of information about the city, its history. Hard facts about historic population expansions, about gang activity, socio-economic everything. More facts, quite possibly, than you ever wanted to know.
And so on. Pages and pages (and pages!) of fact upon frenetic fact. On the one hand, the completely factual aspects of Bright Shiny Morning, so baldly delivered, contribute to the frenetic pace. On the other, it’s impossible not to think about the firestorm that followed the discovery that Frey had fabricated a lot of his non-fiction. So now here we are with a novel in our hands that is stuffed full of facts.
Still, when all is said and done, Bright Shiny Morning is a triumph. Frey has reached into a form where it sometimes feels everything has been done before and very little is truly new and fresh. He’s reached in and stirred things about and left us with something that is original and evokes completely a sliver of geography at a certain moment in time. | July 2008
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture will be published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.