Give James Frey some credit. If you had been humiliated by Oprah Winfrey on television in front of who-knows-how-many-million viewers, you might still be hiding under the bed. If your name became cultural shorthand for "man who invents lots of details in his memoir," you might change that name and permanently move to another country, preferably one that didn't carry "Oprah." But the author of "A Million Little Pieces"—the questionable memoir in question—is made of sterner stuff. In the wake of that public shaming two years ago, he picked himself up, got another agent, landed a new book contract and completed a novel, "Bright Shiny Morning," which is being published this month.
That's the good news—good, as in nobody likes a quitter. The bad news is the novel's no good. Frey's first two books, including "My Friend Leonard," strained credulity on almost every page—the dental surgery without painkillers, the lovable gangster in rehab who adopts the author. Such incidents, you kept thinking, must be true, precisely because they seemed so unbelievable. But when you put that same writer's talents to work in a novel without the crutch of purported truth, things wobble between threadbare and preposterous.
"Bright Shiny Morning" is a sprawling (501 pages) novel about Los Angeles. It contains not just one plot but several, each racing along in its own lane, each featuring a different socioeconomic swatch—movie stars, immigrants, bums—a real equal-opportunity cast. The multiple stories alternate with small chapters recounting the city's history, beginning with its days as a Spanish mission. Frey wants to capture the soul of this disparate city without a center on paper, and the only way he knows how to do that is to gather as many elements as he can find and shovel them all into the novel. His thesis seems to be that Los Angeles is not one story but many, and that we understand the place only by seeing how it survives without cohering. Stop me if you've heard this.
In the opening pages, we're stampeded by a crowd of people, some of whom we'll keep company with for the duration, others who are only drive-by acquaintances, never to be seen again. We meet a runaway teenage couple from Ohio. We meet a man who through luck and pluck starts a mini-golf empire. We meet a wino with a particular fondness for Chablis. We meet a family of Mexican illegals whose daughter is born as soon as they cross the border. And we meet a movie star, Amberton Parker. When Amberton appears, the breathless prose starts to pant in earnest:
"Born in Chicago, the scion of a great midwestern meatpacking family.
"Educated at St. Paul's, Harvard.
"Moves to New York lands a starring role in a Broadway drama in his first audition. The play opens to brilliant reviews and wins ten Tony awards."
The résumé goes on for a page, as the star conquers Hollywood, and closes with:
"He is an American hero.
"Symbol of truth and justice, honesty and integrity.
If you can abide the style—Frey was plainly frightened by a comma as a child and still avoids them whenever possible—you still have the author's miniseries sensibility to contend with. There's the insecure Mexican-American domestic (ashamed of her big thighs) who works for a witchy rich lady in Pasadena. There's the wino who wants to do just one good deed to redeem his life. There's the young couple that falls afoul of a biker gang. There is enough material here for four or five potboilers, but Frey, spellbound by the idea of an epic mosaic, can't stop himself. Readers may decide otherwise.
The sad thing is, "Bright Shiny Morning" could have been better. When he has a subject that engages him, Frey can write. A chapter about the Los Angeles freeways gives each of them a distinct personality, a mythology, a fabled history. Frey seems genuinely engaged with his material and, as a result, his prose comes to life in a way that it rarely does elsewhere in this literary pile-up. He might not get a majestic saga out of traffic patterns, but it could have been a lot more fun to read a modest book on something that truly obsessed him. Instead, we got a book stuffed with depthless characters, plots we already knew by heart and a writer in way over his head. Frey opens his novel with a disclaimer: "Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable." OK, that's funny. But it doesn't get him off the hook. Novels aren't supposed to be factually verifiable, but they should ring true. This one doesn't.