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The unfortunate spread of James Frey

May 17, 2010 |  1:08 pm

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On Saturday, the French Consulate, with assistance from UCLA's department of French and Francophone studies, presented a day of literature from France and Los Angeles. The events, which were either in English or in French with English translation, were nevertheless packed full of French expatriates -- there are more than 30,000 in Los Angeles. The star of the show was onetime memoirist James Frey.

Other American authors who participated, such as Steve Erickson, acclaimed author of 10 books, and Richard Lange, a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow, are both published in France. But as French writer Jean Rolin noted, it's Frey who has caught the attention of French readers, particularly teenagers. Moderator Olivier Barrot, a well-known French literary critic, introduced Frey's most recent book, "Bright Shiny Morning," as being like John Dos Passos' work in ambition and scope.

This is hardly the reception the novel received in Los Angeles. "'Bright Shiny Morning' is an execrable novel," wrote Times book editor David L. Ulin, "a literary train wreck without even the good grace to be entertaining."

The book, which interweaves stories of several Angelenos -- an actor with a secret, a Latina maid, a homeless drunk, two young Midwesterners who've stolen money from a motorcycle gang -- includes short encyclopedia-like interludes with facts about the city. "One thing I should say about all that historical, statistical and demographic information is it's not all true," Frey said on his panel Saturday. "Some of it I just made up." The audience laughed loudly. "I'm very well known for making ... up," Frey continued. "I do it brazenly, and without apology, and I'm going to keep doing it."

That, of course, is also not all true. Frey, whose memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," turned out to be more than a little fictionalized, found himself on Oprah's couch explaining for his misrepresentation.

Misrepresenting one's own history is one thing; misrepresenting a whole city is another matter. Ulin's review explains:

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....

How do we reckon with a novel in which the desire to become an actress is treated as original and organic, in which the only Mexican American character is a maid?

How do we reckon with a book in which the city is flat and lifeless as a stage set, in which Frey uses broad generalizations ("Thirty-thousand Persians fleeing the rule of the ayatollahs. One-hundred and twenty-five thousand Armenians escaping Turkish genocide. Forty-thousand Laotians avoiding minefields. Seventy-five thousand Thais none in Bangkok sex shows.") to try to animate what his imagination cannot?

Yes, this is Los Angeles, in the way a cheap Hollywood movie is Los Angeles: superficial, a collection of loose impressions that don't add up.

In France, "Bright Shiny Morning" was published with the title "L.A. Story." More than simply being a lousy book that has found an enthusiastic foreign audience, it's one that purports to tell the story of Los Angeles.

"I wanted to write a book about L.A. that wasn't really about crime, and that wasn't really about Hollywood, but that was about the city that I loved, and that I lived in for a long time, and that I thought deserved serious literary treatment," Frey said Saturday.

Such a book is overdue only if you don't count the work of Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, Nathaniel West, Michael Connelly, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James M. Cain, James Ellroy, Carolyn See, Wanda Coleman, Walter Mosley, Pico Iyer, Joan Didion and the many, many other authors who've given Los Angeles "serious literary treatment."

"I'm pretentious enough to think that's what I tried to do," Frey said. "I tried to write a great book about what I consider a great American city." I only hope Frey hasn't convinced the readers of France that his shallow, stereotypical version of L.A. is the truth.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: James Frey, with microphone, speaking on a panel organized by the French Consulate on May 15. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg


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