A Book For Our Times, Alas

Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey. John Murray, 2008, $33.

“Welcome to L.A. City of contradictions,” the blurb greets you. Like “Welcome to the Valley of the Tweed, Valley of Contrasts”, but a bit snappier, perhaps. Not that 500 pages of contradictions is that snappy, though some of the pages contain a lot of white space and just a few lines about the history of Los Angeles. This is clearly meant to be the portrait of a city. What Balzac and Victor Hugo did for Paris, and Dickens for London. Now it is Los Angeles’ turn.

There are four narrative threads schematically ranging from the very rich to the homeless, from movie stars to a cleaner and a couple of runaways. Their paths never cross. This is not one of those intricately plotted novels, with sub-plots making meaningful connections. There are no connections here, nor much meaning. It is not a matter of sub-plots mirroring or paralleling a main narrative and offering comic, satiric, or tragic illumination. Not like the old Bard used to do it. Perhaps it is intended to illuminate LA, the city without a centre.

Amberton is a superstar, married to a superstar wife, but they live their separate lives in different parts of their mansion. Amberton is gay, though this is a secret to the public. He puts the hard word and more on Kevin, who is black and works in the agency representing Amberton. Kevin protests but surrenders sufficiently to obtain the incontrovertible evidence to sue Amberton for fifty million dollars. At the novel’s end they seem to have settled for twenty million. Meanwhile in other parallel plots the young male runaway seems to have been murdered for stealing a wad of notes from a biker. The Hispanic cleaner with thick thighs has found true love with the nerdish son of the horrible old woman she cleaned for. And Joe the homeless man has been involved in a brawl and his young friend Lemonade is killed. There is a fair bit of sex and violence. But also compassion and a sense of social injustice.

And then there are the notes. The research. The lists. Names, inconsequential events, historical snippets, the white noise of Trivial Pursuit or Ripley’s Believe it or Not. It is as if someone at his publishers said to James Frey, “OK, time is running out, show us how much you’ve got.” And like many a writer or PhD student, he gathered up his photocopies and downloads and printouts and notes and old index-cards and put them with what he had written, a handful of fragmentary drafts, and it bulked it out a bit, well quite considerably. And someone had the bright idea, let’s publish it like it is. It’ll be, like, avant-garde. Collage. Intertextuality. Found objects. De-mystification. Documentary. Free from the tyranny of form or plot, let’s print it as it is.

I think this is more likely than the alternative: that the publishers went and printed the wrong pile or the wrong file, and the slender little unconnected strands got mixed up with all the working notes and undigested assembly of more than you ever wanted to know about LA, as if you ever wanted that much anyway. Although it is not unknown for publishers to make mistakes like that.

And that would be no mistake, that would be parlayed into spontaneity, improvisation, randomness. An art form for our present times. And what times they are. Of course, the whole assemblage might have been laboriously constructed to simulate that preferred contemporary entertainment experience, surfing pay-TV and surfing the web. So that one darn thing follows another, reality show becomes news becomes soap opera becomes crime documentary becomes movie becomes news becomes history, as you sit there clicking the remote. The material of Bright Shiny Morning is just that sort of material. It could be that the four story strands are all true. But they don’t read like they’re true, they read like they’re television.

On balance I think we are meant to treat this as a work of Art. Of Experiment. Of the New. Though at the same time commercially mainstream. There are no quotation marks used when people speak. This has been a traditional sign of the experimental and the new for a century and more. The lack of indentation in paragraphing is another mark of the new, something that arose in the course of computerisation. I read these two absences as a mark of conscious intention, not of ignorance. But you never know. Not with a city of contradictions.

Michael Wilding’s novels include Academia Nuts (Wild & Woolley) and National Treasure (CQUP).

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