Sunday, May 11, 2008

This Time It's Fiction? James Frey Returns

Remember the brouhaha surrounding James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces"? Well, he's back, and this time it's fictional. Apparently it's also crap.

Newsweek has the story, and a rather uncomplimentary review

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.

I wrote about the Frey blowup after it, and the baffling case of "J. T. Leroy" ("Author" of "Sarah"), erupted. Apparently, Frey's memoir was originally written as a novel, but it didn't get anywhere when cast as such. Back then, I reported that:

"A Million Little Pieces" ... just tells us what we already "know" - any white junkie can kick the habit (even if he never really kicks it) with a lot of toughness and grit.

That's what Frey's novel was about, apparently. The 17 publishers who turned it down did so because they'd heard it all before. Then - according to Frey - someone at the 18th hole in the golf course said "say it's all true, Jimbo," and he did.

What's Newsweek's beef with "Bright Shiny Morning?"

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.

*ahem* Some of the best fiction out there is preposterous, lest we forget the stylings of Chuck Palahniuk (whose new novel, "Snuff," comes out May 20th). So why is it so bad that what he's written is so unbelievable?

I'm wondering if Frey's comma-less, slappy style just works better for the "truth" you find in a memoir, but sounds terrible when cast as fiction. Non-fiction should have a certain immediacy to it: you're not telling some fish story, after all, you're telling _the_ story that actually took place. On the other hand, while fiction can be told in that same style, it often works better if you don't write it as a memoir, unless you've got a real knack for that kind of style. It's hard to pull off, these days.

Still, it's Newsweek. I'll have to crack a look at it when it comes in to the store and see if it's really that bad, at least now that I know I'm not supposed to believe it.


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