The City of Angels, and Its Demons

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By Steven Moore,
who is the author of several books and essays on contemporary literature
Wednesday, May 14, 2008; Page C01


By James Frey

Harper. 501 pp. $26.95

Because I've been on a fool's errand the past four years writing a history of the novel, I paid little attention to the big publishing scandal of 2006, when James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" was exposed as being closer to fiction than to the heartfelt memoir it was marketed as. I couldn't be bothered with the legal and moral issues because the history of this lawless genre is filled with such dodges. In the 2nd century, a fantastic fiction by the Greek satirist Lucian was cheekily titled a "True History." Both "Robinson Crusoe" and "Gulliver's Travels" were first marketed as nonfiction accounts, and even included prefaces by their publishers swearing to their veracity. More recently, we've had autobiographical novels, the nonfiction novels of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer and some historical novels with more documentation than you find in scholarly tomes. There's always been a blurry line between fiction and nonfiction, and Frey isn't the first or last writer to conga on that line.

In his newest novel -- or, rather, his first book to be marketed as a novel -- the unrepentant author blurs the line further. The first line of text is a disclaimer: "Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable." But in point of fact, this sprawling novel about Los Angeles, where Frey lived in the 1990s, is very accurate and can be considered a reliable guide to "the most diverse, fastest-growing major metropolitan area in the United States," as he writes near the end. I did some spot fact-checking, and nearly everything checked out: There is actually a black gang that calls itself the Harvard Gangster Crips, Californian Glenn Martin did design and fly an airplane as early as 1909, and 1930s L.A. mayor Frank Shaw did literally bomb his critics. There may be others, but the only error I noticed involved a wedding date: An L.A. secretary named Jannene Swift married a large chunk of rock in 1976 (part of the pet rock craze?), not in 1950 as Frey states.

"Bright Shiny Morning" is both a capsule history of Los Angeles and a fictional census of hundreds of its current citizens. The novel alternates between brief milestones in L.A. history, moving chronologically from its founding in 1781 to the year 2000, and countless episodes set in the present (and related in the present tense, which gives them a nervy energy). Some current Angelenos get only a few lines: Allison, an aspiring model, "moved to Los Angeles at 18 to become a Playboy Bunny. Now 19, she works in porn." Some get a paragraph or two, and others a few pages. We get the extended stories of only four representative characters, endlessly interrupted but never intersecting, which gives the novel just enough cohesion to keep it from looking like a kaleidoscopic collage.

Dylan and Maddie, for example, are childhood sweethearts from Ohio, now 19, who drove out to L.A. to avoid their abusive parents. Their nest egg is stolen during their first week there (welcome to L.A.), and we watch as these sweet kids doggedly pursue the American Dream. Old Man Joe, who looks 80 but is only 38, is a bum addicted to Chablis. Amberton Parker is a box office action hero and closet homosexual. Esperanza, the child of illegal immigrants, grows up smart but too poor to attend college, and works as a maid for a tyrannical rich white widow. Only one of these stories turns out well; this isn't a novel with a Hollywood ending.

Structurally, the novel is interesting: It moves simultaneously through time (the historical vignettes) and space (the characters spread all over L.A.). There are lists and other modernist devices, including the unconventional layout, punctuation and telegraphic sentence style of Frey's earlier books. His ambition may have been to write the definitive novel of L.A., to do for that city what Joyce did for Dublin, Dos Passos did for Manhattan or Durrell did for Alexandria. If so, he may have succeeded; Joyce boasted that if Dublin were to disappear, it could be reconstructed from his "Ulysses," and Frey could make the same claim for "Bright Shiny Morning" -- though after reading his grim depiction, most wouldn't think it worth the effort to reconstruct such a place.

But he's not in the same class as those modernists. There's some sloppiness to Frey's writing: We're told twice that the Los Angeles International Airport is called LAX, which most readers don't need to be told at all, and twice that Lincoln Boulevard is nicknamed the Stinkin' Lincoln. In too many places he drops the narrative's impersonal tone and indulges in wisecracks that mostly fall flat. Some sections, like the one on L.A.'s Skid Row, read like magazine pieces, and he has an annoying habit of repeating phrases for poetic emphasis: "It's the American way, the American way." He sacrifices depth for breadth, for a CinemaScopic view of the city that both exemplifies and exploits the cliches about the mythological lure of the West and L.A. as the Land of Dreams.

But "Bright Shiny Morning" reads quickly, has great dialogue and some expertly paced dramatic moments, teaches you more about L.A. than you ever knew, and makes the case (posited by an artist near the end) that Los Angeles is the new New York, on its way to becoming the cultural capital of the world. Or it could all be a stinging satire of the most violent, corrupt, polluted, pretentious, money-mad place in America. Works either way.

I understand that Mr. Frey currently lives in New York.

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