Hang on tight.
James Frey has written a memoir disguised as a novel about his first novel that was disguised as a memoir. But the only thing you really need to know about “Katerina” is that it’s ridiculous, a book so heated by narcissism that you have to read it wearing oven mitts.
If you’re prone to sympathetic vomiting, you’ll want a smock, too, because most of what the inebriated narrator does in this novel is vomit. He vomited when he got up, he has vomited after sex, he vomits looking for alcohol, he will vomit while drinking — he’s a full conjugation of the verb “to vomit.”
Which is also the theme here. “Katerina” offers a volcanic regurgitation of Frey’s dream of writing a bestseller, his descent into addiction and the literary scandal that made him infamous. The author seems to believe that his fall from grace is burned into America’s consciousness like the fall of Saigon, but a little background is probably necessary:
In 2003, an unknown young writer named James Frey published his first book, a searing memoir about alcohol and drug rehabilitation called “A Million Little Pieces.” Two years later, Oprah picked it for her book club, which led to a massive spike in sales — and skeptical attention. As questions about the book’s veracity increased, Frey and his publisher insisted the story was essentially true. But in 2006, after a devastating exposé by the Smoking Gun, Oprah confronted Frey on her show. “I feel that you conned us all,” said the talk-show queen.
By the standards of today’s reflexive presidential lying, Frey’s fabrications sound quaint, but during that bygone innocent era, some people felt genuine shock at the revelation that a memoirist would invent details of his life story. Op-ed writers thundered. Lawsuits were filed. The publisher offered refunds to outraged readers.
“Katerina” takes place before and after Frey’s lucrative humiliation. In 2017, the narrator, Jay, is a wealthy writer in Los Angeles whining about his unfulfilling life and career. “They give me stupid amounts of money. I do what they want and give them what they pay me for and I hate myself,” he says. “And I hate myself. Every single minute of every single day. Hate myself.”
If you’re a careful reader, you may be getting the impression that he hates himself, but in fact, Jay presents a kind of puritanical egoism sustained by constant bragging about Who Shall Be Most Debased. And in that contest, he will concede no equals. His agent can’t cheer him up: “You were the most famous writer in the world,” he tells Jay in an orgy of sycophancy that’s impressive even by L.A. standards. But Jay’s not having it. “Stare at an empty screen and hate myself,” he says. “It’s what I do.”
Then, without warning, a voice from the distant past comes over Facebook to interrupt his wallowing: “Do you ever think of me?” What follows in alternating chapters are mind-numbing transcripts of Jay’s text messages with Katerina, a gorgeous model he once knew in Paris. She calls him Writer Boy, and he calls her Model Girl:
I think that’s enough.
Hi Hi Hi Hi Hi Hi
Should I just give up?
What are you doing?
If you don’t have a 13-year-old in your house, this exchange might strike you as truly innovative, but others will be grateful that we don’t stay here long. Most of the novel takes place in the early 1990s, when young Jay flies to Paris with $19,200 to absorb the lingering artistic energy of Hemingway et al. “I came seeking and searching,” he writes, “lost and hungry, desirous of and desperate for books and art and madness and love, desperate for life for life for life desperate.” With no job and no responsibilities, Jay is determined to write books that will, as he repeats again and again, “burn the world down.” His books will “change people,” he predicts. “How they think and feel and live. How they view the world, how they view themselves. Books that confront them. Books that scare them.”
What that means in practice is that Jay gets drunk and high and has sex with lots of beautiful women who are always throwing themselves at him — in his apartment, in bathrooms, in bars, in dark corners. All this carousing cuts deeply into Jay’s writing time, but the real problem here is a total lack of irony and authorial detachment. Instead of regarding Jay as the comically pretentious and melodramatic cliche that he is, “Katerina” presents this young man as a singularly tragic hero. “I have a black heart,” he says, “but sometimes it sings, and sometimes there are stars in it,” which is a line so precious that somewhere I’m certain a unicorn just farted. And there are hundreds of such lines here from this tortured artiste, who’s always nattering on about his literary destiny, about his soul and his spirit and his heart, and about how much easier life would be if he were merely ordinary.
I don’t know if his life would be easier, but his prose would be better if he actually looked at anything, if he tried to capture on the page something specific and fresh about his experience instead of leaning on a few trite rhetorical flourishes. For all its factual deception, there was a visceral immediacy to “A Million Little Pieces,” which made that book scream instead of merely sigh.
Toward the end of “Katerina,” older Jay tells his lost lover how sorry he is that he once concocted large parts of his memoir (which was really about God, he claims). But once again, it’s just more grandiosity, more superlatives tarted up with a glaze of humility: “I became the most divisive, most controversial, most polarizing writer in the world.”
Dream on, Writer Boy.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By James Frey. 320 pp. $26.99.