Monday, May 12, 2008

A second act (from a third book)

Janet Maslin in the NYT likes James Frey's new novel, and for reasons, at least in the context of the review, that I would agree with.

In a weird sort of way, Frey can be read as the victim of his first book, and as much as I think that he deserved the backlash, I think his publisher deserved, and didn't get, every bit as much criticism as Frey did. Frey tried to sell his book to publishers as a novel, and it was a bad novel, a novel that wouldn't have been published without the nonfiction hook that Nan A. Talese gave it. Damn Frey for inhabiting that hook. Damn him for selling his book as a recovery program, which has the potential to genuinely hurt people. Damn him for the fact that he gets to keep all the money that his lousy, fraudulently marketed book made.

But there's nothing wrong with writing a bad novel. Most people do, and write several of them before finally writing a good one. Most of these bad novels languish rightfully in the drawers of their authors' desks and are burned after the good novel is finally written.

Frey made a mistake, and he has suffered for it. Furthermore, since A Million Little Pieces is still in circulation, he will continue to suffer. Frey has deserved to suffer, but I am willing to consider the possibility that he has suffered enough.

There were easy ways a cynical, sentimental crybaby like the million little pieces guy could have told Esperanza’s part of the story. Crisis, violence, redemption, whatever: that’s what he knew about. That’s what he wrote about. That’s what he passed off as nonfiction. That’s why he sounded as if he’d seen too many lousy movies.

So the Bright Shiny Morning guy did it differently. He let the little vignette play out against a big, gaudy, dangerous Southern California backdrop, full of drug-dealing gang-bangers, full of schemers, phonies, rich with a history of robber barons, all of it listed here, all of it stacking the deck against any generosity of spirit. The son steals the maid’s virtue? Been there, read that. They plot against the old lady? Been there too. This novelist wanted something else for Esperanza: he wanted to honor her, fall in love with her, do it with startling sincerity. He wanted to save her.

And it worked.

That’s how James Frey saved himself.

In the end, a bad novel shouldn't preclude the possibility of a good one.

No comments: