Monday, April 18, 2011

Enter James Frey through the High Art Door

James Frey (Photo Credit)
  I learned today that James Frey is coming out with a new novel, which Gagosian Gallery will publish in a limited run of 11,000 copies (A purposefully small run. Let's create demand, kids! But you know, on the other hand, just in case it doesn't sell, we aren't out so awful much.)

And while I call it a new novel, it had been part of the two-book deal (later abandoned by Riverhead Books) that followed publication of A Million Little Pieces. Perhaps not surprisingly, the book, titled Final Testament, has a central character who is reputed to be a contemporary messiah with a multitude of issues, including regular epileptic seizures. Here again, Frey revels in controversy...perhaps the ultimate controversy: religion. This only seems natural since it might be tough to trump his previous performance. The title alone, which indicates (1) the work's elevation to the level of holy text, (2) that it is the 'final' word on the subject, and (3) alludes to a person's enduring legacy, is in itself highly polemic. According to Art in America, the novel has already garnered the author threats in the UK. You can read a chapter segment, called "Matthew" here. (Also, kids, note the name of Frey's website: "Big Jim Industries"....has this always been his goal? The writing was not an end in itself, but instead he would like to turn creative production, even the creative production of others into an industrial-sized, money-making enterprise?)

What am I afraid of here? That James is writing about himself. Let me explain: Frey's main character, Ben, is "flattened by a piece of plate glass" that falls on him at a construction site early in the story. He survives and wakes from a coma to find that he has become a miracle worker. Could the plate glass be a metaphor for the anvil of wrath that fell on him after A Million Little Pieces was exposed as largely fictional? Apparently, he was so hounded by photographers and class-action lawsuits following his harrowing dress-down by Oprah that he was forced to take refuge in France. Now, let's look at his 'post-crucifixion' experience: he's still part of the literary world because people still write articles about his production. I would say his status as literary outcast (a title that frequently preceeds his name) is--if not always, then frequently--in air quotes. Sure, it's used as often for him as Mr. or Ms. is for others, but it's what perpetuates his bad-boy caché. Didn't he previously color himself as an outcast--a recovered outlaw, who saw the light and cleaned himself up?

Remember, the man refers to himself as Big Jim. Yes, yes, this may be an attempt to heal the wounded soul and to project an image of vital importance, but still....outcast? I'm skeptical. In 2007, Harper Collins published Bright Shiny Morning. In 2010, he co-produced (again, involving controversy over the exploitation of MFA candidates seeking publication) the movie I Am Number Four.

Well, let's take a look at Frey's description of Final Testament. Specifically, try out this explanatory line from Frey's site:

"[Ben] proceeds to roam the city and surrounding areas, reuniting with estranged family members, shooting buckets of miracle cum into the orifices of a wide variety of women and men who afterward will be happy forever, denounces the Bible and other organized religion, speaks to the entity humans understand to be God and tells them that He isn’t going to save them, warns that the end is nigh, generally has a good time doing whatever he fancies, and advises others to do so as long as nobody gets hurt." (Frey)

Really, the scary thing is--even if this is a veiled self-portrait of Frey and his virtual resurrection in the literary world (by entering through the high art door propped open for him at Gagosian)--it also points to the tacit message that devalues the notion of the future. Even though it's been positively reviewed by The Financial Times, the book's message seems filled with overwrought millenial angst and appears entirely devoid of hope. It's a message all too familiar, too overplayed in the popular media, which can be every bit as scurrilous and venal as Frey himself has been accused of. So then--what more can we really learn from this book that hasn't already been communicated by other means? Is there something to the book's theme and aura besides controversy?

It brings me right back to a question I often ask myself: what is the role of the writer in society? Do books like Final Testament contribute to constructive dialogue, or is it just another product on the conveyor belts at Big Jim Industries?

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