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Book Review: Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey

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The proverbial Mount Everest for fiction writers is publishing a worthwhile collection of short stories. Verily, the dreaded short story collection has left many a writer a huddled frozen mummy on its desolate arctic slope. But the author who can successfully pull off the deadly expedition of the short story collection does a rare and difficult thing.

With that being said, collections of short stories (especially multi-author ones) might conjure up negative stereotypes for some readers. Reading these collections can be an experience like being a passenger of a driver taking their first shot at operating a stick shift. The collections can be a wacky zoo of narratives, a network of vanishing trails of ideas, or a riotous sale bin of irregular fables often created by writers who will never write again and for good reason. But I ask you to cleanse your palette of any negative reference you might have of the short story collection as a literary work and urge you to trek into the blushing dawn of this short story collection because it is a destination like no other.

There really isn’t a better candidate to tackle the frosty looming monster categorized as the short story collection than James Frey. He isn’t a newbie cutting his teeth on an obscure literary format, he is an established writer who has been there, done that, and left some bestsellers to prove it. Bright Shiny Morning is James Frey’s newest ascent. If his name isn’t familiar to you, he is the writer who can claim the perplexing honor of being toasted and then roasted by the Queen of Media – Oprah Winfrey – after an oversight was discovered concerning his work A Million Little Pieces. Without going into detail about the sin and in defense of James Frey, isn’t a falsehood just a truth yet to manifest? And wasn’t anything learnt from The Scarlet Letter as critics pin the infamous “A” on the chest of Mr. Frey for his adulterous relationship with fiction and nonfiction? Nathaniel Hawthorne is rolling in his grave.

The stories center around and take place in fair Los Angeles, a city like some cockeyed Rene Descartes maxim – it dreams therefore it is. Since there are multiple story lines in Bright Shiny Morning it is more than a mere Dickensian rags to riches tale or a Balzacian yarn of Lost Illusions in the big city. It’s more than one story and like Los Angeles itself it has more than one life. Although the stories differ and characters span the class and cultural strata there is a subtle equality of the characters’ struggles and motivations that unites them all not simply as fellow la-la landers but on a more raw and human level. Some stories are brief and modest, ending as gently as they begin; they create a sort of unique consistent rhythm of the human condition. Other resident stories grow and expand throughout the book following the lives of such diverse characters as a noble homeless man, lovers from Ohio, a self-esteem bruised daughter of Mexican immigrants, and a showbiz Caligula.

But, wait, there’s more. Like those infomercials that offer free gifts, Bright Shiny Morning is also the personal story of a city. Squeezed in between the parables of its populace is the sordid and triumphant past of the second largest city in the United States. Fact geeks will love the garnish of truly enticing trivia about LA. Some historical trivia will be familiar to the reader such as uprisings from racial pressure or the city’s perpetual combat with mother nature. And some trivia will be new to the reader, such as the city’s intentional disregard for a plan to manage traffic dating back to the 1950s. The effect of this factual effrontery is that on its own merits LA has a worthwhile story of its own to tell.

Bright Shiny Morning is a provoking survey of LA dreams. The book is populated by characters who share the warmth of possibility as much as they share the warmth of the California sun. Possibility is one of the most important motifs of the book. Possibility permeates the characters and stories and creates a sanctuary for its dreams and dreamers. Dreams are nothing without the possibility of pursuing them and that requires a place to pursue them in. For the world over, Los Angeles is place to pursue dreams; it is like one of the characters in the book says about LA: “It’s possible here.”

Bright Shiny Morning is published by Harper Perennial and is now available for purchase. Other works by James Frey include My Friend Leonard and A Million Little Pieces.

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About James O'Neil