they come to live with Angels and chase their dreams

That’s James Frey writing, in Bright Shiny Morning, a huge, sprawling metropolis of a novel, an LA novel, maybe the LA novel. It’s as fragmented and made of shards of life and dreams as the city itself, as America, the world, our consciousnesses. It’s a million little pieces of existence, a thousand synapses firing while the soul of it all – big, brash, beautiful, brutal LA – emerges as a hidden quality gradually brought into the bright light of day, from the artificial neon of the night into the fierce light of Frey’s insight. Through Frey’s freewheeling narrative we see haunted souls, dreams moving just beyond their ability to grasp them, just beyond their capacity to dream them; humanity doing what humanity always does: reaching for something other. The dreaming and the reaching in this novel occur in one of the most brutal arenas in which hopes could possibly come to compete with others, the city of angels, of the unflinching guardians of dreams. Interspersed or entwined with the stories of the many is the story of LA itself, from its first settlement in the 1700s through to the modern day; Frey allows himself free rein to insert key historical and sociological moments from the city’s history into the other narratives, each of which in itself adds something to the momentum of this city ravenously consuming the land around it, the resources, the people, their souls, their dreams. All of it may be true; it may all be nothing at all. As Frey is careful to point out in the opening pages of the novel, “nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable.” Whether his facts are really that, or modified versions of the truth, is not important. The emotional truth is the thing. And in this monstrous collection of stories, Frey has constructed a fragmented masterpiece from which emotional truth emerges, despite, or, let’s face it, because of, the fractured structure of the whole. Frey concentrates on four central narratives, five if you count the city itself, but there are many more rushing past us in a torrent of humanity, brief glimpses of a moment in a life soon replaced by another, like flashes of the sun on the Pacific. It’s the nature of humanity and capacity to dream that underlies this enterprise at the deepest level; but closer to the surface, these many narratives are held together by the most important character, Los Angeles. Just as Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days was unified by the poetry of Walt Whitman, Bright Shiny Morning is a novel about LA, and its fragments are made whole by the overwhelming presence of the city. It’s a complex example of the fragmented novel. When Frey says that nothing should be considered reliable, he might also be referring to the publisher’s and bookseller’s labels – this is memoir, that is fiction. Those labels are as unreliable as remembered truths may or may not be. Is this a novel? Is this a collection of stories, some of which may only last for a paragraph, some for a few pages, and some for the duration of the entire work? Is it more fragmented even that that, thousands of shards laid together to form something larger than themselves, like a collection of poems that is really many things but is published as one thing. Does it matter what we call it? Artists convey emotional truths; it is others who decide how to categorize the results. Even the process itself, from creation to publication, is a series of fragmented experiences, the end result of which is a nicely packaged product, a bright shiny novel that of course is one thing because you can just pick it up, one object that belies the thousands of aspects that went into its existence; you may sit there in the coffee shop reading this novel, and actually you are consuming many stories, many lives, many dreams. Bright Shiny Morning is a novel, a great one, but not in the sense that we used to think of novels; the hierarchies are changing, because that is what hierarchies do. We cannot stop them. In 2008, monolithic entities hold less sway than fleet of foot, swiftly moving new forms; twenty-first century concepts that are mutable, and ever-changing.

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