Wednesday, May 14, 2008

silly hackneyed morning

After the Love and Consequences scandal broke, I linked to an LA Observed post by Nancy Rommelmann in which she suggests that New Yorkers may be willing to accept ludicrous stories about LA because they don't know any better.

The book, based on the review by Michiku Kakutani, strained all credibility; the characters, dialogue, heartbreaks and denouement were stereotypical to the point of cartoonish. It eluded me how Kakutani could characterize the work as, “humane and deeply effecting.” Reading a follow-up piece in the Times, by Mimi Read, who with a straight face quoted Jones as saying, “One of the first things I did once I started making drug money was to buy a burial plot,” I thought, how is it possible that a New York Times reporter believes this?

When the book was exposed, nearly in real time, as a hoax, I figured out at least one of the reasons why those in New York who’d bought and published and lauded "Love and Consequences" were able to do so with a clear-ish conscience: the stories did not sound made-up to them. To a New Yorker, black foster mothers in South Central are, naturally, called Big Mom. Little girls who’ve been sexually abused show up with blood on their panties. And do 13-year-olds buy their own burial plots? In LA, they do. And if those pesky things called “facts” couldn’t be checked, it’s not their fault, but the fault of Jones’s family members and friends all being dead or in prison. Duh.

Despite the fact that I wrote an entire dissertation partly based on the premise that Los Angeles is tragically misunderstood, there's a part of me that refuses to believe this is still the case, especially in a city like New York that prides itself on its authenticity and sophistication. Yet the East Coast press and the publishing industry continue to buy (literally, for 1.5 million dollars) ludicrous generalizations about Los Angeles. That's why I thoroughly enjoyed David Ulin's smackdown of the new James Frey book - supposedly a "a sweeping chronicle of contemporary Los Angeles that is bold, exhilarating, and utterly original." There are some choice excerpts below that illustrate my point, but you can read the whole review here.
"Bright Shiny Morning" is a terrible book. One of the worst I've ever read. But you have to give James Frey credit for one thing: He's got chutzpah. Two and a half years after he was eviscerated by Oprah Winfrey for exaggerating many of the incidents in his now-discredited memoir "A Million Little Pieces," he's back with this book, which aims to be the big novel about Los Angeles, a panoramic look at the city that seeks to tell us who we are and how we live..."Bright Shiny Morning" is an execrable novel, a literary train wreck without even the good grace to be entertaining.


That's the issue with "Bright Shiny Morning" -- or one of them, anyway. Frey seems to know little about Los Angeles and to have no interest in it as a real place where people wrestle with actual life. There are obligatory riffs on freeways and natural disasters and a chapter on visual artists that lists "the highest price ever paid for a piece of their work in a public auction." There are also occasional installments of "Fun Facts" about the city, as if to give the illusion of a certain depth. Did you know that it is "illegal to lick a toad within the city limits of Los Angeles"? Neither did I. But I also don't know what this has to do with the larger story of the novel, except as another example of L.A. as odd and quirky, a territory in which we all "live with Angels and chase their dreams."


How do we reckon with a novel in which the desire to become an actress is treated as original and organic, in which the only Mexican American character is a maid?

How do we reckon with a book in which the city is flat and lifeless as a stage set, in which Frey uses broad generalizations ("Thirty-thousand Persians fleeing the rule of the ayatollahs. One-hundred and twenty-five thousand Armenians escaping Turkish genocide. Forty-thousand Laotians avoiding minefields. Seventy-five thousand Thais none in Bangkok sex shows.") to try to animate what his imagination cannot?

Yes, this is Los Angeles, in the way a cheap Hollywood movie is Los Angeles: superficial, a collection of loose impressions that don't add up.