This book was a Christmas present. So I didn’t buy/choose it myself. I went in blind.
James Frey is an American writer, most famous for a memoir about his personal drug addiction called A Million Little Pieces. (I have not read it). It became a bestseller due to the alleged frankness and openness with which he discussed the lowest moments of his life. However, as time wore on, it became apparent that many of the details – specifically the most shocking ones – were less than factual. A national campaign grew, spearheaded (oddly) by Oprah Winfrey, to force Frey to admit what in his book was true, and what was fabrication. If my research serves me correctly, he ended up breaking down as part of a televised interview, and his publisher promised to refund all purchases of the book that had been bought on the strength of its authenticity. Now, to me, the “truth” of a piece of prose is rooted in a sense, in an an idea, of honesty. Whether or not what is being written about actually happened is irrelevant – if you, the reader, can believe it has happened in the world of the narrative, that is the important issue. And, to be honest, I think this is Frey’s opinion too.
In this 2011 novel (never claiming to be anything else) he takes a relatively simple – and some may say silly – idea and plays it through to its conclusion, absolutely straight. What if the Messiah came (back?) to present-day New York. Sounds like a chuckle, sounds like a laugh (when I opened the package I feared this was John Niven’s trashy followup to musicindustryAmericanPsychoripoffathon Kill Your Friends, which is also about “The Second Coming”. And called The Second Coming. That’s a trashy comedy), but it isn’t. Frey writes about a contemporary Messiah, floating amongst the addicts, the prostitutes, the homeless, the desperate, the down and out and the unhappy of the Big Apple. And he plays it straight. Throughout.
One doesn’t have to be a scholar (or a Christian) to recognise familiar figures, themes and plots from the New Testament, but these are not included for sly laughs or ironic jokes, they are not accompanied by knowing winks. When Ben Jones (a deliberately unmemorable name) turns water into wine, it is not a moment of joy, it underscores one of the most unpleasant and violent scenes in the book.
Because what this text is ultimately about is the categorical failure of religion to make people happy. Of the arbitrary nature of “sin” and the afterlife and rules and laws written for societies so different from out own, so long ago. It is ridiculous that people live by, follow, respect, notions that have no real bearing on their lives, and this is what Frey espouses from every page. His Messiah rails against religion, and calls the flock of hustlers and outcasts he develops to redeem themselves through love, physical, sexual love, as a method of creating and sharing happiness. The ultimate spiritual message of the piece is to love, is to live, is to be good to oneself and give as much happiness as one can. Which is such a believable, relevant message for the modern age.
Greed, exploitation, prejudice, hunger, pain, dependency… The world’s a nasty place. And this novel, exploring that, could easily have come across as silly and misjudged and overzealous. But it doesn’t. Maybe if I had any kind of faith I would’ve felt differently. But for me, as a believer in nothing but the now, it spoke sense. And it did so because it took itself seriously without becoming pompous.
James Frey has somehow managed to make a text with a ridiculous premise work. And it does so because it unrelentingly paints a good man, and good actions, against a horrible background. For that is the world we live in.
I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. But I haven’t read anything remotely spiritual in a very long time.