In 2006, James Frey rocked the literary world with A Million Little Pieces, the supposedly autobiographical chronicle of a substance-abusing criminal life so fraught with emotion-grabbing high drama that it earned the Oprah Book Club Imprimatur and became a publishing phenomenon, right up until the moment people began to question just how autobiographical the story was, and Oprah publicly took Frey to task for “duping” her and a million little readers.
Frey has since suggested that he was not to blame for how the book was marketed, and has complained about becoming a literary “pariah.” He did manage to publish again, though, enjoying a modest success with Bright Shiny Morning, which was released as a “first novel,” and managed to generate a little buzz within the Frey-curious coastal enclaves before sinking out of sight.
So far, so good for a “pariah,” right? Managing a respectable book launch after having cast the bright, shiny world of arts and letters into tones of blush-and-blue might be expected to put heart into a writer; to send him back to the keyboard and the blank page with a renewed appreciation for the luck and privilege of being published and read, when so many good writers toil forever in anonymity. That sense of gratitude—that one gets to make one’s living via at-home-word-frolics, which is so much better than actually having to go out to work—might inspire a writer to stretch himself, to reach into his depths and bring forth something both true and instructive, entertaining and ennobling.
Sadly, if reports are to be believed, a renewed appreciation of privilege seems nowhere evident in Frey’s latest book, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, wherein Frey has apparently reached into his depths and brought forth . . . a petulant fourteen-year-old with an incurious, lazy mind and low-range reasoning skills. In various media reports we read that Frey’s messianic protagonist, Ben Jones, is a lonely alcoholic bachelor, living in filth.
A “horrific” accident on the job, followed by odd happenings, leads to his being recognized as a pot-smoking, prostitute-patronizing, guy-kissing messiah who—oddly echoing journalist Ezra Klein’s impromptu thoughts on the U.S. Constitution—calls the Bible “antiquated” and says, “The Bible was written 2,000 years ago. The world is a different place now. Stories that had meaning then are meaningless now . . . those books are dead.”
Well, to be fair, this is a pot-smoking messiah, so these sorts of apathetic ideas may be nothing more than meandering ramblings under the influence, but if that’s true, there appear to be a lot of them: “Faith is what you use to oppress, to justify, to judge in the name of God . . . a means to rationalize more evil in this world than anything in history. If there were a devil, faith would be his greatest invention.”
Precisely the sort of staggering profundity one hears in the bushes, outside the ditched math class, where the kid with the most facial hair reigns as the voice of wisdom.
I was unsurprised to read that this book—which will debut in a small run of only 11,000, underwritten by uber-gallery owner Larry Gagosian, with Frey self-publishing the inevitable second printing—is scheduled for release on Good Friday. But of course! A dull and unoriginal quest for attention demands a provocative launch-date, but I suspect Frey will not find his book greeted by the howling mobs of Christians he apparently hopes to see riled.
“I’m sure the religious right will go crazy because the story of Ben . . . is hardly the Messiah they have in mind. But I don’t really care. I just did what I always do—tried to write the best book I could.” Oh, come now, Mr. Frey; you do care, enormously; you hope for nothing less than the equivalent of a Christian call to Fatwa and all the attendant attention, acclaim and sympathy such an event would engender among those whose favor you would curry.
How disappointed you will be to find your daring-do responded to with wide, noisy yawns and quiet, rather quaintly uttered prayers.
I don’t want to be too hard on Frey. It appears to me that he is a talented writer who feels somehow driven to establish himself within the ranks of marijuana-inspired-rant-appreciating mediocrities and lazy-thinking perpetual adolescents. If the reports are accurate, Frey is choosing to tap out a tired and apathetic idea, instead of tantalizing us with a thoughtful and transcendent one.
In reading the brief synopsis, it occurs to me that The Final Testament of the Holy Bible sounds like it could in fact be Frey’s genuine autobiography: the difficult first-act, the “work accident,” then the aimless grandiosity. I wonder where it leads, though?
One almost hopes—I actually do hope—that this silly and sad report is a red-herring, and that Frey is working a bait-and-switch, here; that his readers will find themselves introduced not to an uninteresting and wasted self-savior who is as bored and directionless as the rest of the world, but a true light, a beacon who beckons us toward something greater than the world-weary musings of a seventh-grader; an idea that can help us find redemptive meaning in our sufferings and our crucibles, and the endless misery we all see before us, across the world and in our day-to-days.
The world needs hear that there is value and purpose to its sufferings, and something glorious yet to come. A testament that could deliver such a message—that would be a book worth reading.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.