No Thanks for the Memories

Katerina BY James Frey. Gallery/Scout Press. Hardcover, 320 pages. $26.

The cover of Katerina

The back cover of my review copy of Katerina describes it as “James Frey’s highly anticipated new novel, his first in ten years.” This assertion, maybe unsurprisingly for a Frey production, is not exactly true; depending on how you count, Frey has written as many as thirteen novels since 2008. Right there from his Amazon author page I can buy Frey’s The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, a novel in which a contemporary, bisexual, and extremely horny Jesus offers a searing critique of modern society, published in 2011 by the Gagosian Gallery and available in paperback, electronic, and imitation-leather editions. If clothbound is more my speed, there’s any one of six Endgame books, including Sky Key, cowritten with Nils Johnson-Shelton and published in 2015 (“Great balance of goriness and sensitivity and all that,” raves a Kindle customer); once I’ve finished Endgame I can turn to the Lorien Legacies series, authored by Frey and various contract-laborer MFA graduates under the collective pseudonym Pittacus Lore since 2010. How “highly anticipated” can Katerina really be when there is such a wealth of work available to his devotees? Is Endgame: The Complete Zero Line Chronicles not enough?

What the world’s remaining Frey fans are likely looking for is another A Million Little Pieces. Frey’s harrowing first-person tale of addiction, enthusiastically marketed as a memoir by Frey and his publishers, became a best seller in the mid-2000s thanks to its gritty story and propulsive style, memorably rendered in a symphony of extraneous paragraph breaks and capitalizations meant to communicate Intensity of Feeling and Depth of Meaning. It was also a fraud. After an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2005 (Oprah had chosen Frey’s Pieces for her book club), editors of the tabloid website the Smoking Gun found themselves unable to dig up mug shots from Frey’s many arrests (he’d been, according to his “memoir,” dragged to jail “kicking and screaming” after hitting a cop with his car). Digging a little deeper, the website managed to confirm that many of the book’s key details and most disturbing, gripping moments were invented wholesale. Frey had been exposed: His life was not the violent nightmare he’d so dramatically portrayed it as. Publishers agreed to refund disgruntled (and litigious) readers, his agent dropped him, and he lost his two-book contract with Riverhead. To cap it all off, he returned to the Oprah show, where he was roundly condemned by furious audience members, and confronted by Oprah herself. “Why did you lie?” she demanded. “Why did you do that?” A hangdog Frey described it as a “coping mechanism.”

Back in 2006, it seemed vaguely possible that such high-profile exposure as a liar might be enough to end someone’s career. In retrospect, LOL. Whatever else you might say about Frey, he possesses in spades the key quality for success in the twenty-first century: shamelessness. Frey returned to the best-seller list with Bright Shiny Morning, which Irvine Welsh called “an absolute triumph of a novel” in The Guardian; befriended Terry Richardson, with whom he collaborated on a book called Wives, Wheels, Weapons; and made plans to exhibit the aforementioned The Final Testament of the Holy Bible as a work of art at Gagosian. The bulk of Frey’s creative energy since his last Oprah appearance, though, seems to have gone into Full Fathom Five, a “content-creation company” he founded in 2010. It’s the kind of operation whose cynicism is so pure and transparent you might mistake it for political commentary: Frey hires young writers, often recent MFA graduates, to collaborate with him on writing young-adult fantasy series for the sole purpose of exploiting the intellectual property in licensing deals. (The first series—that’d be Lorien Legacies—was turned into a movie, I Am Number Four, produced by Michael Bay in 2011; none since have been quite as successful.)

Katerina, then, is Frey’s first novel in ten years that isn’t an art-world wank or a pitch to Disney. Better yet for all the Frey fanatics out there, it’s about as close to a follow-up to A Million Little Pieces and its follow-up, My Friend Leonard,as you might hope for. Like Pieces, Katerina is told from the point of view of a character who resembles James Frey but is not: Jay, a successful author who owns a company that “publishes commercial fiction and creates intellectual property for large media companies” and who has lately grown existentially bored. He strikes up a Facebook-message conversation with an anonymous interlocutor from his past, which becomes an excuse to ruminate, in alternating chapters, on the time he spent in Paris as a wannabe writer in his twenties. After a chance encounter with Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in the early ’90s, we learn, Jay decided to leave his girlfriend and move, without a plan or a job, to Paris, dealing drugs to finance his trip. We follow his progress as he finds an apartment in the Sixth Arrondissement and falls in with a rich kid named Philippe, who slums it as a garbageman and who tells him: “If you want to be a great writer, Jay, . . . you need to live and see and feel and dream and love and fuck and cry and fail and scream in the streets and get kicked right square in your fucking nuts, all the great writers did those things.”

James Frey, 2018.
James Frey, 2018.

Jay tears across Paris, living and seeing and feeling and dreaming and drinking wine and blowing rails and fighting barflies and seeing art and sleeping rough and screwing women and describing it all in an interminable parade of unpunctuated and droning lists. Early on, he has a chance encounter with a beautiful Scandinavian at the Musée Rodin that culminates when she sucks his fingers in front of the Gates of Hell, and he tells her that his goal as a writer is “to burn the fucking world down.” This is, of course, Katerina herself, and I don’t think I will be giving anything away by revealing that she is also older Jay’s mysterious Facebook correspondent. She is also, in the grand tradition of tales of semesters abroad, a model, and totally into him. Jay’s pursuit of Katerina, and their subsequent romance—which we know from their contemporary Facebook conversations is tragically doomed—forms the bulk of the Paris-set chapters, as the pair lives and sees and feels and dreams and does all the same stuff again, this time as a couple.

The implausibility (not to mention the tedium) of this record of binges and sexual encounters is another way Katerina resembles Pieces. Jay wonders if Katerina has cheap cocaine, and the superhot and well-read and sexually adept model responds, as a model in Paris no doubt would, “I’m a model in Paris, Jay. You think I do that garbage?” In another scene, Jay is fought over in a club by a gay man and his female friend, but is revealed to be heterosexual when he remains bravely flaccid at the gay man’s erotic attentions. He then seduces the woman into bed with a single kiss. Henry Miller is the clear inspiration, but the sex in Katerina reminded me less of Tropic of Cancer and more of the scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin in which Steve Carell’s character tries to bluff his way through a conversation about women by comparing breasts to bags of sand. Where Miller was, at the very least, inventively crude, Frey is artificial and bland. Tasked with praising a vagina, the best Frey can muster is “the sweetest most delicious most magnificent most delirious most peaceful calming inviting exciting incredible absolutely awesome and amazing pussy”—to which Katerina, the subject of this commendation, responds, amazingly, “You are definitely going to be a famous writer someday.”

I suppose it is vaguely interesting to read an author write fanfic about himself. Jay, we learn, is not just extremely good at having sex and being straight, he is also, as his agent reminds him at one point, “the most famous writer in the world. The Bad Boy of American Letters.” Somewhere between Paris and LA, he became embroiled in a familiar-sounding controversy involving a novel marketed as a memoir—he unconvincingly blames his publishers and an unnamed television host—that made him “the most divisive, most controversial, most polarizing writer in the world, which was the dream.” At one point he writes that this novel masquerading as a memoir was so controversial that it was subject to “bannings and burnings.” This must have satisfied him, because Jay’s entire theory of writing, and the terms of its success, is arson-based: As we hear over and over again, writing is supposed to burn the world down.

Jay’s midlife creative crisis, accelerated by Katerina’s reappearance in his life, is the focus of the chapters set in the present day. It mostly takes the form of searching internal monologues, heavy on short paragraphs: “But I kept this one,” Jay writes about a letter from a supporter. “On my desk. / In the corner. / It sits. / My black desk. / Plywood painted black sitting on two black file cabinets. / And I see it. / I think about it. / And I know the person who wrote it / Is right.” It is hard not to get the sense, as you and he plummet line by line toward the climactic meeting between older Jay and older Katerina, that Frey was working toward a page count. “Burn the fucking world down, Writer Boy,” older Jay tells himself at one point. “Do it. / Let’s see if you still can. / You have to dream new dreams new. / Or you die.”

Frey clearly wants you to read this soliloquy as an earnest challenge he’s offering himself in real life. If it is, Katerina is a particularly damp response. But I’m not sure I can give him even that much credit. It’s hard to imagine that Frey genuinely believes the story of a young man and his model girlfriend screwing in Paris will “burn the world down.” But someone with experience in the publishing industry, and with producing young-adult fiction, might recognize that a melodramatic and slightly seedy romance with a tinge of newsy metatextual frisson is an eminently marketable book ripe for a Hollywood studio to option—and that the presumably adolescent audience for such a work is likely to be enticed, rather than alienated, by repetitive stylistic showiness and improbable sex scenes.

It’s possible that Katerina is an utterly heartfelt novel, and that Frey is an authentically inept writer, rather than a calculatingly bad one. But how could anyone tell? When you build a career as a cynical fraud, even your incompetence becomes suspicious.

Max Read is an editor at New York magazine.