26 Apr 2011


- James Frey 2011 James Murray Pub.

A review by Husband dearest.

As mentioned in my previous review, Lent is a time for looking at passion stories and having re-read Biff, I entered upon my read of Freys anticipated and much hyped novel. It is not often that I will write a review immediately upon finishing a book, or seeing a film but I have with this one simply because I do find myself strangely conflicted by it. I am more likely to spend some time contemplating the pattern; purpose, intents, motivations inherent, or even just trying to fathom what on earth it was all about, the latter being the case in point. I have not read either of his previous novels, nor had his media circus previously come to my attention and so was unaware of the self aggrandising ‘rebel without a cause’ persona, until the copy arrived and the books own blurb paralleled himself with statements not undeserving of the Christ. Perhaps Frey is looking for us to develop a faith in his own prognostication simply because he feels abused but then faith is a tricky thing, as his fictitious messiah (Ben) himself teaches.
"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."
Yawn… so this is the groundbreaking challenge of Freys book is it? Well it’s not new, and there is nothing substantive in this book to challenge any serious theological thought whatsoever. More likely an egotistical publicists wet dream for moneymaking on the back of taking pot shots at the tenets of the fundamentalist extremes of the Christian faith, the ultra-orthodox Jewish community but not quite brave enough to have a go at Islam, well not directly anyway. Freys presentation of the society into which his Christ avatar is born is an amalgum of visionary apocalyptic prophecy, Marxist interpretation of religion and neo-marxist discussion on the nature of state institutions a la Oppenheimer and a little side swipe at the atheist secular extreme.

“...too many people wanted their God to be the only God, their system to be the only system…instead of believing in a super natural God , they pretended to believe in Gods called, social justice, equality and freedom, but their real goals were no different than the religious people, that all they were truly interested in were money, and power, and control.”

Well that’s the human condition dealt with. Except that Frey displays some delight in extolling the abuse that human beings are capable of and the degradation of humanity through all of the usual suspects of intolerance, rape, child abuse, religious zealotry, free market capitalism, drugs, you name it, it’s all in there, all in the lives of the principal characters. We’re all a bunch of vicious self-seeking bastards and there is no point trying to pretend that we can be otherwise so we may as all just spend our lives having sex.

And, does he believe in sex? Well shall we just say it features quite prominently in the ministry of this erstwhile messiah? His response to the degradation of humanity, which he witnesses and experiences, is to advise people to copulate freely and frequently. Living by example of course there is virtually no one in the book who escapes un-shagged. There are delicate nods to the parable, the healings and other miraculous events in the gospel but Frey takes a viscid delight in reversing the absence of a sexual gospel Jesus, to the extent that the story could well be sub-titled The Second Cumming, and probably will be when the film rights are taken up. Men, women, transvestites, the transgendered, black, white and all shades in between in a truly egalitarian approach, and quite the unversalist; teaching all to behave likewise as orgasm is the closest we can be to God. If this is simply an attempt to ridicule and highlight the churches own preoccupation with sex and sexuality then Frey could well learn that there are more subtle and pointed ways of doing so. Not all Christians are upset by the idea that God may not be disapproving of same sex relationships. The few who do escape the cure are perhaps indicative that this bad-boy of literature still has some lines that he is not prepared to cross. His mother and sister are blessed with nothing more than a gentle caress as is the prostitutes’ child, but although the catholic priest shows willing with an embarrassing involuntary tumescence, that’s as far as it goes. The stated equation of love = sex is obliterated by Ben and his disciples use of the f-word. As noun, adjective and verb, its frequency in this book betrayed by its repetition not only in reference to the sexual act but as descriptor for the general state of the world and the physically beaten beings who are, ‘f***** up’ and then ‘f*****’ by Ben to make them feel all better. Yes, if you are not fan of the expletive then you will find this a difficult book. Theologically I can express many of the sentiments that Frey does. The frustrations of power and powerlessness would have been a theme worthy of exploring rather than simply refusing to acknowledge the presence of either in advocacy of a nihilistic, apathy and opt out. Nietzsche’s madman in the marketplace bears a greater resemblance to Christ than Ben.

Ben’s life experiences do much to mirror the gospel Jesus and there are many passages and turns of story which the gospel familiar will recognise as allegory or just plain lifted from the bible. ‘It is finished’, he proclaims, although not hanging on a cross but lying on a surgeons table. Even then he is not dead at the end of the surgery so it’s…er…well not quite finished, there is no burial and we rapidly move to a sort of ascension, or perhaps it was a descent? Who knows or cares? I know I don’t. The characters are redolent of biblical principals or grotesques of the present day types that Frey seems to keen to upset, one dimensional reprehensive straw men for Frey to chuck rocks at. Typeset to appear as bible passages, each chapter recounts the story from the perspective of the main characters, in a not quite, prose poem, some characters being permitted a second or third chapter.

I think that ultimately I am conflicted about this book because I was genuinely hoping to be shocked or even just a little offended. In the end the only offence I feel I have suffered is that I am disappointed not to have been. Like Peter Conrad I am not moved, not enraged nor in thrall as Freys publicist claim I will be, There is nothing of consequence in this book, nothing that I couldn’t express and agree with theologically, nothing that I could learn from Freys Christ that I could not practice myself, but I’m not convinced that the next time someone discloses their experience of abuse as a child to me, that I should have sex with them as a means of ameliorating their pain. I very rarely recommend to people that they absorb the contents of the Guardians Digested Read column, but this is one instance when I will do so gladly, it is an holy accurate representation of this misrepresentation and will save you a few hours.

The Digested Read – Guardian.co.uk
Peter Conrad – The Observer Review

PS I fully intend to read this novel and hope to bring you my thoughts on it soon, PW.


Vivienne said...

Wow - I hadn't even heard of this book, but it obviously reached you with some passion, even if that wasn't good passion. Not my type of book though.

Arti said...

Doesnt look like I will like reading it... I think there is only one race, the human race... We all are equal, God is One... Just known by different names...
Have a lovely day Tracy:)

Misha said...

I had not heard of the book before! I've just read one book by James Frey - I did not like it much though. I don't think this is something I would read though. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

budh.aaah said...

Wow PW, thats an intense review. And one which absolutely convinces me not to read this one :) take care

Suko said...

Petty, it will be interesting to compare your review with your husband's.

Kelly said...

I appreciate the review and can say without a doubt that this one isn't for me. For one, it sounds tedius and that's not my idea of pleasure reading. Also, though I'm certainly no prude and don't mind the "F" word in appropriate circumstances, I think I would be turned off by it in this case.

Tracy, I'll be interested to hear your take on it.

naida said...

Great, thought out review. Too bad this read was dissapointing.

Melissa (Books and Things) said...

Yea... don't think I'd read this one, but I do really like the passion you put into the review.