Reading James Frey’s novel, I realize he does everything I tell my students not to do. He doesn’t bother to indent his paragraphs or close run-on sentences. Here’s an example plucked from the middle of the book: “The next day at work it’s the same dinner is fish sticks and a Jell-O dessert bed same.”
What’s different is that it is clear Frey knows the rules and chooses to break them. With students it’s obvious that they just don’t know any better. Frey makes his run-ons almost feel like poetry. He puts some thought into those rambly sentences. And I get why he does it. It’s his signature voice move, a carry-over from A Million Little Pieces. It is also annoying. Like listening to a low-talker, I have to pay extra attention and parse those sentences myself.
Another thing he does that goes agaisnt the current creative writing wisdom is jam his book full of characters you never see again. A cast of thousands. Some chapters are just lists of names. A (very) few characters turn up more than once, but their stories are sparse and told in stingy units. Also, way more summarizing than scene. And far too many !!!!!!! s. A chapter of random “fun facts” about Los Angeles. Weird introductory dialogue tags that get their own (unindented) paragraphs.
None of this stuff bothers me as much as the run-ons, although I was getting a little sick of investing in new characters after the first couple dozen were introduced. Then finally about halfway through the novel he started bringing a few back for quick revisits. And I have to say that along with the annoyance I am absolutely absorbed. To a surprising degree. There is menace in this book. And hope.
I also think it’s interesting and brave that Big Jim went ahead and made art his way after Oprah shamed him on public television. He could have easily retreated after the backlash. So good for him. He’s not cowed. He’s not bowing down. He’s doing what he loves, and he’s doing it his own way, which is the most important lesson about creative writing I try to teach my students.