James Frey's novel Katerina was published on September 11, 2018 -- an inauspicious release date if ever there was one. For a brief, feverish time, social media was bombarded with ads about how sexy and poignant and generally brilliant it was. Then it won both the prominent Bad Sex in Fiction Award, and Cracked's Award for Definitely Knowing What Sex Is, with sultry passages like this:
Blinding breathless shaking overwhelming exploding white God I cum inside her my cock throbbing we're both moaning eyes hearts souls bodies one. One. White. God. Cum. Cum. Cum. I close my eyes let out my breath. Cum.
If Frey's name rings a bell, and that bell induces a Pavlovian flight response, you may remember the A Million Little Pieces scandal. If you're young and/or fortunate enough to be unfamiliar, in 2003, Frey published a memoir about recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. It was a bestseller, got rave reviews, and was featured on Oprah's book club ... and then it was all revealed to have been forged. In one of its more infamous passages, Frey claimed that he got drunk and high on crack, hit a cop with his car, fought several officers, and spent 87 days in jail. In reality, he was calmly arrested for having an open bottle of beer in his car, and was released on a $733 bond five hours later. That's a story that unfolds a hundred times a day, and is only fitting for a memoir if the police station you were taken to was then attacked by a Terminator.
Frey's lie started unraveling in 2006. By late 2007, after a major controversy that included a lawsuit, refunds, and a public shaming / free massive boost to his notoriety from Oprah, Frey had already signed a seven-figure deal with a new publisher. The saga sent Frey, and America, the stern message that it's okay to be a talentless liar as long as you get famous enough first. We even got a Million Little Pieces movie this year, because 2018 is the year irony stopped giving a shit.
When Frey wasn't busy being overpaid to write more garbage, he was manufacturing a soulless young adult franchise. I Am Number Four, a movie you may vaguely remember flopping, was based on the first of seven novels pumped out by a fiction factory he created. Frey was accused of exploiting MFA students, offering them a mere $250, a portion of unspecified future profits they had no way of auditing, and the threat of a lawsuit if they told someone they worked on the book. His treatment of writers was called "brutal" and "unusually restrictive," and the series was conceived from the start with an eye for movie deals and product placement rather than being, you know, good. Profiles of the process make Frey come across as a domineering asshole.
Everything that is known about Frey suggests that he wants to be famous for the sake of being famous. That's all well and good if you run a hit YouTube channel about dogs headbutting you in the crotch, but Frey also wants to be considered brilliant. That's a dangerous combination. In interviews and speeches, he makes lofty proclamations about how he wants to make literary history and change the world, how he never should have apologized for lying because there's no such thing as truth, how the only great writers are dead white men, and how he'll one day rank among them. He's a tedious bore who thinks he's an edgy rebel, an empty charlatan who thinks he's an underappreciated artist despite accruing more money and fame than most artists ever will. And that brings us back to memoir-cum-white-god-novel Katerina, and why it's 2018's greatest sin against the English language.
Katerina is about Jay, a middle-aged literary phenom (who could that be a thin stand-in for?!), reflecting on his tumultuous youth in Paris. Jay is tired of being rich and famous for writing books that are brilliant and beloved yet somehow also underappreciated, and he yearns for simpler days when he did nothing but get drunk and fuck a supermodel who worshiped him -- an experience that somehow turned him into an incredible writer. Sure, Jay now has a loving wife, two children, a beautiful home, three cars, a housekeeper, and tons of money because he's one of the most successful writers ever, but what if that isn't enough? What a relatable struggle.
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There is more to life than money, but it's still pretty damn useful at a time when more Americans are in debt than ever before. But Jay hates himself because he has a swimming pool. Poverty was a fun novelty for him to dabble in, while the ability to pay his bills should be loathed because that means he's a phony. Do you like having a steady job that gives you the ability to take your spouse out for dinner and enjoy the odd video game? Then fuck you, asshole! James Frey thinks you're wasting your empty life! You are nothing but a cog in the machine that keeps the world running -- the machine that has given Frey more success than he could ask for or has any right to enjoy. And for your services to society, he thinks you're a fool.
In the flashbacks to '90s Paris, Young Jay has zero responsibilities while tons of women throw themselves at him and his magical multiple-orgasms-in-moments-inducing dick (sorry, I mean multiple "white white white Gods"-inducing), but he's still sad because he's an artist, and artists are special. When he's not enjoying award-winning sex, Jay is busy being an obnoxious asshole who spouts the kind of opinions about culture and how dumb America is that get you blocked on Twitter because you interrupt random threads to talk about how the only bread worth eating is Parisian. Katerina could be an incredible satire about the self-important pomposity of young writers if it contained an ounce of self-awareness, but instead it's thinly disguised James Frey fanfiction about what a tortured genius Frey was and remains.
This isn't a book about Jay growing up, because that might be passable. Middle-aged Jay is just as narcissistic. He's sad that Steven Spielberg wants to adapt one of his books into a movie because that's business, and business isn't art. He isn't happy, so he can't imagine anything in the world having any meaning, because he can't imagine the value of anything that isn't related to his own existence. He is the sort of person who orders his ex-girlfriend not to use emojis in Facebook messages because he "likes words." He believes he could have given America the greatest art it's ever seen if he hadn't deigned to make millions appealing to the crass demands of the market. He believes he is special solely because he is a writer, which makes him important and the normies irrelevant. But Jay, like Frey, is not special, and has given America very little of note, and should perhaps be apologizing for even that. He has sucked the world dry and learned nothing from it.
Tellingly, Jay wrote a Million Little Pieces stand-in and the deception made him feel terrible, but also it wasn't his fault in any way. Also not his fault is the event that ends his bohemian youth: The titular Katerina cheats on him, then comes back decades later to tell him that she's sorry and he's awesome right before she dies of cancer. She's not a character, just an absolving sex trophy. She even says Jay "pretends to be an asshole but [has] a kind heart," which is what every asshole tells themselves after they scream at a waitress for putting the wrong number of ice cubes in their drink.
Frey wrote a fantasy in which it's cool that he's an asshole because the world can't see that he's really a kind and beloved phenom who boldly broke all the rules of art and has never done anything wrong. In reality, Frey has, of course, done much wrong, not the least of which is subject us to lines like "We finish. Together. One body one." The only rules he has broken are those of basic ethics and those of how to write a sex scene without causing the reader's genitals to wither.
Imagine reading a book in the year 2018 that expects you to sympathize with a hero who's rich and famous yet misses banging 20-year-olds and wishes that the world was giving him even more. To look at humanity, with all its many challenges and nuances, and decide that what the world needs is a tale to help it better appreciate the struggle of narcissistic millionaire men who are brave and brilliant enough to talk about how empty life is because they never changed the course of history despite owning several sports cars is staggeringly tone-deaf. To get as much attention and money as Frey did for it is borderline criminal.
Gagosian Gallery Publishing
Many critics slammed Katerina, but that they paid attention to it at all is like food critics dedicating time and money to informing you that dog shit tastes bad while a dozen small restaurants are ignored. James Frey is the perfect writer for 2018, because he is the apex of mediocre white men believing they're better and more important than everyone else and can barely contain their contempt for others in saying so. They can never be wrong; they can only be misunderstood. If the world isn't perpetually talking about them, then the world must be stupid, because how could the world function without their brilliance?
But it can, and we could and should be spending money and time on people who deserve it instead of people who have proven time and again that they do not. Katerina is the book you get when basic ineptitude doesn't bar people who can grab headlines from any accomplishment, when assholes demand the world be served to them on a platter, and we give it to them in exchange for the right to gawk at the inevitable wreckage.
In interviews, Frey laments that writers don't take risks anymore, and implies that he is the only author out there doing anything interesting. But there's nothing interesting about straining yourself trying to suck your own dick. If he wants risks to be taken, we need to take risks on new and unknown creators instead of paying people like Frey to vomit up some attention-seeking garbage that would be unpublishable if his brand couldn't be attached to it. In Katerina, Jay hates himself for squandering his potential to cash in, but that is all Frey has ever done and ever will do. And if there is a lesson to be learned from 2018, it's that people like him should have run out of chances long ago.
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