Thursday, January 12, 2006


Taking a quick breather from mocking the trog-right (his main act, these days), James Wolcott waded into the James Frey fray, sharing the amusement that so many others have shown in the wake of Frey's apparent memoir fraud. Frey certainly had it coming, it seems, for how do you claim to undergo a root canal minus anesthesia and not expect some suspicion in return? Then there's all his alleged criminal behavior, reading Tolstoy in jail, and so on -- too cinematic to be remotely true, or so thought the diggers at Smoking Gun who exposed Frey's deceit to light and sent him scurrying for cover. In a culture where the slickest lies earn the biggest paychecks, you really can't blame Frey for doing what so many others would try, or have tried and failed. Reality is fiction taken seriously, something many Americans are comfortable with, the screens in their minds playing various but familiar scenarios.

I suppose I should be harder on Frey, given that I'm writing a pseudo-memoir of my own, and Frey's mini-scandal further muddies the water for my and other's efforts. Ah well. What can you do? Publishing's choked with hucksters, so throwing eggs at Frey is wasted energy, esp with larger, deadlier problems we the living face. But Frey's main theme -- redemption -- got under Wolcott's prickly hide, causing him to scratch out this:

"I'm just automatically suspicious of every tale of woe that's peddled as a tale of redemption. The whole concept of redemption seems fishy to me, another form of sentimentality. How many people do you know have found redemption? What does 'redemption' really mean? It's got a lofty religious sound, but the vast majority of people improve or worsen in varying degrees over time, and even those who radically turn their lives around or pull themselves out of the abyss still have to go on doing the mundane things we all do, often suffering relapses or channeling their sobriety and sadder-but-wiser maturity into passive-aggressive preening of their own moral goodness. Most change for better or worse is undramatic, incremental, seldom revealed in a blinding flash or expressed in a climactic moment of heroic resolve. The whole cult of 'redemption' has acquired a Hollywood-holy aura emanating from the therapist's couch. And when a tale of redemption becomes a success story, it's as if the monetary reward is the special prize bestowed on spiritual growth in this bountiful, forgiving land, where each closeup tear from Oprah and her readers is worth its price in gold (closing price today: $545.70 an ounce)."

It's certainly true that a redemption "cult" of sorts exists -- more of a market, actually. So many people fuck up so many things in their lives that they naturally warm to anyone who can express the sadness, confusion and the hope of overcoming bad decisions or rotten luck that they themselves cannot put into words or images. And naturally people like Frey take advantage of this. And while Wolcott is right about the crass commercial uses to which "redemption" is put, he's decidedly wrong about the very concept of redemption itself.

Redemption does exist and people experience it every day. Not all redemption is a full-blown widescreen CGI encounter -- indeed, I suspect that rarely happens, and if it does, I doubt that any person could fully grasp or comprehend such a serious emotional upheaval and/or cleansing. I imagine you just roll with it and see where it takes you. But turning your life around, or seeing the world from a different or better angle is nothing to sneer at, as Wolcott does above. In my case, part of which I shared here, everything changed for the worse within a matter of weeks. And no, I didn't suddenly see the light and march upward to seize and use it to illuminate my preening "moral goodness." I went through a number of negative emotions and levels of self-pity before I s-l-o-w-l-y became aware of another reality, one I'd dismissed with the same elitist scorn that Wolcott displays. I'm not a Maoist, nor do I revel in thoughts of parading intellectuals in dunce caps before a heckling proletarian crowd, but I do think that NY scribes like Wolcott should take a break from brunching at the Telephone Bar and trading quips with Conde Nast stablemates and sink into some anonymous, blue collar work from time to time. If nothing else, it'll strengthen his arms, back and legs; and who knows, maybe there's a bit of redemptive emotion hidden under all that cynical cover.