Published by Gallery/Scout Press
Publication date: September 11, 2018
Genres: Coming-of-age, Contemporary, Fiction
Last week I wrote about The Golden State, a novel that literally flowed, with very little punctuation or grammar, from the protagonist’s mind. Oddly, enough immediately after that book, I read James Frey’s Katerina and he utilizes the same style. The good news? In both cases it works. Katerina is the story of Jay, a writer at two very different points in his life. In 1992 he is 21 and has given up expectations of being a businessman, left college, and gone to Paris to live the writer’s life. In 2017 he lives in L.A. and is highly successful professionally and personally. He has more than he ever dreamt of, but is filled with midlife ennui and a fairly well-developed sense of self-loathing.
I smile for my children and I sleep next to my wife and I pay my bills and I do my work. And I hate myself. Every single minute of every single day. Hate myself.
When a character admits this about themselves in the first four pages of a book, there’s reason to believe you’re in for some epic revelations, but these don’t come in Katerina. Yes, Jay’s Parisian twenties were largely spent drinking to the point of vomiting, blacking out, drinking again, repeat. Oh, and lots of consensual sex. Sometimes, some French bread and cocaine, but you get the gist of Jay’s 1992 life. Except that he also meets the beautiful and elusive Katerina, a model, and they fall in love. In that way you only can when it’s your first time and you’re young and in Paris.
The 2017 Jay may be living a life that far exceeds his dreams, but he doesn’t get interesting until he gets a text from someone he knew in Paris. Is it Katerina? Or someone else resurfacing from the swamp of self-destruction that was his twenties? Bit by bit Frey teases out the texter’s identity as Jay relives those years while trying to write and navigate a midlife crisis.
There’s a lot of meat to pick off the bones of Katerina (which is a gruesome metaphor, sorry), but it has less to do with the novel itself and more to do with Frey. Regarding the novel, it is a bit repetitive (at least 50 pages of yawping and sex could have been cut), but Frey does well in evoking new adulthood and coming-of-age, with its blind hope, young love, and belief in self. It’s good, as is the middle-aged Jay as he looks down from the pinnacle of success and thinks ‘What now?’. The problem is that Frey cannot seem to resist picking at the scab of his own life. Once again, he goes back to himself as his only source of material and shares that Jay wrote a novel but sold it as a memoir, was outed by a famous TV personality, and blah blah blah…the same tired story of James Frey himself.
I don’t understand the psychology behind this need to continuously remind the world of his greatest and most humiliatingly public failure, but there is no new psychological territory to mine from the Oprah debacle. It feels as if Frey is trying to court controversy to keep himself relevant, which is not why I read an author. LET. IT. GO. If you’re selling me on a novel, but can only regurgitate your own life, whether in self-abnegation or justification, I’m going to stop reading your books. So. Katerina has a lot to recommend it including a plot that twists at the end in a very human and compelling way and for that I really liked the novel. Beyond that, I’m finished with Frey until he finds someone and something else to write about.