The Gospel of Glut
James Frey’s Imagining of the Second Coming Is Fucking Bonkers
Portrait by Terry Richardson
I’m sitting in a conference room at the VICE Brooklyn office across from James Frey. We’re talking, and I’m still not sure exactly how or why this meeting happened, but I’m listening closely. The main topic of our discussion is his new novel, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, which is about the emergence of a radical new Messiah in modern-day New York City. For the first ten minutes or so, his constant chewing of Nicorette distracts me. I get over it quickly, but by my count he goes through at least five pieces in 45 minutes. I can’t figure out whether he is scared about something or the world’s biggest nicotine fiend, and after spending some more time with him I think he might be both.
Besides his new book, James and I also touch on a random assortment of topics: his plan to bypass the publishing industry (at least in America), whether he perpetuates the controversy that seems to follow his every move, why he is wearing an outlandish fur coat, his struggles with religion, his admiration for William T. Vollmann, the art world, and other miscellaneous crap. Afterward I’m still not sure how I feel about him, but I am positive that he is a completely different guy from the one who is written about in accusatory magazine and newspaper articles—either that or he is very bored and very talented at adopting different personae and getting people to write about them. Before he leaves we discuss how he could contribute to Vice in some fashion, and he agrees to give us an exclusive excerpt from The Final Testament (which you can find directly following this article on page 114) and grants me one of the very few interviews he will be giving anytime soon. One thing we didn’t touch on was Oprah and the shit storm that ensued after she invited James on her show to publicly recant her endorsement of his debut, A Million Little Pieces. Later he tells me that he hopes his next novel will finally prompt people to focus on other things, but after reading it I get the feeling that the aftermath of The Final Testament will be far less pleasant than any type of fallout he’s experienced thus far.
The week after our meeting I receive a galley of The Final Testament and finish it in two days. It chronicles the life of Ben Zion Avrohom, a 32-year-old scruffy guy who lives in a disgusting apartment inside a Bronx housing project. Brought up in a strict Jewish household, Ben is estranged from his family after his father passes away and his siblings and mother convert to Christianity. Early in the book, Ben is the victim of what under any other circumstances would be a fatal accident. It happens while he’s working as a security guard at a skyscraper construction site; a one-ton plate-glass window falls from a crane and flattens him. Onlookers stare in disbelief as foot-long shards of glass protrude from his body and his cracked skull oozes what appears to be brain fluid. He is taken to the hospital in an act of pity, but the doctors discover he still has a faint pulse. Hours of extreme surgery do nothing to stop the profuse and seemingly endless bleeding. He flatlines and is resuscitated several times but somehow, inexplicably, survives and seems to be healing at a superhuman rate even though he remains in a semivegetative state. Finally, Ben awakes and slowly discovers that he has been bestowed with preternatural abilities—he can recite the entirety of every major holy book and scripture from memory and doesn’t seem to require much food, water, or sleep. From there his powers develop through a series of frequent and violent seizures that he claims allow him to speak with God (apparently similar to the afflictions suffered by Beethoven and Dostoyevsky). He wanders New York City, meeting long-lost relatives, performing miracles on random strangers, living with criminals and drug addicts in subterranean tunnels, sticking his penis inside men and women, using drugs, proclaiming that the end of the world is near, and preaching that humans should do whatever makes them happy as long as they’re not hurting anyone. Like the Gospels, the story is split into sections that are named after and narrated by individuals who have been irrevocably changed by Ben in some way. Ben’s dialogue appears in red ink throughout, mimicking red-letter editions of the Good Book that began to pop up in the early 1900s.
Befitting the book’s provocative content—or perhaps partially because of it—James is sidestepping the publishing industry altogether, at least for the US edition. Only 11,000 limited-edition (1,000 of which will be signed) copies will be published through Gagosian Gallery, an international force of art and commerce that is taking a chance on an experiment conceived by an author who has attracted some of the most negative attention of anyone who has ever constructed a sentence. What’s more, a few of James’s most creative buddies (Richard Prince and Terry Richardson among them) will be creating single-edition illuminated manuscripts inspired by the story. For the rest of us, there will be a digital version of the book, which will be available directly from James through Amazon and other online booksellers beginning April 22 (which also happens to be Good Friday, for all you heathens out there).
I feel the same way about The Final Testament as I do about its author—unsure but intrigued—and I keep thinking about it. Portions of it are trashy and ridiculous, almost like a comic book, but other sections are as believable as a book about a Christlike figure who eats out of dumpsters and fucks crackhead strippers can be. Overall I think it was a good read that will be unilaterally despised by critics and religious folks alike. Odds are the book will provoke extreme reactions of some sort, perhaps even some James may not be fully prepared for. But for now let’s hope for the best.
Vice: Your new book is about someone recognized as a contemporary Messiah by a significant number of people—one who advocates having sex with whomever you want, drug use, and the rejection of traditional religious beliefs. Are you worried that someone might try to kill you in the near future?
James Frey: I hope not, because I don’t want to die. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Some people who have read the book don’t find it offensive or think anybody will be bothered by it, but others have said, “How long till you leave America?” Part of the fun of releasing a book is seeing what happens and if anyone reads it—to see if people care and how they react. I definitely don’t want to get shot, though. It wasn’t designed to make people want to shoot me.
What was your ultimate goal?
I tried to write a valid religious document, a book about what I think it might be like if the Messiah came back to earth or Christ returned. One of the most important things that gets forgotten about the Bible is that Christ was a radical. He wasn’t part of acceptable society and didn’t believe in anything that it held dear; he was a radical preacher with a radical message deemed dangerous enough that he was strung up on a cross and killed. I think that if the Messiah were to arrive today, if Christ were to return, he would be that same type of radical.
So if you set out to create a religious document, does that mean you conducted a lot of research?
Yeah. I consulted an Orthodox rabbi, a Pentecostal preacher, a Catholic priest, a trauma surgeon, a criminal-defense attorney, and a mental-health advocate. I wanted the book to be right. I know how I feel about God and faith and religion, but I didn’t know the mechanics of it. I didn’t know a lot about the Messiah or messianic theory. There are very specific requirements within Judaism to be considered the Messiah and under which he will or will not appear, and I needed to know all that stuff. I wanted it to be a plausible story and wanted to be sure that if religious figures were reading the book objectively—although they might not agree with what it says—it would hold up in terms of its religious components.