The last time James Frey was in the public consciousness, he was being reprimanded by Oprah Winfrey herself for fabricating numerous events in his critically-acclaimed, bestselling “memoir”, “A Million Little Pieces”.
When he came out with “Bright Shiny Morning” in 2008, it was meant to be his comeback novel and auger his return to the public eye. But “Bright Shiny Morning” got mixed reviews — The New York Times praised the book a called Frey a “furiously good storyteller”, while The Los Angeles Times called it “execrable” — and barely made a blip on the New York Times Bestseller List.
But now Frey is taking an entirely different plan of attack with “I Am Number Four”. Produced by Frey’s own Full Fathom Five publishing company, “I Am Number Four” is a young adult novel done in collaboration with Jobie Hughes, a student of the masters writing program of The Columbia University School for the Arts. With “I Am Number Four” now having spent more than a month on the New York Times Bestseller List, has Frey finally for his grove back? Or is this success in the young adult field merely a lucky strike?
For most of his life, Number Four has always been on the run. When his home planet of Lorien was overrun by the marauding Mogadorians, he and eight other Loric children were sent to Earth to hide and bide their time until they have grown into their Legacies — superpowers that will help them fight the Mogadorians.
The nine of them are protected by a charm that requires the Mogadorians to kill them in order; otherwise what they do to the Loric children only goes back on them. Over the years, Number Four has found himself transferring homes with his guardian, Henri, as Numbers One, Two, and Three fall into Mogadorian hands.
His latest home is Paradise, Ohio, where he proceeds to break years of subterfuge when he begins to fall for Sarah Hart, an ex-cheerleader who has just broken up with the school quarterback. As their relationship becomes more serious, Number Four becomes even more reckless, and soon the Mogadorians are bearing down on the sleepy town of Paradise. Will Number Four make it out of this dilemma alive? Or does it mean the end of his race — and the Earth — as we know it?
On the surface, “I Am Number Four” seems like a welcome break from the glut of supernatural romances occupying the young adult bookshelves. It is a science fiction tale replete with aliens and spaceships and not a vampire or werewolf in sight, with a male lead that is far from sentimental or emotional.
For instance, he makes the oft-overlooked observation that being “special” in high school isn’t exactly the best thing to be. As much as ones talents make them better than everybody else — and will probably make them successful in the future — all of that means nothing in the high school environment, where conformity is key.
“I Am Number Four” also has an intriguing enough conceit, with its heroes spread out all over the world and with powers yet to be discovered. In the right hands, it could be the start of an engaging series that could have real international appeal.
However, as the novel progresses it becomes clearer and clearer that “I Am Number Four” does not live up to its own hype, with a variety of problems that prevent it from ever truly becoming something special.
For one thing, Frey and Hughes’ combined voices ends up as an emotionless drone. The prose is stilted and very by the numbers, as if somebody handed Frey and Hughes an outline of what young adult sci-fi should read like and they just filled in the blanks. While the book isn’t badly written, the writing doesn’t feel organic or authentic at all.
This problem is especially apparent with the dialogue, which mostly sounds affected and nothing like the way you would expect today’s 15-year-olds to speak. The prose also wreaks havoc everywhere else in the book, stripping the proceedings of any sense of impending doom or tension. When the climactic battle happens between Number Four and the invading Mogadorians, it’s hard to feel any suspense, relief, or catharsis.
Aside from these internal problems, “I Am Number Four” also suffers from Frey’s own problematic persona. A few months after the book’s publication, one of Full Fathom Five’s contract writers published online a copy of the company’s extremely restrictive contract, which allows Frey license to remove an author from a project at any time, does not require him to give the author credit for their work, and only pays a standard advance of $250. The expose prompted publications such as New York Magazine and The Wall Street Journal to come out with articles digging into Full Fathom Five’s contentious contracts.
These contract problems, however, are just the cherry on top of a work that is already far from ideal. If the quality doesn’t improve in this proposed six-part series, then readers may just end up thinking of Number Four as a zero rather than a hero.