The Final Testament of the Holy Bible by James Frey Gagosian Gallery James Frey is a master of the high concept. For his latest novel, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, he has bypassed literary publishers in the US in favour of working with top art dealer Gagosian Gallery. The book is designed in the style of a bible; it strives to be an objet d'art and retails for US$50, with signed copies going for US$150. Perhaps this attention to design is a ploy to distract readers from the content. While it mines religion in an attempt to be provocative and culturally relevant, the book suffers from extraneous detail and relentless thoughts on religion and faith. The Holy Bible is literature. The Final Testament of the Holy Bible is not, but for some it may be an entertaining read. According to an author's note at the beginning of the book, Frey first came up with the idea for The Final Testament of the Holy Bible in 1994, when he was working as a stockboy in a store, and started writing it in 2009 after he had become infamous for his faux memoirs A Million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard. He writes, 'My goal was not to retell the story of Christ. That has been done, and done well. My goal was to create a new mythology.' Has Frey been successful here? Somewhat, but the book could have had more effect with half the number of words. The central character is Ben, a 30-year-old man who was raised an Orthodox Jew. He left home at 14 and roamed the world before living in the Bronx, where he's the only white man in his neighbourhood. One day, there's a freak accident at the construction site where he works, and he ends up in a coma. When he awakens, he suffers from seizures, but has a direct connection to God, as well as knowledge of every religious text ever written. Soon, people begin to think that he is the Messiah. And he is of the belief that the world will end due to '... the lies of religion and the government'. The reader is meant to understand that Ben is the Messiah. His speech is rendered in red ink, like the words of Jesus in some editions of the New Testament. Throughout the book he delivers a number of speeches, including: 'The Bible was written 2,000 years ago. The world is a different place now. Stories that had meaning then are meaningless now. Beliefs that might have been valid then are invalid now. Those books should be looked at in the same way we look at anything of that age, with interest, with an acknowledgement of the historical importance, but they should not be thought of as anything that has value.' It is in Ben's dialogue that Frey handles religion and philosophy best. Ben has the potential to be an interesting character, but in many spots, the prose is repetitive. We are told numerous times that he is covered in scars, his eyes are black (John, a government agent, notes, 'They were black, obsidian black, the black of silence, the black of death, the black of what I imagine it must be like before birth.') and that he's thin and so pale that his skin seems to glow. By the tenth description of his looks, it begins to feel as if the writer is being paid by the word. Frey steps outside the comfort zone of the male first-person voice he used in A Million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard. He also discards the third-person voice of Bright Shiny Morning. The Final Testament of the Holy Bible is told from a number of viewpoints, all in first person. Each section is about the narrator's interactions with Ben; some voices are much more successful and compelling than others. The story is never told from Ben's perspective. Mariaangeles, a neighbour who works in a strip club and develops a crack problem, begins the story. Her observations are at times comic, but it's not clear if it's intentional: 'I know in the Bible they be saying miracles is withering some motherf***ing fig tree or some s***, but in the world I live in, the real f***ing world, a miracle is a vial of crack lying on the ground in an American housing project unclaimed for more than three f***ing minutes.' There are three sections in her voice, a good choice because Frey treats her character with a compassion not afforded to some of the other characters. Her portrayal may be problematic and a bit clich?d, but the sum is greater than the parts. Matthew, a man living underground in New York, can't have a thought without swearing: 'I was there on that first day we saw Ben. We was just sitting having some dinner and most of us was there, sitting at the tables eating some macaroni and motherf***ing cheese.' The chapter functions mostly as a way to introduce sex into the narrative. (Ben heals many of the men and women he encounters by sleeping with them, and the brilliant thing is it doesn't come off as creepy, making sense in the context of the narrative.) Judith, a caricature of a lonely, unattractive woman, thinks in platitudes such as: 'Dreams are for people who can afford to make them come true.' Many characters speak in dialect or broken English, but it is not executed in a way that best serves the narrative. At times, it slows the pace of the story. Compounding this problem are the long passages devoted to didactic descriptions of religion. It's also tiresome to read repeatedly that various characters hate gays or Jews or blacks, backing their homophobia or racism with Bible verses. In a 2010 interview, Frey said: 'That's what I want to do: write radical books that confuse and confound, polarise opinions. I've already been cast out of 'proper' American literary circles. I don't have to be a good boy any more. I find that the older I get, the more radical my work becomes.' But the book does not live up to its billing as a radical or provocative text. Unless the reader is religious in an inflexible way, there is nothing terribly shocking in the narrative or in the idea that the Messiah is a chill dude who loves everyone and hangs out with the poor and disenfranchised. Nor does the novel give any new insight into the human condition. We are meant to take from the book that love is the answer to our ills, but there is very little joy in the narrative. These emotions don't ring true in the text - we are simply told how the characters feel. Just imagine: dozens of pages of people talking about their feelings. Frey has the high concept down. If only he had paid more attention to the rest.