Gray by Pete Wentz has been referred to as “an insult to book readers everywhere.” I unironically believe Gray is an incredible work of literary showmanship, and merely masquerades as “the cliche that rockstars write terrible fiction.” So, in honor of Gray’s (belated) anniversary, this love-dissertation wholly dissects and defends my favorite book of all time.
Gray by Pete Wentz (and James Montgomery) was released a decade ago. It is my favorite book of all time. It is— for lack of a better term— “a freeze-dried wet dream.” This statement never goes over well with people. I can tell they are appalled. It’s understandable; this is a frivolous choice. Gray is the post-divorce vanity project of a runner-up for 2007’s Sexiest Vegetarian. In the words of my old high-school English teacher, Gray is “not a real book;” it lacks “substance.” A lot of people feel this way. I can see it in the way their smile falters and the light behind their eyes drops when I tell them. I am the most illiterate fangirl alive. I am pretty dumb, too.
But truthfully, this is not my favorite book because I like Fall Out Boy— in fact, I love Fall Out Boy because I fell in love with this book. I mean sure, when I first read it, I did know about Wentz’s band. To people in marching band ten years ago, FOB coming off hiatus might as well have been dead Jesus moving the boulder. So, I did have enough interest to pick up my friend’s copy while we waited in line for a Used concert. But I wasn’t like… in to Fall Out Boy.
Even so, Gray consumed me. I read it in one seven-hour sitting, and after it was over, I still couldn’t let go. My obsession went beyond thinking the novel was “way symbolic.” I felt—very strongly—that there was something beyond the façade of “pseudo-artistic” misanthropy that it put up. It was a careful puzzle, one that was impossible to solve. It was fantasy and reality, irony and authenticity, truth and lies, satire and sincerity. It was so advanced that no one understood it. It was a great American novel. I was sure of it.
This is not a sentiment everyone shares. While Gray was met with mostly favorable reception from readers, it met resistance from critics. Gray by Pete Wentz has been referred to as the ranting of “a narcissistic rock star alpha male,” “the discarded notebooks of an emo teenager,” having “no moral value,” embodying the “cliché that rock artists usually write terrible fiction,” “a study in misogyny,” possessing “innumerable faults,” “fail[ing] at style, plotting, and emotional resonance,” “an insult to book readers everywhere,” and a “mess.”
It’s true that Gray has many flaws. The ending is abrupt, odd, and unsatisfying; some of the one-liners in the novel are so rough they pull you out of the dreamscape contained within; certain statements like “I pull on jeans and a hoodie—my uniform” should have never been penned by an adult man, let alone made it past editors; and there are a few descriptors like “downtown legs” that haunt my nightmares.
Even so, I didn’t care. I still thought Gray was an enigma, a masterwork, true literature—no matter what people said. But as I got older, I started to doubt myself. I thought maybe everyone else was right, and Pete Wentz’s book was not good, and I was being a typical girl after all. So, in the words of Jack Kerouac: “moody and not very intelligent,” “sex mad and man mad” and with a “simple and strange little mind.”
But eventually, I went to college. I got a bit too old for pop-punk bands. It became time to grow up, to “broaden my horizons” to “real books” with “substance.” Privately—gradually— I conceded that Gray was probably terrible.
By the time I finished school, real life was pretty terrible, too. There was that unspeakable global event, of course. But also, the job search was going poorly, I’d gotten in a blowout with my future roommates, and I absolutely was not headed for California like I spent years dreaming of. (“Smart girls always want to go to Berkeley. Most of them never make it there.”) In short, I was “going nowhere fast.”
Amidst all of this, to my surprise, I was named as having done the most exceptional work in the English department. (This has gone to my head.) Someone gave a speech. I don’t really remember what she said, but it was something about me seeing rock music the same as literature. This was news to me. But suddenly, everything clicked. Because my undying love for rock music wasn’t actually based in music— it was based in a book.
So, I ended up with Gray in my hand again. I wanted to hate it. I hadn’t touched it in years. I was sure that this was trash, and all my memories of it were the delusions of a teenage fangirl. I was sophisticated now, with a degree in literature. Surely, I was above celebrity fluff.
I was not.
Gray was exactly as I had remembered it, still swollen from being reread too many times in the bath, covered in sweaty fingerprints, highlighter, dog-ears, and shaky pencil. And it was still a great American novel. It was just misunderstood.
This time, though, I knew for sure I had been right all along.
Pete Wentz’s novel Gray is complicated (it took over seven years to write, after all), and consequently, this (perhaps unhinged) piece will reflect that. This essay will have a few parts, primarily combining research with literary analysis into a love-dissertation dissecting my favorite book of all time. Ultimately, it seeks to 1) fully contextualize how Gray came to be, 2) explain Gray‘s identity as a “roman-a-clef,” and, therefore, its place on the spectrum between fiction and reality, and 3) argue my thesis. Which is, of course, that Gray deliberately masquerades as exactly what people expect it to be: the rant of a “narcissistic” and “self-pitying” rock star “so shallow an ant [would struggle] to drown.” But a reader with a little faith will understand that things are not always what they seem. Rather, Gray brilliantly executes its stated intention by blending paradoxes such as irony / authenticity, reality / fantasy, truth / lies, and satire / sincerity, into a narrative so ambiguous it “evades understanding, let alone a solution.” But only if you’re in on it.
PART ONE: GRAY’S BACKSTORY
Gray was released on February 19th, 2013; the novel was co-authored by Pete Wentz (bassist of American rock band Fall Out Boy) and James Montgomery (former senior editor of MTV). Depending on who you ask, the plot of Gray (or lack thereof) consists of: “a series of fights, breakups, suicide attempts, one-night stands, and drugged-out phone calls;” or, “the collected prose of Pete Wentz… on topics that concern rock stars everywhere;” or, “[the tale of] “a young rock star [who] marinates himself in psychotropic drugs, ruminates on life on the road and pines away for his girl.”
To be slightly more precise, Gray traces the story of an unnamed and unhappy rock star. The novel is not linear, but chronologically, it begins with the narrator in college, first meeting his girlfriend (Her), and trying to get his band off the ground. Throughout the course of the book, Wentz’s self-insert attempts to straddle the opposing and incompatible worlds of being a rock star and being normal. His band takes off, while his relationship and his mental health unravel in tandem to his success, leading to a lot of drugs, sex, violence (both self-inflicted and otherwise), hallucinations, and attempted suicide. Ultimately, Gray ends where it begins, with the main character famous and successful, surrounded by fans, groupies, and a boisterous entourage. But, in spite of achieving his dream, Gray’s narrator is miserable and locked in his own head— because his girlfriend died in a drunk-driving accident following his cruelty towards Her.
The broad framework of Gray — save for the sudden death at the end — certainly seems to mirror many aspects of Pete Wentz’s life; Gray is oft-classified as a memoir. However, according to Wentz himself, “It is [a work of fiction]. I wrote it about a twenty-twenty one year old guy—boy —where you’re in a man’s body, but you still have boyish logic and emotions. And it’s kind of this in-between period that I feel like exists in guys from eighteen to twenty four, where you’re like, ‘I don’t know, I’m at this kind of morally and everything gray area in my life, where I do crazy stuff with my friends but I’m like, basically a good guy. I have basically good intentions, I’m going to grow up and be the man I want to be but right now I’m in this weird, like, growing out of my puppy body.’ (Wentz’s self-insert is NOT twenty; he is twenty-five in Chapters Sixteen and Twenty-One, and twenty-seven at the novel’s start/end.)
However, according to an article apparently written by the nebulous entity of “MTV News Staff,” this rather grim story serves as “a decidedly dark rumination on life beneath the spotlight and the loss of innocence that comes with it,” and is “an unflinching look behind the curtain” that “gives insight about what life on the road is like” and “details the constraints of fame that pushed Wentz –and his band, Fall Out Boy– to the brink.”
And, though Pete Wentz insists Gray is “one hundred percent fiction,” it certainly seems to offer insight into his lyricism. There are an abundance of Fall Out Boy lyrics buried within the prose of Gray, even including a few from unreleased tracks and demos. “Drop dead, you motherfucker, drop dead!” and “For a second, I am dying to be it. Dying to be as clever and kissable as Her” mirrors “A Little Less Sixteen Candles, A Little More Touch Me.” “I’m a lifer, sweetheart, I’m here ‘til the bitter end” parallels lines in “Sophomore Slump or Comeback of the Year.” “We are two explorers in the dark. Mapless and hopeless” demonstrates a line in an early demo version of “My Songs Know What You Did in The Dark.” “Let’s start this at the end” is a line from “Alone Together.” “I am not just taking trips down memory lane, I am broken down on it” appears in “Don’t You Know Who I Think I Am.” “I’ve got ringing in my ears, but none on my fingers” almost exactly parallels a FOB song title. The line “I could talk my way out of anything” appears in “You’re Crashing, But You’re No Wave.” Et cetera, et cetera.
Many of these little references lend understanding and context to Wentz’s famously “nonsense” metaphors. The seemingly-indecipherable meaning of “Tempest in a teacup, get unique, Peroxide princess, shine like shark teeth” from “Headfirst Slide Into Cooperstown on a Bad Bet” in particular is a common subject of debate in fan spaces; in Gray, the line “…Her hair looks like rows of shark teeth, jagged dye jobs on top of one another, running away from Her natural color. Nobody wants to be who they are” clearly illustrates the rather opaque metaphor at hand. So, as MTV said, one could posit that Gray offers “a look…behind the curtain” into the inner workings of Pete Wentz’s mind.
“SEVEN YEARS IN THE MAKING”
This “curtain” description came, of course, from MTV’s announcement of the book’s release; the article went on to explain that the writing of Gray by Pete Wentz was “a journey,” but that the book was “triumphantly—and finally—in stores” “nearly seven years after it was first mentioned by the author himself.” The extensive length of this journey becomes quickly apparent when examining the head-spinning number of twists (and endless parade of postponed releases) Gray experienced during its incubation. Gray‘s history is so complex that even Wentz himself seems uncertain of when his (and Montgomery’s) book was first conceived. This is perhaps explained by how (according to Pete Wentz) writing Gray rather paradoxically took years, but was also completed at the last minute.
Speaking with Time magazine, Pete Wentz said, “I had been working on it for six years outside the band. But that was a hard process, the editing. It was hard and just vastly different than I thought it was going to be. I was watching the Girls finale, and Lena Dunham is on the phone with her agent. He says, ‘It needs to be turned in [or] they sue you.’ And she’s, like, ‘I need to write a book in a day.’ That summed up that process.” In another interview, contradicting both himself and MTV, Wentz said on Carson Daly Gray took five years to write; similarly, Wentz told Metro.us it had only taken “four or five” years.
But I think both MTV and Wentz seem slightly off on their count—Pete Wentz was actually discussing a book for well over seven years, and writing it for even longer.
The first mention of a full-length Pete Wentz book (that I found) actually came in a Kansas City alternative newspaper from November 2005, and seemed to indicate news of Wentz’s alleged book was already widely circulated. Wentz said, “It’s called Rainy Day Kids, and it’s being edited right now. It’s [very] stream-of-consciousness — more of what I’d call my true voice as a writer. It reads closer to something like maybe Bukowski, but fiction. It’s probably not as insane as Bukowski, either. I’m just going to publish it myself through Clandestine.” Initially, various internet rumors claimed the book would be released in February 2006.
And indeed, it did seem that Pete Wentz’s book had been in the works for some time prior to its publication; an examination of Wentz’s journals reveal that pieces of early drafts began appearing as early as July-October of 2004. Several passages appear nearly verbatim in various alleged secret blogs, with some notable exclusions (for example, the phrases “overweight Ethiopians” and “pornstar retirement home” appear in these drafts, and were mercifully removed).
Original journals vs. Gray by Pete Wentz (click to enlarge). (Note “Oxycontin” referring to “the cuddling hormone” is “incorrect” in the final version, but correct as “Oxytocin” in the original draft, indicating this “mistake” was deliberate.)
The next official mention of Pete Wentz’z novel came in January 2006, when Wentz posted in one of his personal journals a note of appreciation to his friend Leslie Simon. Simon has written works including Geek Girls Unite, centering on fangirls, and Everybody Hurts, which functions as a guide to emo culture. At the time of Wentz’s post, she served as a journalist for Alternative Press, and wrote the cover story of the FOB-centric October 2005 issue, entitled Fall Out Boy: Cleanliness, Godliness, And The Sad Truth In-Between. This article primarily concerned the band’s journey leading up to, and the immediate aftermath of, Pete Wentz’s February 2005 overdose on Ativan. In his journal entry, Wentz explained Simon was editing what was then Rainy Day Kids. (She is thanked in the acknowledgements of Gray.)
A short while later, in March of 2006, Wentz again began posting early drafts from the book. Gray co-author James Montgomery described this period as “a pretty lousy month for Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz,” citing Wentz’s internet feud with his (debatably) former associate Chris Gutierrez (See: “Stay Gold, Dude, Stay Gold“), a “nasty” fall at a secret show, and leaked intimate photos as contributing to Wentz’s misery. Likewise, FOB vocalist Patrick Stump said of this time period: “[Wentz] was inconsolable. For like weeks. He didn’t leave his house. It was really dark.” Part of the introduction to one of the journal entries Wentz posted during this time reads: “My wrists are black and blue from bumping the edge of the table next to the keyboard like a punching bag. I’m sorry, it’s just that’s the only way I know how to get this out.”
Original journal entires vs Gray by Pete Wentz (click to enlarge)
Shortly after posting these excerpts—in April 2006, to be precise—Pete Wentz revealed a few details about his novel to the Independent. Specifically, he said it was about 200 pages, and “It’s a bit like [Nikolai Gogol’s] Diary of a Madman.” (For reference, Gogol’s story “shows the descent of the protagonist, Poprishchin, into insanity”.) Then, in May of that same year, Wentz told The Aquarian that the project had been shelved: “I wrote another book, but we edited it and I was not very happy with it and I wanted to be really proud of the next thing I put out. I obsess over words and there is stuff in the new book that’s not good, so I decided to scrap it and put it back together. We’ll see if it sees the light of day, but it has to be something I am proud of…”.
Obviously, though, this was not the end of the project. In August 2006, Dose.ca reported that the book was set to be released that summer. Needless to say, this did not happen. Sometime in 2007, US Magazine reported that Pete Wentz was still working on Rainy Day Kids while writing a second, separate book with assistance from William Beckett of the band The Academy Is…, and that they were “alternating chapters.” An alleged excerpt of what was supposedly the literary effort between Beckett and Wentz supposedly leaked online in 2008; it is unclear which of the two penned the excerpt. A few months later, in January 2009, Wentz wrote on his personal Tumblr account that “I don’t think Rainy Day Kids will ever see the light of day. I hate the writing from it and don’t believe it’s worth it to be published.” He also added that he had second manuscript, which he also did not intend to publish.
After this—as far as I could tell— things went radio silent on the Pete Wentz novel front for quite some time. Of Gray’s extensive developmental process, Wentz elucidated: ” I don’t know, I guess it’s just — I mean, I don’t know. I think creative projects don’t really happen overnight, I guess. There’s no rhyme or reason to why it takes a little — I mean, there’s no specific reason, I guess, you know.” Alternately, MTV explained: “Over that time, [the book] was nearly retired, then resuscitated – with the help of MTV News senior editor James Montgomery – and finally reborn…”.
So who even is that?
“YOU CANNOT MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE ROCK STARS”
James Montgomery— The Gray co-writer, former senior editor at MTV, and former senior editor at Rolling Stone— seems to have first written about Fall Out Boy in May of 2005, following the release of “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down.” In an interview discussing Gray with Carson Daly, Pete Wentz noted that the single’s video being played on MTV is what pushed Fall Out Boy into the spotlight; this pivotal moment in the band’s career is briefly noted in Gray, alongside a playful swipe at MTV: “Heatseekers chart and all that. The first single is getting played on the radio, and our video is being shown on MTV (when they actually show music videos).”
Within the first year of reporting on Fall Out Boy—and Wentz— Montgomery used words ranging from “radiant” to “cringe-inducing” as descriptors. Across the next eight or so years, Montgomery would write somewhere in the ballpark of a hundred-odd articles about Pete Wentz, Fall Out Boy, and various signees to Wentz’s label, Decaydance. (But mostly about Pete Wentz.) To be succinct, James Montgomery and Pete Wentz certainly seemed to have a bit of a Nick-Gatsby thing going on, something that definitely made it into Gray. The Gatsby quote, “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away…” definitely could have been said by Montgomery about Wentz rather than Nick about Gatsby— though, it’s missing the distinct sneer of 2000s rock reporting.
(The line of Pete Wentz’s that James Montgomery described as “cringe-inducing” is essentially in Gray, italicized for emphasis. It is the only italicized line of dialogue in the novel; all other italicized portions are identified as quotations from written works.)
Almost three years exactly after that first article—and ahead of Wentz’s 2008 wedding to Ashlee Simpson (to which Montgomery was not invited)— James Montgomery wrote, “You may not know this, but I tend to write a lot of stories about Fall Out Boy. And by a lot, I mean volumes. Like, somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 over the past four years, at the very least. And not surprisingly, most of these stories have tended to be about – or at least revolve around – Pete Wentz.” (I think I counted over twenty articles written after this.) He went on to explain that, “Pete Wentz has made my job here really easy. He is like a constant font of headlines, and covering him is a full-time gig … And for that, I pretty much owe him the most gigantic debt of gratitude imaginable.”
Montgomery continued: “I’ve also gotten to know Pete pretty well. I’ve met his folks and been to his childhood home. We e-mail regularly about inane bull. We’ve eaten dinners together. He is a good dude, and I have no problem saying that [Wentz is] my friend, except that…by saying that, I’m basically breaking every guideline in the ‘Ethical Journalist’ handbook (not to mention totally violating the Lester Bangs principle in ‘Almost Famous’).” (For reference, if you haven’t seen Almost Famous.)
Excerpt from two scenes from Almost Famous featuring Lester Bangs (of Creem Magazine) and Wlliam Miller (a young aspiring journalist)
Wentz speaking with Heather Adler of Dose.ca v. Penny Lane, Almost Famous (Wentz, however, plays bass.)
The article focused upon Montgomery explaining his feelings surrounding the fact that Wentz hadn’t told him he was planning to propose to Simpson, nor had Wentz invited Montgomery to their wedding: “This sort of bothered me, because, hey, we’re friends, right? (Aren’t we?)…It was very weird. I’m sure lines were being crossed… As [Chuck Klosterman] once said, a good journalist will never believe that he’s “friends” with anyone he interviews, because 1) it means you’ve lost your edge, since the best reporters are the most adversarial; and 2) the relationship between the two sides never exists in reality. A journalist and a subject are brought together only under pre-arranged conditions…and never spend time together of their own accord. Therefore, any relationship is pure fantasy. And he’s right. I think.”
In the end, Montgomery ultimately concluded that he was rather unbothered by the lack of an invite, as it allowed him to maintain appropriate journalistic boundaries. Regardless, everyone soon moved on; later that same year, James Montgomery wrote that Pete Wentz had paid him $500 out of Simpson’s purse to swallow wasabi and drink kombucha, and described him as “a complete sadist.” (Simpson and Wentz divorced in 2011.)
While it seems that nothing was announced publicly regarding Montgomery’s involvement in Wentz’s novel until its release, there are still a few inferences that can reasonably be drawn regarding the addition of Gray’s co-writer.
In November 2009— ten months after Pete Wentz said that his book would “[n]ever see the light of day”—Fall Out Boy went on an indefinite hiatus. This hiatus was largely driven by shifting dynamics within the band, poor reception of their fourth record Folie a Deux, disillusionment with the industry, and “desperation” for a break. Rolling Stone’s Andy Greene described this time as “a very dark chapter for the band.” And though Fall Out Boy insist this was not even a hiatus, and the band was merely “decompressing,” at one point Montgomery reported that the future of the band seemed quite bleak. In 2010, Montgomery wrote that, “[Fall Out Boy] is over, or at the very least, [Pete Wentz] is done with them.” Wentz was quoted: “I can’t imagine playing in FOB again. Something would have to change in my head or my heart…[The band] might happen without me.” As reported by James Montgomery, Wentz “signed off [on a cryptic blog post] with a Latin phrase, ‘Acta est fibula,’ which translates loosely to, ‘The play is over.’”
Later, according to James Montgomery’s reporting, Pete Wentz posted, “… [As] a band we grew apart… There is the possibility that FOB will play again without me…It is no one’s fault, and there is no animosity about the decision…I felt as fans, you deserve to know.” Similar to the later “Confessions of a Pariah” Alternative Press piece by Stump that ultimately sparked the Fall Out Boy reunion, Wentz’s blog post definitely read as a cry for help; it also vaguely referenced that Wentz was planning on not living to see old age.
(This post came a year prior to Wentz’s divorce from Ashlee Simpson and over a year after the Fall Out Boy hiatus began; during the vague period surrounding these two events, he suffered serious mental health issues; the bassist was abusing Xanax and Klonopin, weighed only 95 pounds, and was suffering from paranoia and anxiety so extreme he had his house searched for cameras. Three days after James Montgomery reported on Pete Wentz’s blog post, he wrote that Wentz had suffered severe and unexplained injuries to his face.)
Seeing as James Montgomery reported that Pete Wentz “was actively searching for a new project to re-energize himself,” I’d say that it’s fair to assume this post was the catalyst for what was once Rainy Day Kids being “resuscitated – with the help of MTV News senior editor James Montgomery – and finally reborn…”. At some point, Pete Wentz and James Montgomery decided to start writing together, and the book was brought back to life. The acknowledgements of Gray read, “This book and much of my (in)sanity would not be possible without… James Montgomery, for making sense of me even when I couldn’t and getting it right—for bringing this book back to life multiple times.”
In any case, on February 16th, 2012, Pete Wentz posted that Rainy Day Kids— now presumably featuring Montgomery—“should be out in October.” However, this was probably derailed by Patrick Stump’s rather dark February 29th “Confessions of a Pariah” Alternative Press piece, which is more or less considered to be a cry for help from Stump that led to Fall Out Boy’s explosive February 2013 reunion. Thus, when Wentz’s alleged deadline of October of 2012 rolled around, the release date was again moved to January 8th. The book did not actually come out until roughly six weeks later, on February 19th, with the new title of Gray.
And though that concludes the literal physical journey of the creation of Gray, MTV explains that the “journey” was more than a slow and grueling road to completion: “Writing it was a journey … and we’re not just talking about the time the book spent in development.” In other words, “MTV News Staff” appears to be implying that the book’s writing process was not merely lengthy, but also emotionally charged.
Indeed, Wentz told The Guardian he found writing Gray to be excruciating: “I don’t know if I’d ever write another book. I thought it was going to be similar to writing songs but it wasn’t. It gave me a new respect for writers and authors. It wasn’t a process I particularly enjoyed.” Somewhat paradoxically, however, he told Carson Daly that the process was “cathartic” and “exorcis[ed] everything in my head that I can’t get out in lyrics or onstage.”
Additionally, Gray is something Pete Wentz appears to be a bit sensitive about; he once hung up on an interviewer after she inquired about Gray’s writing process in comparison to that of writing a song. To my knowledge, this is out-of-character behavior for Wentz, and quite possibly the only time in his twenty-plus-year-long-career as a musician where he ended an interview so suddenly and without explanation.
While the article’s author did confess the interview began with an inappropriate joke, it is rather curious that such a seemingly innocuous question resulted in Wentz’s decision to abruptly end the conversation, especially given that he boasts a long history in the spotlight. Pete Wentz especially is no stranger to the unpleasant side of being interviewed and the darker parts of fame. Specifically, he has often been portrayed in the press as a bête noire— or, in Patrick Stump’s words— “a cold-hearted mogul” and “great mythical kind of bad guy,” or,— in James Montgomery’s— as a “paranoid, pill-popping narcissist.” Or, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald: “It was testimony to the romantic speculation he inspired that there were whispers about him from those who had found little that it was necessary to whisper about in this world.”
PART TWO: FICTION, REALITY, AND ROMAN-A-CLEFS
Now, we’re going to enter the next part of this dissertation, where we will discuss whether or not Gray is “fiction” – as Pete Wentz himself insists— or a memoir, like many interpret Gray as. Anyone who is even vaguely aware of who Wentz is may immediately clock Gray as a thinly veiled autobiography. The New York Post, among many others, classifies this book as a memoir. This is (despite Wentz’s insistency) a fairly rational cursory interpretation. Wentz, however, strongly denies that Gray is anything but a fairy tale. In carefully measured tones, Wentz told Carson Daly: “It is [a work of fiction.] I wrote this maybe five years ago, I wrote this kind of story, and I started editing it with this real book company, and they were like, yeah, it’s gotta actually have a narrative, or else, it’s not linear, people can’t understand it. So I put it in this world that makes sense to me, you know, aspiring band, growing up in Chicago.”
However, “MTV News Staff,” as we have previously mentioned, coyly described the novel as “an unflinching look behind the curtain” and said it “gives insight about what life on the road is like” and that Gray “details the constraints of fame that pushed Pete Wentz – and his band, Fall Out Boy – to the brink.” While not explicitly characterizing the novel as a memoir, the MTV article certainly seems to allude to the concept that the novel is based in truth.
And, though the article does not have an explicitly identified author, Gray’s co-author was, at least, a senior editor at MTV. In a Tumblr post, a longtime Panic! at the Disco fan insinuated that Montgomery was “a writer for MTV who had a bad habit of projecting his own assumptions onto what [band] guys were saying and then writing that idea as though it was actual info they had shared.” (This comment was made specifically regarding the wildly speculation-inducing nature of Montgomery’s coverage of the excruciating number of lineup changes Panic! at the Disco has undergone.) I don’t theorize that this is the case in this instance; rather, I’m inclined to think that – given the pair’s apparent closeness— Pete Wentz agreed with MTV’s blurry and vague characterization of Gray’s genre.
This blurring of the lines between fiction and reality is because Gray is not a memoir, nor is it a fictional novel. It’s a roman-a-clef—“a novel in which real people, places, or events appear with fictitious names or details, blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction.”
Many of the novels penned by Pete Wentz’s favorite authors are roman-a-clefs. Wentz especially feels a strong sense of closeness with these favorite authors, telling Heather Adler of Dose.ca that, “Everyone I’ve ever truly loved is dead or in the spine of a book on a shelf somewhere,” and that, “It’s easier to love books than people… A book never lets you down. A book never betrays you.”
As testimony, Pete Wentz named his dog after Ernest Hemingway; Hemingway’s most famous novel, The Sun Also Rises, is a roman-a-clef. (One harsh critic of Gray noted the novel’s similarities to Hemingway’s writing style, particularly “liberal use of short, terse sentences.”) Likewise, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is explicitly referenced in the book, as well as in the unreleased Fall Out Boy track “Tell Hip-Hop I’m Literate.” Great Expectations, while not technically a roman-a-clef, serves (to some degree) as a “spiritual and intimate autobiography” of Dickens’ life. Similarly, Bukowski’s Post Office, which is also alluded to in “Tell Hip-Hop…,” was largely autobiographical, with many of the names changed; Pete Wentz stated that his novel was partially inspired by Bukowski.
But perhaps the roman-a-clef that influenced Gray most is the final work referenced in “Tell Hip-Hop…:” Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. You see, Pete Wentz is a big Jack Kerouac fanboy, referring to Kerouac on a first-name basis in his personal journals and stating in a 2009 interview with The Daily Mail that the thing he’d most like to own is “the typewriter on which Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road. I’d love to write on that thing.” Finally, in another journal entry from 2007, Wentz likened himself to Kerouac and Patrick Stump to Dean Moriarty, and referenced the semi-factual nature of On The Road.
“SHE WOULD GET THE REFERENCE, I THINK.”
Sure enough, Gray itself alludes repeatedly to Kerouac’s works throughout the novel—specifically On the Road and The Dharma Bums. This is not merely coincidental—the allusions in Wentz’s book are all critically important to decoding what Gray truly means. Allusions are a frequent literary device employed by Pete Wentz to add an additional layer of meaning to his lyricism; of these references, Wentz once penned, “You either get it, or you don’t.” In order to illustrate how deliberate the references in Gray are, we’re going to run through several.
The first is to William Tecumseh Sherman: “I call Her up again because I want to go over the blueprints for a miniature Atlanta because I crave catastrophe. I want to tell Her I am the new William Tecumseh Sherman.” To a reader unfamiliar with the novel’s key, this is easy to gloss over as the ramblings of the complete nutcase of a narrator. However, it’s purposeful. This line—which comes quite early in the book—is followed by “She would get the reference, I think.” Just to let you know there’s something there, and to tell the reader that the references in this novel mean something.
William Tecumseh Sherman was a Union Civil War general who—like Pete Wentz—was oft-characterized as a “lunatic” and “insane” in the press. Sherman suffered a mental break, and ultimately recovered via forging a relationship with a “drunkard” – Ulysses S. Grant. Sherman famously said in a speech, “General Grant is a great general. I know him well. He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now, sir, we stand by each other always.” In the analogy Wentz is alluding to, it is Patrick Stump that is the Grant to Pete Wentz’s Sherman. Like Stump, Grant was known for his small size, adherence to his morals, and generally softspoken nature. Arguably, the relationship between Sherman and Grant mirrors the creative relationship between the mentally struggling Wentz and his close bandmate Patrick Stump, who—in his own words— struggled with a “drinking binge after a bad breakup.” Patrick Stump said of Pete Wentz: “Pete’s my best friend, I was the best man at his wedding, I love that man to death. I’d take a bullet for him.” Likewise, Wentz wrote in one of his journals: “[Stump is one] of the only people in the world that I would take a bullet for.” This is the first allusion in Gray, and while it could be interpreted as a throwaway line to signify the narrator’s insanity, it’s made explicitly clear by the writers that this is a deliberate and meaningful allusion via the line, “She would get the reference, I think.”
Another example of the deliberate allusions in Gray is to “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos, which plays on the radio after Wentz’s narrator sneaks out and covertly “borrows” his brother’s car in the middle of the night to go loiter outside of his (then-ex) girlfriend’s apartment. “Layla” was written by Eric Clapton about his obsession with George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd; Boyd ultimately divorced Harrison to be with Clapton, and, in spite of his obsession, he continually cheated on her and treated her horribly. This mirrors how Wentz’s self-insert treats his girlfriend awfully and continually sleeps with groupies despite being obsessed with Her to the point of religion. Additionally, “Layla” is based off an Arabic folk story called “The Story of Layla and Majnun,” which concerns a young man who is unable to marry a girl because he is insane, causing the girl to ultimately die of a broken heart. Obviously, this folktale has clear parallels with Gray’s plot.
There are many more of these little metaphors throughout Gray, and each of them have special meanings. Wentz’s self-insert mentions— in extra-special parentheses— that his girlfriend decided that if he were a book, he’d be “(The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music, 1970, featuring… Charley Pride, ‘the first Negroe Country star’);” Pete Wentz is biracial, with Jamaican heritage, and became more or less the face of the white-dominated genre of pop-punk and emo rock. The narrator and Her listen to “More Than A Feeling” by Boston twice in a row; the song is about losing someone you love, serving as foreshadowing for Her death at the end of the novel.
The narrator also quotes from The Catcher In The Rye before blacking out drunk in the Metro bathroom at his band’s record-release party; in the scene Gray’s narrator quotes from, Holden Caulfield is told he needs to see a psychoanalyst, then he gets insanely drunk and phones his girlfriend, demanding to speak with her and rambling incoherently. Afterwards, he remarks, “I wish to God I hadn’t even phoned her. When I’m drunk, I’m a madman.” Again, obvious parallels with Gray and its string of “drugged-out phone calls.” Many additional specific elements of The Catcher in the Rye, such as the narrator suffering a moment of crisis after having a cab driver take him to Grand Central Terminal in New York, are echoed in Gray. Regarding that last one, Holden Caulfield remarks of the experience, “I think I was more depressed than I ever was in my whole life” and the narrator tells the audience, “I will probably never have a more depressing day in my entire life.”
(Pete Wentz posted to his personal blog in February of 2012 that his book was originally intended to be 50 pages shorter. While, theoretically, these pages could have been inserted anywhere in the draft, counting back 50 pages from the novel’s actual ending is the final page of this chapter, illustrating the possibility that a much darker ending was originally planned. Perhaps Gray was originally intended to end here, after Chapter Twenty-One, with the narrator manic and leaving Grand Central Terminal after hallucinating he is seeing God in the face of a child, and wishing he was dead.)
And, though it’s not as explicit of an allusion as the others, there are many parallels between Gray and Closer, which lent a line to Fall Out Boy’s “Thnks Fr Th Mmrs” and Panic! at the Disco’s “Lying is the Most Fun…”. In Closer, a journalist and failed writer (Dan) leaves his girlfriend for a stripper (Alice); he subsequently writes a novel about her. When accused by his photographer (Anna) of “stealing [Alice’s] life,” he insists he only “borrowed” it. Dan becomes infatuated with Anna after she tells him she loved his book and it was “accurate about sex and love.” Obviously, this pretty closely mirrors some elements of Gray, particularly the “borrowing” of a girl’s life.
Beyond this, Alice is revealed at the end to have lied about her name to seem special, when in reality she had the normal name of Jane Jones; likewise, in Gray by Pete Wentz, it is implied Her middle name beginning with Q is a lie. In the original drafts of the book that appear in Wentz’s journals, it is explicit that the Q name is a falsehood.
In the original play Closer (2004) was based off of, Alice/Jane was killed by a car, mirroring Her death in Gray. Other elements, such as the focus on truth and lies, continuous infidelity, a writer’s love interest having a mysterious scar, the writer character having “mommy issues,” the writer’s mother smoking, and the writer being violent with a female love interest, are all key elements of Pete Wentz’s novel and both the film and play versions of Closer. Finally, Anna suggests that Dan change the title of his book at the last minute; Dan complies, and the book subsequently bombs. Likewise, Gray’s title was changed from Rainy Day Kids at the last minute; James Montgomery jokingly reported that, “[Wentz] probably should have chosen a different title.”
And so on and so on— there’s probably a lot of allusions and little references that I’m missing. To more concisely sum up what I just spent several paragraphs explaining, the allusions in Gray are very deliberate and purposeful, and closely entwined with the meaning of the story.
And there are a lot of references to Jack Kerouac, perhaps because this is the most important allusion of them all. The narrator’s best friend The Disaster is “free, like the hoboes of Kerouac;” the guys Her hangs out with when she’s not with the narrator are a “gang of wannabe rockabilly Dharma Bums;” finally, the phrase “On the road” is used eight times throughout Gray, and the word “road” fifty-seven.
“NOVEL WITH A KEY”
It is very, very critical Wentz’s self-insert makes you understand he is On the Road, just as Kerouac was— because this understanding is important to interpreting what Gray is, and understanding that it is neither fiction or memoir, but rather, a roman-a-clef.
Like I said earlier, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is a roman-a-clef. A roman-a-clef is “a novel in which real people, places, or events appear with fictitious names or details, blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction.” Or, in other words, a book “about real-life events that is overlaid with a façade of fiction.” The term is French for “novel with a key,” and “the ‘key’ is the relationship between the nonfiction and the fiction.” While sometimes made explicit by the author, the “key” to roman-a-clefs is sometimes “implied through the use of … literary techniques.” And, in the case of Pete Wentz and James Montgomery’s work, the “key” is implied through the use of allusions to other roman-a-clefs, and inclusion of critical details about characters that correspond with their real-life analogues.
One of the primary uses of the roman-a-clef is “the opportunity to portray personal, autobiographical experiences without having to expose the author as the subject,” though other frequent uses include “the settling of scores,” “reporting inside information on scandals without giving rise to charges of libel,” and “the opportunity to turn the tale the way the author would like it to have gone.”
So, to use Kerouac as an example, On the Road tells the story of the Beat movement, with fake names given to the real-life analogues; Allen Ginsberg becomes Carlo Marx, William S. Burroughs becomes Old Bull Lee, and Neal Cassady becomes Dean Moriarty. One could argue Gray follows similar patterns. The parallels to Pete Wentz’s own life are so striking that one may suggest it’s merely a memoir with a thin veneer of fiction, in order to deny in interviews that Gray— in all its grimy glory of sex, drugs, fistfights, rock ‘n’ roll, and raging misogyny— has any basis whatsoever in reality.
To start with, there’s the obvious—Wentz’s self-insert is from Chicago, and he’s in a band. The singer of the unnamed band in Gray is “Martin”— Fall Out Boy vocalist Patrick Stump’s legal middle name is Martin. The redneck drifter best friend of Wentz’s self-insert, “John Miller” aka “The Disaster,” strongly resembles infamous Fall Out Boy roadie “Jon Miller” aka “Dirty.” The vegan and Milwaukee-born drummer of the unnamed band in Gray is known as “the Animal;” Fall Out Boy drummer Andy Hurley is also a vegan from Milwaukee. Wentz stated in a 2017 interview: “Andy is basically Animal from The Muppets;” likewise, in 2005, Patrick Stump described Hurley in the same fashion.
There are many other tiny clues throughout the novel, with details that the narrator repeats again and again, almost as if he’s shaking you and telling you to pay attention. The unnamed band in Gray creates their first album at a studio in Wisconsin where Nirvana once wrote; the same is true of Take This To Your Grave. The dramatic release show for the fictional band’s debut is at the Metro, just as it was for TTTYG. Afterwards, the band goes on to write their sophomore record at an apartment complex in LA they refer to as “The Cokewoods” due to it being populated by “C-list actors from Disney shows, most not a day over fifteen, wandering around with sadness in their eyes and white powder around their nostrils.” FOB recorded their second record From Under The Cork Tree at an LA apartment complex called “The Oakwoods,” which Pete Wentz described as “Like being on a desert island, only… way more washed-up child actors.” The unnamed band shot an album cover at a little vegan café “down on Clark Street;” the cover for Evening Out With Your Girlfriend (the band’s despised red-headed stepchild of a 2001 record) was shot at the now-closed Pick Me Up café on Clark.
It goes on and on and on. Pete Wentz has said that these parallels mean nothing. He insisted to Metro.us that Gray is “100 percent fictional…In the kind of obsessed culture we live in people are like, ‘Well then that means that it’s autobiographical,’ but it’s not. Pretty much none of those situations ever happened—those are all made up.” He added that though some characters were “composites of people in life,” telling a true story was “not the road that [he wanted to] take” during the writing of Gray.
However, so many minute details from Pete Wentz’s life appear in Gray that its basis in truth become harder and harder to ignore. To explore one case study, in the book, the unnamed narrator spends a bizarre weekend with an impossibly-beautiful and impossibly-famous celebrity woman. One unfavorable review of Gray posited that this character is a thinly-veiled representation of Wentz’s now-ex wife, Ashlee Simpson. However, I would argue that it’s not meant to portray Simpson—it’s Lindsay Lohan.
This character is described as cocaine-obsessed, amber-haired, impossibly rich and famous, and a little too into Transcendental Meditation. Lindsay Lohan is, arguably, all of these things. MTV once described Pete Wentz as Lohan’s “flavor of the month,” though Wentz bizarrely claimed in his infamous 2009 interview with Howard Stern that he wasn’t sure if they ever slept together; apparently, he was “so deep in Ambien-land” he somehow did not know if “that connection ever even happened.” In Gray, this woman later calls him over and over, screaming about her cousin that tried to shoot himself and turned into a vegetable; also speaking with Stern in 2009, Wentz said, “I actually have a friend who uh, a friend whose cousin survived [playing Russian Roulette] and is a vegetable now. It’s terrible.” Wentz’s character hits hard on the girl being a Stooges fan, mentioning eight different times that she’s into blasting Raw Power while coked up; Entertainment News reported that Lohan once skipped out on court mandated alcohol education classes in favor of an Iggy Pop concert. Additionally, the narrator references the paparazzi “bringing their cameras low in case she’s not wearing underwear;” such photos of Lohan were published on multiple occasions. Finally, she has a penchant for calling her friends “cunts” while surrounded by paparazzi; paparazzi videos of Lohan calling Paris Hilton a cunt have gone viral.
The minute parallels with real-life figures don’t stop there. In Gray, the narrator’s girlfriend’s middle name supposedly begins with a “Q” (although the narrator implies this is a lie). A college girlfriend of Pete Wentz’s (named Morgan)— who appeared on the original cover of Take This To Your Grave— asserted in the title of her LiveJournal that her middle name began with a Q, and “Q Is Not A Name.”
(As this essay exists solely for the purpose of literary analysis, I have selected not to link this account for the sake of privacy.) Wentz’s self-insert and Her attend Columbia together; likewise, the girlfriend and Wentz both attended DePaul University together. (Wentz probably picked Columbia not only because it is in Chicago, but because it shares a name with the New York college Jack Kerouac attended.)
Despite all of this, in a fashion fitting for a writer that penned a novel about a guy gaslighting a girl until she dies, Pete Wentz asserted that anyone who thought Gray was based in reality was more or less delusional. When asked why people thought Gray was an autobiography, Wentz replied, “I think we live a culture that’s obsessed with people, you know, ‘Celebrities are just like us!’. Everything I do except my job is critically analyzed online.” This is fair, I suppose.
However, in The Art of Scandal: Modernism, Libel Law, and the Roman-a-Clef, Sean Latham explains that it is well-known to writers that the process of unlocking the “key” of a roman-a-clef is so thrilling to readers that it is practically an intoxicant. Latham says, “The initial confusion of fact and fiction designed to protect a tantalizing anonymity quickly becomes…infectious and pervasive.” Latham notes that Sigmund Freud and Oscar Wilde in particular experienced the “infectious” nature of roman-a-clefs on audiences. (Both Freud and Wilde are directly referenced in Gray.) Latham reveals that though Freud found the speculation “unwelcome,” Wilde reveled in its ability to attract readers to his critique of Victorian society. Similarly to what Latham suggests of Oscar Wilde, Pete Wentz’s dearly beloved Ernest Hemingway rose to prominence on the near-aphrodisiac effects of roman-a-clefs on readers. Of his debut The Sun Also Rises— which is oft-referred to as “Hemingway’s greatest work”— Biographer Carlos Baker noted that the scandal caused by the book’s roman-a-clef nature boosted sales, as “Parisian expatriates gleefully tried to match the fictional characters to real identities.”
“TURNING OF THE TALE”
All of this being said, it’s still critical to assert that, despite all of these parallels, a roman-a-clef is not just a memoir with the names changed to protect privacy. It is a different genre altogether. Often, roman-a-clefs blend elements of fiction and reality. I’m sure Pete Wentz likes to think of himself as Jack Kerouac or Ernest Hemingway, but to call back to my Fitzgerald comparison earlier, Tender is the Night is another example of a roman-a-clef, closely mirroring Fitzgerald’s life while taking many major liberties, such as Fitzgerald’s self-insert of Dick Diver being a prominent doctor and psychiatrist when Fitzgerald himself was not, and so on.
Likewise, there are undoubtedly many fictional liberties taken with Gray beyond the two I’m about to explore—for example, as I mentioned earlier, the main character’s breakdown in Grand Central Terminal is more a reference to The Catcher In The Rye rather than a depiction of a literal event that Wentz experienced. However, many readers have noted that Gray most sharply departs from Wentz’s own life at the ending.
This is because roman-a-clefs aren’t supposed to be entirely factual accounts. One of the primary functions of a roman-a-clef is “the opportunity to turn the tale the way the author would like it to have gone,” or “the settling of scores.” In the ending of Gray, Her abruptly dies drunk-driving in a fatal car crash. However, none of Pete Wentz’s known ex-girlfriends appear to have died in real life. But, in “Tell That Mick He Just Made My List of Things To Do Today,” the first track on Fall Out Boy’s debut record Take This To Your Grave, Wentz penned, “I hope you wrap your car around a tree / your makeup looks so great next to his teeth.”
It’s fair to criticize this artistic choice as a sort of fantasy-driven revenge pornography; Kirkus Reviews referred to Gray’s ending as a “mean-spirited denouement [that] may put off some readers.” It definitely comes at a point in the story that feels abrupt and unsatisfying, even odd, and it’s probably a deus ex machina invoked in a moment of desperation triggered by the reunion of Pete Wentz’s band and pressure from publishers. Wentz’s self-insert even confesses, “I write…fantasies, I suppose— that put Her in the worst situations imaginable…. My pen is a weapon, and I use it to… extract a measure of revenge.” However, this isn’t the only reason.
“LETS START THIS AT THE END”
Gray is a circle, and this reference to “Tell That Mick” is part of the circle. Many have criticized the lack of character development and plot in Gray; The AV Club, which gave Gray an “F,” said, “The narrator and Her fight, have sex, or talk about their collective future, but there’s no sense of progression.” But the novel isn’t linear, and the beginning is actually after the ending. Additionally, the book sometimes skips through time, adding to the overall muddy, cyclical, and dreamlike feel of the novel. (An “irrational sense of time” is a trait of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, which Pete Wentz said partially inspired Gray. The locations in Gray sometimes feel irrational too, as Wentz’s character sometimes confesses he doesn’t remember where he is: “Cities stop mattering. They are just names on a spreadsheet.”) This non-linear structure is stated clearly by the narrator in very first paragraph of Gray: “Let’s start this at the end.”
Likewise, Gray was written about the very beginning of Fall Out Boy, during a time when— as we outlined in the portion of the essay regarding Gray’s history— Pete Wentz felt that his time in the band had come to an end. And, according to MTV, the book tells the story of where things went wrong: “[Gray] details the constraints of fame that pushed Wentz – and his band, Fall Out Boy – to the brink.” The novel’s core conflict concerns the narrator’s inability to balance his mental stability and interpersonal relationships with his vision for the band— at least not without abusing every pill imaginable. Thus, Gray serves as a semi-confessional of why things soured. And just as Gray starts at the (pseudo-)end, it ends with the start— with the very first song on the very first true Fall Out Boy record, with Her crashing her car.
(It’s also a reference to The Smiths song “Girlfriend in a Coma.”)
But Her death isn’t the only change made to the ending. There’s another major alteration to the truth, or “turning of the tale the way the author would have liked it to have gone.” Gray features a sort of retelling of Pete Wentz’s 2005 overdose on Ativan, which— as Montgomery has strongly noted— received sensationalized and disrespectful media coverage. This literary analysis is going to attempt not to do so.
In Gray’s version of events, the unnamed narrator is having a great time on tour, enjoying the breathtaking scenery of the road: “[We] follow the interstate up into the great stretches of nowhere… A succession of sunrises and sunsets with no obstructed views. God’s country… Words will never do it justice… It feels okay to just be breathing, to just be riding up front with the guys, our little family band…At night the sky is lit with a million jumbled stars, scattered across sheets of velvet. The stars out West are jokes on city kids like me…”
That is, until he receives sudden news that Her is in a coma following a car accident, and they need to pull the plug. This is an adverse enough life event that the narrator takes “eight blue ones,” then somehow drives himself to the ER, quips his way through the hospital, and presses on with his band—in spite of not only his attempted overdose, but also the sudden and tragic death of his girlfriend. Sure, he does cry a lot, and there are a handful of canceled shows—but the tour does not go on without the narrator. And the narrator and his band come a decision as a unified front—they will press on together.
According to reporting done by Leslie Simon, who edited early drafts of the book, this was not quite how the aftermath of Pete Wentz’s real-life overdose—which he does not characterize as a suicide attempt, rather a “cry for help”—went. According to Simon’s reporting, leading up to the incident, Pete Wentz was succumbing to the pressure of the industry. Wentz “turn[ed] into a hermit,” and the band “[wasn’t] aware of the extent of Wentz’s mental state, [but] knew things weren’t quite right.” Wentz was abusing his medication, not sleeping, and behaving “irrationally.” Stump said of the time period, “I had to act like Pete wasn’t being weird. It was kind of like living next door to an axe murderer.” In short, Pete Wentz was “no longer able to function or take care of himself” and “he’d pushed his friends and family away.”
Pete Wentz himself told MTV, “We had just finished recording our major label record… and I just felt completely lost and out of control. At that point, I’d seen some doctors, and they kind of were Hollywood doctors. And they gave me a cocktail, but I kind of was the drugstore cowboy and took the cocktail the way I wanted to take it. So I got in my car… and I remember I was listening to Jeff Buckley doing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hum Hallelujah’ [sic].” Wentz overdosed on Ativan, and needed to be hospitalized for a week. According to Simon’s reporting, Wentz did not drive himself to the hospital as the narrator does in Gray— he fell unconscious, and his mother came and got him. Wentz told MTV the same thing; “I sat there and took a bunch of Ativan in a Best Buy parking lot and I called up my manager… and he called my mom, and my mom… came and got me and [we] went to the hospital.”
(In this interview, Pete Wentz referred to “Hallelujah” as “Hum Hallelujah;” the word “hum” does not appear in the song. Rather, “Hum Hallelujah” became a Fall Out Boy track on their 2007 record Infinity On High, which contains many parallels with both Wentz’s real-life overdose and Gray. The book specifically mentions “Hallelujah,” “swallowing” “blue ones,” and a reference to a chapel in a hospital.)
Meanwhile, as written by Simon, the band was forced to make the difficult decision to carry on with tour, “leaving Wentz to recover in a Chicago hospital.” Stump said, “It felt so wrong. It feels wrong even talking about it: Yeah, we just went off and did it without him. It was a sham to have to do that, but at the same time, we had to. Pete wanted us to.” Additionally, Pete Wentz’s bandmates were not fully aware of the circumstances regarding Wentz’s condition; guitarist Joe Trohman confessed that he “barely knew what was going on,” and resorted to an on-the-spot lie about food poisoning to placate fans regarding Pete Wentz’s tell-tale absence.
Later, after Wentz’s overdose, drummer Andy Hurley was “unaware of why Wentz really never went to the U.K. until th[e] interview,” and he “spent most of his time overseas coming to terms with his anger towards his longtime friend and bandmate. ‘I’ve known Pete for so long as one of the strongest and most self-assured people I know, and I was honestly a little angry that he was showing such weakness…I didn’t know everything that was happening…I didn’t know how to deal with it, because Pete doesn’t really share with people, and that’s what I was mad at. If you’re not going to share with people, then don’t ever be weak.’”
The main character is also hard on himself for perceived weakness, preferring to turn to violence to deal with his feelings. The anger within Gray’s narrator extends beyond frustration regarding his drug abuse, and sometimes leads to equating any emotions at all as evidence of weakness. When missing his girlfriend, he comments, “I’m furious at myself. I am useless. Weak.” He spits on the idea of getting married and “go[ing] soft,” and instead idealizes fantasies of long-dead rock idols, the “savages of the decade…Pulling pints of whiskey from their back pockets. Groping girls. Having wild times.” He thinks of the reality of living, modern rock stars eating breakfast with their wives as “sad.” He rages at himself for being “not strong enough” to have “complete and total control” over his girlfriend. He equates Her new boyfriend being “tender and supportive” to weakness, and refers to talking about his feelings in therapy as “bullshit.” Instead, the unnamed narrator focuses on “hiding behind…one night stands” as well as “tough-guy tattoos and a hollow snarl.”
In particular, the main character of Gray is upset by how he “let down” his bandmates regarding the pills, which is echoed by Hurley in Simon’s piece; Hurley described the first time he saw Wentz under the influence in the studio to be “a real letdown.” Likewise, Pete Wentz told MTV regarding the pressure leading up to the overdose: “I just didn’t want to let down [my band]. So I didn’t ever really talk to them.”
Thus, to return to our original point regarding roman-a-clefs, the format of a roman-a-clef is used in Gray to “turn the tale the way the author[s] would like it to have gone” in a second way, one that goes beyond Wentz fridging his ex-girlfriend. The fictional main character does not “let down” anyone by showing what could be perceived as weakness.
He does not lose the girl to a guy who is “tender and supportive and weak” — rather, she is taken from him by a higher power. Secondly, he does not miss a single show due to his own actions— they are only canceled because of the tragic accidental death of a loved one. Third, it’s an adverse life event that triggers the narrator’s hospitalization, rather than his own internal struggles. Fourth, Gray’s main character has the fortitude to not fall unconscious or lose his wit despite taking potentially lethal amounts of pills. Fifth, the narrator is able to take himself to the hospital, and does not need his mother to help him. Sixth, he is effortlessly able to tell his bandmates the truth right away. Finally, he is able to pull it together enough to return to touring immediately. The narrator does not succumb to “weakness” — he goes back out on the road, even if it’s a “mistake,” even if it might kill him. In short, though the main character of Gray repeatedly refers to himself as a “coward” and even “fragile,” he does not behave in a way that some could view as “weak.”
A ROMAN-A-CLEF IS NOT A MEMOIR
The conclusion I’ve just arrived at regarding the “key” of Gray’s ending is certainly a bleak one. However, despite the novel’s roman-a-clef nature, Pete Wentz’s book is still fiction. There’s still elements of it that simply are not real; this includes the attitude I just outlined. As a demonstration of this, at the time of the publication of this piece, Fall Out Boy guitarist Joe Trohman is on temporary mental-health leave, with full support from his bandmates. Speaking during a performance at the Metro— almost exactly ten years after the release of the book, and twenty years after the debut record-release show at the same venue that’s arguably portrayed in the novel— Wentz said, “I wanted to send a little love out to Joe whose on a little mental health break right now and I think it’s really awesome to be so open about it and to relieve some of the stigma.” Similarly, Stump told NME, “We told him, ‘Take the break, your seat’s warm, you’re not any less a part of it.’ … It was his decision… and I’m really proud of him. It’s really brave.”
And, as reported by Rolling Stone, Pete Wentz recently reflected: “It’s alright to feel down, but you’ve gotta know that tomorrow might have a different feeling… It’s also important to…reach out to your friends. And if you notice one of your friends feeling down and it’s something you can’t handle yourself, you should reach out to someone who can help them.” Wentz even echoed these same ideas way back in 2005, with his interview with MTV following his overdose. At the time, Wentz explained how beneficial getting a therapist was for him, and how “One of the biggest things for me was being honest with everybody about [my mental health], and letting them know that there are gonna be times when we’re gonna have to slow down.”
PART THREE: A GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL
This brings us to the third part of our essay— there is more to Gray than meets the eye. Though elements of the book are undeniably based in truth, it’s still fiction, and it’s not meant to represent the literal internal monologue of the actual Pete Wentz. It’s very easy to assume Wentz’s adamant assertions that the novel is fiction are merely a cop-out for the often shocking material contained within the pages. Thus, one could argue perhaps Gray is merely the straightforward story of “an alienated, drug-addled rock star whose life and career trajectory bears a striking resemblance to that of Pete Wentz” with a few changed names— were it not for the title, and the implications of ambiguity that come with it.
Indeed, Gray exists in a liminal space of in-between, violating many conventions and rules of traditional novels regarding plot, structure, morality, grammar, narration, and what’s “supposed to” happen in stories. Some have deemed this rule-breaking as the product of the “cliché that rock artists usually write terrible fiction.” But those who give the book a chance as something serious might not view these choices as failures, but rather deliberate literary devices. Indeed, many of these devices serve as tribute to some of Pete Wentz’s favorite authors, who he makes clear inspired the novel.
Kerouac, for example, was known for his florid prose, and Pete Wentz’s novel has been criticized for possessing “some of the most hilariously overblown prose you’ll find anywhere.” Additionally, many have complained about the book’s apparent lack of plot; the AV Club graded the novel an “F,” criticizing that Gray “reads a bit like the discarded notebooks of an emo teenager,” and that it “doesn’t have much of a storyline.” The same is true for On the Road; David Dempsey described On The Road as “a road, as far as the characters are concerned, that leads to nowhere” and ultimately merely a “passionate lark” rather than a story that went anywhere or led to major revelations within its cast.
Next, a key trait of Kerouac’s writing was his rejection of typical punctuation in favor of representing the way people naturally talk and pause for breath in speech. Likewise, there are a few missing commas throughout Wentz’s novel, such as “I hate her. Really I do” in the opening pages. Pete Wentz’s narrator goes on to explain, “Grammar and punctuation were just someone else’s ownership of my words, so I raged against them, blew through borders.” Kerouac in particular favored dashes—there are 193 in Gray.
Though the parallels to Kerouac’s On the Road are most explicitly alluded to within Gray’s text, Pete Wentz himself mentioned some other specific works and authors that inspired his novel. This includes Diary of a Madman by Nikolai Gogol, which is about a lowly office worker who goes insane after falling in love with his superior’s daughter, and ultimately ends up being tortured in a Spanish prison. This text is written entirely from the first-person point of view, and a key element of the story is the “irrational” sense of time contained within. The novel also deals with a rather misanthropic narrator unhealthily obsessed with a beautiful girl the audience knows very little about. These are all elements of Gray, which has been criticized for having “no sense of progression” and a “whacking great ongoing Madonna-whore thing,” as well as Her being “so underdefined, it’s impossible to… understand why the narrator has any interest in her“— similarly to how Sophie is portrayed in Gogol’s Diary of a Madman.
Poprischin also lapses in his obsession with the girl to lie in bed and obsess over political affairs. While this is not an element of Gray, it is, to some extent, a quality of Wentz’s own madness. Leslie Simon makes note of this in her Alternative Press story, which, again, deals with Pete Wentz’s 2005 overdose. She explains that Wentz became obsessed with the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and consequently withdrew entirely from his bandmates. Finally, Poprischin also concludes that women only love the devil, which many might say is a Wentzian ideology.
Continuing with the misogyny theme, Wentz has directly stated that the works of Bukowski inspired his book. Bukowski in particular has been heavily criticized for “puerile, solipsistic, and misogynistic” writings that could “double [as lyrics] from a high school metal band.” (Kerouac, too, has been referred to as a “misogynist creep.”) And, like its authorial influences, Gray’s narrator is arguably pretty misogynistic. While the narrator (like the real-life Pete Wentz) maintains, “We don’t hate girls, we hate everyone,” Wentz’s self-insert smashes his girlfriend’s phone, fumes about Her discussing feminism at a party (which he finds “embarrassing”), and confesses to the audience that he wants to “punish Her,” “humiliate Her,” “hit Her,” and “ravage Her.”
TANGENT: “ALEISTER CROWLEY FUCKING HATED WOMEN”
It is true that, like Kerouac and Bukowski, Pete Wentz is oft-accused of misogyny; Wentz himself has confessed on multiple occasions that his early lyricism was misogynistic. Thus, many have criticized the female protagonist and many female characters in Gray remaining unnamed as a prime example of the misogyny within his novel, in addition to the girlfriend-directed vitriol including “I hate her” and “I want to kill every member of Her extended family” that is spewed by Gray’s main character.
One reviewer noted that Her remaining nameless is a “pseudo-artistic flourish that probably reveals more about its creator’s attitude to women than he might like.” And it is true that Beat authors often did not distinguish between women in their roman-a-clefs the way they did between men; Joyce Johnson (a female Beat writer) wrote in her Kerouac-centric novel Minor Characters: “And whereas [John Clellon Holmes] scrupulously matches each of the male characters in his roman-a-clef to their originals, the girls are variously ‘amalgrams of several people,’ ‘accurate to young women of the time,’ ‘a type rather than an individual.’ He can’t quite remember them— they were mere anonymous passengers on the big Greyhound bus of experience. Lacking centers, how could they burn with the fever that infected his young men? What they did, I guess, was fill up the seats.”
To connect Gray back to Johnson’s commentary on Holmes, “Her” certainly seems to be the most composite of all the characters. But, some additional context is also necessary to formulate fair criticism of Gray’s portrayal of women. The narrator himself is also unnamed, and “Her” being referred to with a capital-H is a clear religious metaphor— Wentz’s self-insert explicitly outlines that his relationship with Her is “what my belief in God has always been like.” Many of the male characters, including the narrator’s manager and “the other guys in the band” remain unnamed, or are referred to by nicknames such as The Disaster, the Animal, or the philosopher. There are also three female characters that get names or capitalized nicknames: Her roommate Anya, the band’s industry representative Jenn-With-Two-Ns, and a friend of a female celebrity, referred to as Cookie.
Likewise, while Wentz and Montgomery’s self-insert often espouses disturbing internal commentary about the women he encounters (especially Her), he also views men through a similar lens of both “admiration and disdain.” This includes The Disaster; in the novel, the pair sleep side by side, beat off side by side, and raise hell side by side, “out on the road.” Though Gray‘s main character is, at times, gripped with desperate adoration of The Disaster, the way he speaks about his “best friend in the world” is often outright cruel, casting him as a dishonest and overweight grifter with poor manners. The narrator says The Disaster is “a used car salesman” “trying to con me” and his body is “weird” with a “beer gut” and will “all go to hell when [he] hits thirty” and that when he eats, it’s “disgusting.”
Bizarrely and paradoxically, however, the fictional main character in Gray sometimes almost seems attracted to The Disaster, with his “sinewy and taut” body and “shoulder blades… so sharp they could be weapons,” and how he is “unlike anyone I have ever known before,” his “hero,” and wants “more than anything for him to like me.” And, as often occurs with Her, certain passages describing The Disaster mirror Pete Wentz’s lyrics. This is exemplified in “Watch [him] work… the room” (paralleled in “The (After) Life of the Party”) and “I know what you’re going through” (from “Headfirst Slide into Cooperstown on a Bad Bet”) appearing as a line of dialogue The Disaster relays to Wentz’s self-insert in a diner.
In short, criticism of Gray as misogynistic, glorifying toxic relationships, and possessing a “whacking great ongoing Madonna-whore thing” are certainly fair; the novel certainly seems to hinge much more on the narrator’s relationships with women rather than those with men. However, Wentz’s self-insert experiences feelings about his male best friend that are often as extreme as his feelings towards Her; they undulate wildly between glowing and infatuation-driven or bitter and vengeful for seemingly no reason, and sometimes encompass both extremes at once. The full context calls back to Pete Wentz’s (excruciatingly obnoxious) old cop-out for criticisms of his attitude towards women. Which, of course, was worked into Gray, as a line of dialogue by his oh-so-witty self-insert: “We don’t hate girls, we hate everyone.”
CONTINUING OUR ORIGINAL BROADCAST
In any case, many more parallels beyond misogyny can be found between Charles Bukowski’s texts and Pete Wentz’s. A user on Goodreads criticized that Wentz’s book “has no moral value,” and another reviewer noted that Wentz’s narrator is so terrible he can cannot accurately be described as a protagonist. This, too, is exemplified in Bukowski’s writings: “Without trying to make himself look good, much less heroic, Bukowski writes with a nothing-to-lose truthfulness which sets him apart from most other ‘autobiographical’ novelists and poets.”
Similarly to Pete Wentz’s novel, “some critics found [Bukowski’s] style offensive,” as his writings primarily consisted of a “detailed depiction of a certain taboo male fantasy: the uninhibited bachelor, slobby, anti-social, and utterly free;” the same can definitely be said of Wentz’s narrator’s desire for “wild nights spent carousing and conquering, for weekday mornings spent sprawled out on the couch, for gluttony and sloth and adultery and all sorts of lesser, decidedly venial sins.” But, just as many found Bukowski’s content offensive, “others claimed that Bukowski satirized the machismo attitude.” Bukowski’s works could be interpreted as celebrations of stereotypical masculinity that reveled in the illicit, or as a subtle satire of maschismo told through the perspective of a half-serious caricature.
The same could be said is true of Pete Wentz’s book. While Gray might read to some as completely un-self aware and merely the slipshod ramblings of a “narcissistic, self-pitying, anxiety-ridden, [and] morose” rock star, a reader who pays close attention might see tiny cracks in the veneer of the narrator’s story. These cracks take the form of little clues planted by Wentz and Montgomery to indicate that you might not be able to trust their character’s version of events, and there’s more to Gray than meets the eye. But interpreting these clues all depends on your perspective, and you’re forced to puzzle out the authors’ intent for yourself.
FANTASY, IRONY, LIES, AND SATIRE
This brings us to the next part of this dissertation— a thorough exploration of how (like Bukowski) Gray can be interpreted as an authentic love song to the “modest adventures to be found in saloons, motels, booze, and sex” and (in the words of Kerouac) the “magic” of “life on the road,” the likes of which you “never dreamed the extent of.” However, Gray can also be interpreted as a subtle yet deliberate satire of the selfish, whiny, angry, misanthropic, and misogynistic persona of stereotypical 2000s emo.
Perhaps the most critical component of satire is irony, which is defined as when “contradictory statements or situations reveal a reality that is different from what appears to be true.” Gray heavily exemplifies this device via the utilization of a narrator that is deliberately written as unreliable and awful to the point of being laughable. While the book is oft-criticized for a lack of plot or character development and therefore no “point” or “moral value,” the meaning of Gray is not spoon-fed to you by the broad arc of the story; it is instead couched in noticing— and decoding— tiny details. These deliberate clues illuminate the fact that there is a great deal beyond what Wentz’s self-insert tells us, and it’s up to the audience to attempt to determine what the “truth” is, and if the novel is authentic or ironic. This puzzle, and the audience’s interpretation of it, takes the place of a more straightforward lesson delivered via the traditional hero’s journey. (Despite what he insists, our narrator is not a hero. He is a quintessential anti-hero)
So, we’re going to explore the unreliability of Gray’s narrator, and what this means for the story we are being presented. As we’ve already demonstrated, there are many tiny details present to add depth and texture to the story via allusions. However, many more of these clues scattered throughout the story also take the form of little details that raise doubts about the information the characters are presenting to us, and also indicate to the audience that absent information is present. Together, the utilization of allusions, references, and present-absent information indicate to the reader that there is more than what’s presented at a surface level, and it’s up to them to connect those dots and figure out the true meaning of the story.
EXPLAINING PRESENT-ABSENT INFORMATION
This sounds pretty confusing, I know. So, order to clearly illuminate what this means, we’re going to explore a more streamlined and self-contained example, which was helpfully included by the novel’s co-author.
Gray co-author James Montgomery’s bio on the book’s jacket notes only two things. Firstly, it lists a few highlights of his career as a journalist; and secondly, it rather strangely notes that “He has never been chosen as one of People’s Most Beautiful People.” On the surface, this line reads as lighthearted comment indicating that Montgomery wants to represent himself to the audience as humble about his appearance. However, this is a perfect example of how both allusion and present-absent information exist within Gray to illuminate another layer to the story.
Firstly, this is an allusion to pop culture, and James Montgomery’s bio indicated that he frequently covered pop culture. And someone familiar with pop culture— or able to recognize this line is meant to convey unsaid information— would realize Pete Wentz was selected as one of “People‘s Most Beautiful in ’07.” So, while this line can be read at surface level, there’s more meaning that comes with it. In this lighthearted comment, Montgomery’s blurb uses the absence of information to highlight Wentz rather than himself, drawing attention to how they contrast as people, and either lightly ribbing or earnestly complimenting Wentz. This joke utilizes both a) allusion, and b) the presence of absent information, in order to convey its second layer of meaning; the precise meaning of this second layer is open to interpretation.
Similarly, understanding Gray relies heavily on a) the reader’s ability to recognize and understand its many allusions, and b) the reader’s ability to recognize when Wentz and Montgomery are indicating pertinent information may be absent, and that the reader needs to fill in and interpret the gaps themselves. Like this line in Montgomery’s bio, Gray can be read as morose personal commentary, as a joke at the expense of Wentz’s tabloid persona, or as authentically eulogizing Pete Wentz’s career as a bad-boy heartthrob. It’s up to the reader to choose how to interpret it, and each interpretation can alter its meaning.
(Also see: “The Curious Case of Brent Wilson: Patient Zero of the Disease Afflicting Panic! at the Disco.”)
“PATRON SAINT OF LIARS AND FAKES”
Does this make sense now? Great. On to the book. In short, Gray uses an unreliable narrator to both create potential irony and absent-present information; the presence of these devices changes the meaning of Gray based off of what the reader decides to conclude is missing from the story. But just how unreliable is the narrator, and just how much information is he leaving out?
Anyone who even half-pays attention to the book can tell you Wentz’s self-insert is a dishonest person— but if you look closely, it becomes apparent that we don’t know just everything he’s lying about. And while many might assume that it’s Wentz that is a “natural-born con man…[and] a lawyer’s lawyer,” this is all a deliberate part of the tale, and an important part of interpreting it. By creating a narrator the audience is meant to know is unreliable, Pete Wentz and James Montgomery are introducing a deliberate literary device designed to force the reader to question everything the narrator claims, and, by extension, the entirety of the work. Like I said, while Gray may simply seem to be the plotless tale of “an alienated, drug-addled rock star whose life and career trajectory bears a striking resemblance to that of Pete Wentz,” there’s more to Gray than meets the eye. And, as they say, the devil is in the details.
To start, the narrator of Gray is quite upfront with the audience about his habitual dishonesty— he lies to a hotel employee so he can use the business center, he lies to EMTs about his overdose, and he lies to his bandmates, girlfriend, and manager about his mental state. He lies to his psychiatrist about feeling “fine,” lies to his girlfriend about supporting her hopes for the future in order to placate her to stay in the relationship, and he even spins insane yarns about a dead wife and children to a terrified truck-stop stripper for his own amusement.
But at first read, the audience might think Gray’s narrator wouldn’t lie to them. It seems he has no problem telling you every little thing about himself, even the worst of the worst. The narrator takes on a façade of brutal honesty, confessing to the audience that he is a “terrible person.” He provides ample proof: he wishes Her “conveniently” hospitalized mom would kick the bucket already and says she is “always the victim,” he wants “to kill every member of Her extended family,” he admits, “there is a special place in hell for people like me,” and even tells us, “I want to hit Her,” to name a few examples. He tells you these horrible secrets, to be kept between you and him, and you think— surely, if he’s admitting this, he wouldn’t lie to you.
Besides, he’s such a smooth talker, and there’s such an artificial sense of intimacy between Wentz’s character and the reader, that this intense unreliability is easy to forget. At first, you get lulled into a faux sense of security and trust and can drift along with tthe fuzzy dreamscape of his world, numbed with pills and pretty scenery: “I am no longer aware of how many different pills I am taking, but I find myself paging the Soap Opera Doctor at least once a day… Call me a cliché. I probably won’t even notice. My eyelids are always heavy. Things are easier this way. No talking, no feeling, no pain… Days blur into nights. Dull, warm sunsets become hazy, fuzzy sunrises. Los Angeles begins to disappear into a pharmaceutical haze…” Thus, as a reader, it can be easy to “disappear” into that “haze” too, and miss that parts of the narrator’s story aren’t quite adding up. You’re so soothed by the warm assurances of “Because the truth is…” or “You know what I mean” or “Who am I kidding?” that it’s almost easy for him to make you placid enough that you forget what happened just a few pages ago and fall for his act. Just as he does with his girlfriend, Wentz and Montgomery’s self-insert “pull[s] the wool over [our] eyes.”
But not quite.
While there’s hints dropped throughout Gray, the narrator’s capability of lying to the audience first becomes undeniably apparent in Chapter Fifteen, when he rails and frets about his girlfriend’s deteriorating mental state as she sends him increasingly unstable love letters. However, halfway through, he backtracks: “I don’t know what caused all this. Actually, that’s a lie; I do, I just don’t want to admit it.” And explains that, “I may have written that I was falling in love with Her again.” The chapter before this, he gloated on and on over how her writing him meant that he had “complete and total control” over whether their relationship continued or not; but, in reality, he is as beholden to Her as she seems to be to him. The narrator, for the first time, openly admits that he is capable of lying to the audience in this chapter— resulting in them needing to question everything that came before this moment.
Another major example of Wentz’s character’s untrustworthiness comes in Chapter Nineteen, when he insists to the reader that he is kicking his pill problem, and “I’m refusing to refill my prescriptions. I say good-bye to the tandospirones that you can only get in China, and the buspirones and the eptapirones that made my head whirl. I watch as the Zolofts and Ativans and Klonopins slowly dwindle away, and when they finally disappear, all I’m left with is some Tylenol PMs.” He smugly asserts, “Everyone is a little less worried about me. The Death Watch is officially over. No one is afraid to wake me up in the mornings anymore.”
And, when his girlfriend dumps him shortly after, he tells us that he’s fine with it— “I can’t even be bothered to whip up some fake tears. No one needs to die for this.” He also asserts to us that she didn’t give him a chance to object— and this is when the fact that he is lying starts to become apparent. Despite his claims that she never gave him an opportunity to protest, he hangs up on Her, right after accusing Her of leaving him for another man. And, despite his assertions that he has no pills left, and he is not suicidal, literal paragraphs later, he miraculously produces enough prescription medication to result in “borderline” overdosing. This is another example of Wentz’s character being demonstrated within the text to be dishonest about what he tells the audience.
While the narrator’s story unravels more and more as his tale progresses, this unreliability runs back to the very start of the novel. In the opening chapters, the narrator begins his tale with how it ends— with him on the road, bringing random girls back to his hotel room. Shortly after the opening scene, he starts telling us about Her. It slips into something that might be a flashback, or it might not be. He tells us “I am thinking about the last time I saw Her. It didn’t go well.” It’s easy to miss this line, or not know it’s a transition to the flashback, as it’s a rather subtle cue and the “flashback” begins with the narrator alone at night thinking about Her, just as he was in the preceding paragraph; additionally, the events and Her are spoken about in the present tense. However, at the end, we learn that this was definitely a flashback of the last time they met before she died, because he retells the same sequence of events. The first time, he omitted the critical fact that she’s dead.
(If this paragraph gave you a terrible headache, remember what I said about Diary of a Madman and its “irrational sense of time.”)
But in short, the narrator lies. He lies to other characters, and he lies to us. Sometimes he admits he lies to us, and sometimes, he doesn’t. The examples I’ve run through include moments when the narrator comes clean or semi-clean with the audience eventually. However, this clear unreliability comes into play on a more subtle level during other moments throughout the text, where the audience can be led to question what the narrator is claiming happened without the text explicitly revealing that he was dishonest.
One of these examples comes in the form of Her drunkenly ranting about feminism at a party. The narrator says “I just feel sorry for Her. She’s drunk and embarrassing Herself. She looks ridiculous.” But does she actually look ridiculous? Another character, the philosopher, is described as “laughing at Her brilliance.” Whereas the narrator describes his own presence at the party as “not welcome here” and “greeted by a hundred angry stares.” The philosopher’s friends, a “gang of wannabe rockabilly Dharma Bums” (a Kerouac reference) don’t want the narrator at the party either, and are later present when the philosopher jumps the narrator on Her behalf.
One could interpret this moment as Her not actually looking stupid; rather, it’s the narrator projecting his own insecurity and arrogance regarding showing up at a party where he’s about to get his shit rocked onto his girlfriend. If this isn’t clear enough on his own, he brings up this projection just a few pages earlier, foreshadowing the subtext: “My psychiatrist would tell me that I was projecting my insecurities onto Her… He was probably right, but at this moment I didn’t feel like listening.”
Another very subtle—yet potent— example of the narrator’s unreliability comes in Chapter Fifteen, when he’s with The Disaster at the diner: “I tell him about my other conquests too… the pretty tattoo artist in Phoenix, the girl with the studded tongue in St. Louis, the Chilean girl in Milwaukee who said her dad was Tom Araya from Slayer…”. It’s not clear when these encounters took place, as the narrator has never mentioned them until now— raising the question of if this happened when he was with Her, as he says they got together “when the band was just starting,” and that he merely had “close calls in darkened corners” rather than actual hookups on tour. It calls back to a line very early in the novel, before she and the narrator ever break up: “I don’t tell Her about the parties and the girls…”.
Likewise, when sleeping with women who are not Her, the narrator often portrays himself as completely passive— one woman is “like a cat toying with a mouse, batting me around with her paws.” He claims he merely floats around her, awestruck and caught in the gravitational field of her fame, supernaturally bound to due her bidding: “I don’t understand why, but… I have to.” Of another, he says, “She knows where this is going even when I don’t have an idea” and asserts he kept his hands pinned to his sides while she climbed on top of him. He seems to imply he does not actively make the choice to sleep around on Her— it just kind of happens. In short, the narrator is potentially unreliable in that he is perhaps minimizing or omitting his own contributions to the dissolution of where things all went wrong with Her.
These examples go on and on, but they lead us to question everything the narrator tells us about the narrative. If he’s capable of convincingly omitting details as major as his pill stash, or Her death, or that he maybe stepped out on Her more than he originally told us about, the audience understands that there’s a possibility that he’s left out other crucial elements of the story, elements that could change the novel’s meaning entirely. This, of course, exemplifies the presence of absent information.
“YOU BLEW IT, MAN.”
These examples of ambiguity within the text extend beyond the narrator outright lying to the audience. Sometimes, our narrator seems genuinely oblivious as he earnestly misreports the facts of the situation. Wentz’s character most frequently establishes himself as unwittingly making untrue statements during his interactions with women in the book. He is not necessarily lying to the audience— he seems to truly believe he holds a complete understanding of the inner workings of every girl he talks to, and feels rather misanthropic and bitter about how he perceives their minds to work.
This is presented deliberately by the authors— in the opening pages of the novel, when we are first learning who the narrator is and how he operates, he meets a waitress, and immediately decides, “She’s the kind of girl who doesn’t give a shit about me at all” and “I didn’t exactly win her over with my charms.” Less than ten pages later, it is revealed that he did, in fact, seduce the waitress, but: “You blew it, man.” Almost immediately after, upon describing how he first decided to ask (capital-H) Her out, he claims, “Everyone who has ever interacted with anyone of the opposite sex knows exactly how this will turn out,” launching into long-winded assumption after assumption that are immediately proven incorrect. And then—as the cherry on top— at the end of the chapter, his girlfriend reveals this “chance meeting” was not by chance at all.
Even though she plays hard to get (and the narrator falls for it) everything, down to her very presence at the bar, was carefully orchestrated by Her— because she already knew who he was. And she slips up on this during their initial meeting: when he asks her to come outside and smoke a cigarette with him, she blurts out “I didn’t know you smoked,” despite having just met him. But the narrator is too clueless to pick up on this. However, in the eyes of the reader, smoking is a continuing motif throughout the book, especially in association with women. Additionally, he has a minor freakout when his girlfriend begins smoking, making this moment glaringly ironic. This all indicates the reader is supposed to notice this, even if Wentz’s self-insert doesn’t.
These examples of the narrator being clueless go on and on throughout the novel. To explore some more examples, we’ll return to the two celebrity women he encounters. The first is an actress— he asserts that she drinks “whatever lowers her standards” before paying attention to him. She is so “out of [his] league” that he’s afraid to touch her during sex, and describes the encounter as “making [him] sad” because she has “a loser kid like me inside her.” But, despite her clear interest, our narrator insists that her giving him his number is “a meaningless gesture,” as she is certainly not actually into him.
(Later, he flips the narrative to one of conquest, telling The Disaster “about how I haven’t called her since and probably never will” as The Disaster “laughs and pounds the table with his fists.” This again indicates that Wentz and Montgomery are deliberately demonstrating that the narrator is unreliable.)
This pattern continues throughout Gray—the next example concerns another woman, the impossibly beautiful and famous girl we meet in Chapter Twenty-Two. He feels she is merely using him to attract attention to herself, and doesn’t hold any real interest in him. He bitterly prattles to the audience, “I am aware of… exactly what this is. Business, pure and simple. A way to make the tabloids…. I’m just her man for the day, someone preselected to give her the edge her career needs” and “I… want to believe that this is going to be something more than it is. Only I know it’s not. She tells me she has condoms. It is like signing a contract.”
Later, however, she crawls across the floor on her knees, naked, to beg him to stay. When this fails, she calls him again and again, getting hysterical when he doesn’t answer and leaving “voice mails that are getting progressively more insane” at odd times like 3:52 AM. Though he told the audience he fantasized about being a “hero” for this “sad, lonely girl” – if only this wasn’t (in his opinion) purely transactional— he’s oddly callous and cold when she desperately reaches out. He has little to say to the audience regarding the voicemails, save that his mother was right about her. And though he insisted she merely wanted tabloid attention to benefit her career, it’s him that moves up in the world. In the next paragraph, he smugly reveals to the audience that his band has made the Heatseekers chart.
Despite the narrator’s assertions, it seems that—based off their behavior— these girls might actually be into him. Like with capital-H Her, his perspective likely originates from him “projecting his insecurities” onto women in his life, just as his psychiatrist told him. In short, the narrator’s perspective skews his interactions with those around him— especially girls. He’s convinced these girls aren’t interested in him, and that their interest in a “loser kid like [him]” originates from the fact that they are damaged or seeking to use him— when the actual text seems to be implying that they really are interested, and he’s being insecure and distant.
These examples of cluelessness around women extend beyond mere insecurity and projection, and enter the territory of oblivious idiocy. Another key moment happens with Her— towards the end, the narrator leaves two tickets at will-call for his big hometown show. (He tells the audience they are for “Her roommate,” but Her plus one is a major source of anxiety for him. This yet again demonstrates his unreliability). She inevitably shows up with a new guy, Robert. The narrator immediately thinks: “He is picturing me fucking Her. Girls never notice these things.” Yet he yells at her, “You fucking bring a guy to my show?!… I can’t fucking believe you’d do that. Why would you fucking do that?”. To the audience, it’s obvious why she’s done this.
It’s clear she didn’t bring Robert because she’s especially proud of getting with him (“I can tell she is embarrassed”), or because they are particularly serious—it’s only been a few months at most since Her breakup with the narrator. But the he struggles to see the obvious: she’s using Robert to get his attention. She gloats, “We fucking broke up. I fucking broke up with you. I’m with Robert now, so what? Get over it. Grow the fuck up,” to rub in his face that she’s taken control of the situation despite his best efforts. Her stunt works, on some twisted level, because it rearranges the narrator’s priorities from taking as many pills as possible without actually dying, cheating on Her, and getting wasted at parties while Her mom is in the hospital, to frantically calling Her over and over again until they “have meaningless, hopeless sex.” Later, when the narrator asks about her and Robert, she will respond, “It’s just…he’s…I don’t want to talk about it,” demonstrating how she was never that interested in Robert at all, and the narrator fell for it, hook, line, and sinker— just as he did with her “hard to get” act during their initial meeting.
In short, the narrator seems to think he holds a complete understanding of every woman in his life, even if he’s only just met them. But the text proves—again and again—that this is not actually the case. This leads the reader to question everything he is saying about his interactions with these women, their true motivations, and the details of how each of these encounters really plays out. And while this trait of the narrator is perhaps most obvious in his relationships with women, the audience is led to question the misanthropic view the narrator has of everyone in his life. Such as how he feels The Disaster is only his friend to “con” him, how he insists his mother needs to be “set free” of him, and how he feels the Animal forgot about their plan to “get a place together,” et cetera. In short, Pete Wentz and James Montgomery deliberately invoke an unreliable narrator to make the audience question the entire book, and indicates the presence of absent information.
WEIRD MOM STUFF
The cluelessness seems to extend into deeper aspects of the narrator’s inner psyche—or, in the terms of Gray, “the unconscious self.” He is so clueless that it often creates situations that are so ironic they’re laughable— a key element of satire. This component of Gray is most strongly showcased through Her interest in Sigmund Freud, and Wentz’s character’s own glaringly Freudian tendencies. The narrator is so self-obsessed and dismissive of his girlfriend’s thoughts as “psychobabble” and his own enrollment in psychiatric care as a “waste of time,” that he fails to notice that he is a textbook case of the behavior she’s attempting to discuss with him. This element introduces a backdrop of irony across the core conflict of the story, lending credence to the interpretation of Gray as satire or “a joke.”
The crux of Gray concerns the narrator and Her’s relationship not working out due to their conflicting life goals; he wants to seize the opportunity to fulfill his dream of becoming a rock star and also have [in Her words] a “dutiful fucking girlfriend;” meanwhile, she wants to pursue grad school on the West coast, become a psychologist, and lead a quiet life. Our narrator claims to the audience that she thinks his rock-star dreams are “a folly,” “silly,” and a “children’s crusade.” Meanwhile, according to the narrator, Her dreams amount to “boho-intellectual-postmodern-think-globally-act-locally-organic-produce-petition-signing-expensive-coffee-drinking hell.”
Thus, our narrator pays little attention to Her aspirations to become a psychologist or Her life outside of him; the phrase “I think” is used fifty times in the novel, while “She thinks” is only used five times, and is always in relation to what the narrator assumes women think about him. Similarly, “I want” is used over eighty times; “she wants” is used less than fifteen, and often in relation to what he assumes female characters want from him.
(While some may assume this is straight-up misogyny from Pete Wentz, the narrator’s lack of acknowledgement of the agency of women in his life is directly addressed by the narrator’s psychiatrist: “I’m… muttering about something when he asks me what my girlfriend thinks… My mouth stops moving and my brain locks up. Panicked, I gather myself up in the chair, run my hands down my knees, cough a bit. I’ve been doing this for years, and I’ve never had a moment like this. Maybe it’s an epiphany. ‘She, uh . . . ,” I stammer. ‘She’s fine with it.’ … [The] gray matter of my brain [is] now splattered all over the back wall of his office.”)
He does view his girlfriend as having some value outside of being a sex object (she is described as “stacked” with “pillowy lips and alabaster thighs”)— but only as a muse and a stand-in mommy. She is especially useful as the former; he remarks, “I don’t worry about what will happen when the inspiration stops, because as long as I have Her, it never will.” But, he seems oblivious to the fact that he is of equal use to Her— but he’s not Her muse. He’s Her case study. He doesn’t notice— or care— that from the very start, she’s more interested in picking apart his brain with psychology exercises she learned in college than having sex with him. This is something the narrator’s own psychiatrist picks up on—After the narrator mentions she is “studying psych at Columbia,” his psychiatrist asks, “Do you ever feel like she’s trying to pick your brain?”. But the fact that he’s Her case study never crosses our narrator’s mind, because he continually devalues Her aspirations of graduation and a career. Just as he accuses Her of disparaging his dreams, he has no support for Her goals and only sees Her place in his future as “the wife of a rockstar” and “the mother of my children.”
Again, while many critics of Gray have argued this is also straight-up misogyny from Pete Wentz, this reads more as a deliberate and intentional literary device. Especially when the weird mom stuff comes in. Specifically, the narrator tells us multiple times how into Freud his girlfriend is, and how much he “entertained [this] only out of politeness but never made an attempt to comprehend” it. But, in spite of his holier-than-thou eyerolling at this silly little woman who thinks she can get a job, weird mom stuff is a continuing motif throughout the book.
Most glaringly, the narrator remarks of his girlfriend, “[She] makes me smile. She is just like my mother” while she is folding his underwear, along with, “Her voice is warm and comforting, like a blanket or the gentle hiss of the radiator on a cold morning. She sounded just like my mom.” When his girlfriend starts smoking, he becomes distressed because his mother smokes. And the narrator, oddly, equates his mother’s smoking to that of the groupies that wait for him after shows. Like the groupie we first meet in the very first chapter, who insists over and over while blowing smoke rings, “No seriously, my mom is a fucking French whore.”
The examples go on and on. At one stage in the book, the narrator discusses calling someone “at two or three in the morning, leaving fifteen-minute-long messages about “how I’m doing okay. I think I am making breakthroughs and announce my brilliant theories. I try to bring her to her knees. I try to say something that will eclipse all the love she has ever given me; something so big that it will open up a new perspective for her and set her free. That’s the least that I owe her…”. If you aren’t reading the passage carefully, your eyes might gloss over it and think he’s talking about his girlfriend — but the pronouns are in lowercase, and he mentions just once preceding it that he’s actually speaking about his mother, not his girlfriend.
Even more bizarrely, the narrator has never spoken about his mom to the audience in this way before, and especially not in these terms regarding their relationship. Up until now, he has not characterized his mother as needing to be “set free” of him; it’s been very standard, casual mother-son stuff, and his mother is a very minor character. This quote, however, introduces an intense dynamic between the narrator and his mother that seems more consistent with what lies between the narrator and capital-H Her. Throughout Gray, he calls and emails his girlfriend obsessively at all hours of the night and day, and snaps that she is “the fucking anchor that kept me tied to this town, to this life; she was dragging me down and she needed to be cut loose,” but also simultaneously refers to himself as “an anchor for an anchor.” Saying he’s calling his mother in the middle of the night and not Her, and wishing he could “set her free” seems almost like a mistake— a Freudian slip, if you will. Or, he’s omitted a major element of his life from the story. Either way, there’s something off about this scene.
To continue the weird mom stuff, the usage of the word “motherfucker” in Gray is very pointed. “Motherfucker” is not frequently used throughout Gray— it’s used only five times, while variations of simply “fuck” are used nearly seventy and pretty equally distributed throughout the novel. All but one of the “motherfucker” appearances are in the same chapter. This is because shortly after the narrator breaks his girlfriend’s cell phone, she loses it and calls him a name for the first and only time in the book: “motherfucker.” Shortly after, her new guy (the philosopher) punches the narrator on Her behalf. The Animal and the narrator chase the philosopher back to his house— his mom’s house— and call him “motherfucker” again and again as they beat him unconscious in front of his mom, yelling “This is for your fucking mother.”
Afterwards, the narrator gloats to us, “The Animal and I start laughing. He lived with his fucking mother.” To the audience, this is glaringly hypocritical and yet another example of the narrator’s unreliability— at this point in the story, the narrator also lives with his mom, and he’s even “too embarrassed” to ask The Animal specifically about being roommates, as still living with his mom is “pathetic.” The usage of the word “motherfucker” being exclusive to this chapter, and the way it is used by characters, seems to point to a specific and rather Freudian idea— one the narrator is too self-absorbed and dishonest to admit applies to him as much as it applies to the philosopher.
(The only other time the word “motherfucker” is used, it is a near-direct quotation from Pete Wentz that was featured in a 2006 article written by James Montgomery, who described it as “cringe-inducing.” As a second note, the narrator promises to “get a place” with his girlfriend after tour twice, which he tells the audience is a “lie”; later, it’s revealed he’s actually made tentative plans to “get a place” with The Animal instead. This aspect of the plot also showcases the narrator’s unreliability, drawing additional attention to it.)
To conclude, weird mom stuff— Freudian mom stuff, to be exact— is a cornerstone of the novel; it continues constantly throughout it. Additionally, Wentzz’s character blowing off his girlfriend’s aspirations of being a psychologist— and specifically, her interest in Freud— is a core element of Gray’s plot. It’s just barely enough to make you notice that something’s not quite lining up with what we’re being told— but only if you pay attention. And if you pay close enough attention, you remember that the narrator told us early on that he’s going to “keep all [his] secrets inside parentheses,” indicating that they hold special importance. (Put a pin in the parentheses.) And, sure enough, in these oh-so-special parentheses, the narrator tells us that his psychiatrist holds a special interest in his relationship with his mother— thus, the audience can understand that, though narrator is omitting this, his mommy issues are still present in the story. The use of the extra-special parentheses solidifies that the weird mom stuff is on purpose, and it is deliberate irony.
(Finally, for all of the narrator’s disdain towards the idea of his girlfriend pursuing a career in psychology rather than aspiring to be anything more than “the mother of my children,” “the wife of a rockstar” and “a dutiful fucking girlfriend,” in the acknowledgements of Gray, the real-life Pete Wentz appeared to thank a female therapist— presumably his.)
COPAXONE. COPAXONE? COPAXONE!
Gray contains many tiny clues exactly like the weird mom stuff. All of them indicate that there is more to the story than what the narrator is telling us, and it’s up to the audience to read closely and figure them out. Sometimes the clues are subtle, but they’re there. Another example revolves around the narrator, Her, and Her mother’s illness. He brings up the fact that Her sick mother is taking Copaxone in three separate scenes, including one with almost oddly heavy emphasis: “‘… The new medicine, the Copaxone…’ ‘The Cofazone?’… ‘No, COH-PA-ZONE.’” The repetition is so heavy, it’s almost like he’s shaking you and telling you to pay attention, because this is important to the story.
The narrator doesn’t explain why this is to the reader (even though he has “read The Pill Book from front to back”), but Copaxone is a medication used to treat multiple sclerosis, a disease that affects the spine. While he never tells us that his girlfriend has any health issues, he tells the audience twice that she has a large scar along the length of Her spine, indicating that she has some kind of spinal issue as well. While this is open for interpretation, he certainly makes special note of both the Copaxone and the scar, telling the audience about both multiple times; it’s also specifically mentioned that the narrator (and the philosopher) touch the location of the scar whenever they feel Her up. This indicates that this is likely important to the story, but the exact details are absent; thus, the audience must fill in the blanks themselves.
One could interpret the existence of the scar as Her as never telling him she is doomed to someday suffer the same fate as Her mother— just like it’s implied she lies to the narrator about her name. As possible evidence, the first woman we meet in Gray (a groupie) has a tattoo in the same location of Her scar that refers to the groupie’s mother, and reads “Just like me.” As with the Copaxone, the tattoo is mentioned three times, as if to signify to the audience it’s an clue.
However, we don’t know if she hasn’t told the narrator about her health issues. Another interpretation is that Wentz’s self-insert is a horrible boyfriend and terrible person. After all, he never truly listens to his girlfriend talk about Her mother’s health issues, instead putting “Ativan on [his] lips” when she is speaking to him. One could interpret this clue as exemplifying how the narrator cares little about Her except how she’s of use to him as a “dutiful fucking girlfriend.” Perhaps he wouldn’t bother to remember a surgery his girlfriend went through, just as he “forgets” the name of the medication her mom is taking despite telling us he read all about it. And, if she fell ill, he would go on to hate Her, just as he hates Her mom, because Her health and Her family are things that doesn’t revolve around him.
Regardless, we never know the true meaning of the scar. Because the first time Her and the narrator have sex—and he presumably sees it— it happens offscreen; when he relays a scene where he comments on the scar to Her, she ignores him, because she is “thinking of… something else.” This is the last thing he says to Her in-person before she dies, adding additional significance to the inclusion of the scar.
Another similarly ambiguous moment comes when she is writing Wentz’s character desperate love letters. The girlfriend tells the narrator about a recurring nightmare she’s had since she was a child, and he then tells the audience: “I’d never heard Her mention it before.” It’s unclear to the audience if he has never paid attention to Her anxieties (though he expects Her to “nurture my fears [and] to massage my neurosis”), or if she is lying to him, or if this detail even holds any importance to the broader arc of the story.
Going hand in hand with Her maybe-nightmares and maybe-disease, the narrator dances around the idea that she might be as crazy as he is— but he’s not explicit enough for us to really know. He mentions repeatedly that he and his friends have to “keep an eye on Her” or act as a “guardian,” as if she were incapable of taking care of herself; he also mentions the words “crazy,” “maniacal” “unraveled” and “pathological” to describe her. But he does this only once, when complaining about Her late-night e-mail sprees, which were actually caused by his manic love letter; thus, it could be that “projection of insecurity” again.
And, like with the scar and Her mother’s illness, it’s unclear to the audience if the narrator has never paid attention to Her issues, or if he is intentionally omitting important information, or if he is lying, or if this detail even holds any importance at all. Because we can’t trust anything that Gray’s character says, there are no answers regarding the truth of the story he tells us. Each clue brings more questions, but doesn’t answer them; thus, all the audience knows for sure is that Gray’s narrator is unreliable.
“YOU’RE NOT IN ON THE JOKE”
In A Rhetoric of Irony, it is asserted that an unreliable narrator is a core “function of irony,” and that it “provides the formal means by which distance is created between the views, actions, and voice of the unreliable narrator and those of the implied author.” And irony is, in “its broadest sense… the juxtaposition of what on the surface appears to be the case and what is actually the case.” This is definitely so in Gray; in short, the use of an unreliable narrator is meant to lead the audience to question the entire book, and is meant to “create distance” between what the character thinks and feels, and what Wentz and Montgomery actually think and feel. Though the subject matter of the book is heavy, Gray is also (at times) quite funny. This is not only due to the narrator’s one-liners (that sometimes are definitely not as witty as he seems to think), but because he’s so stupid you have to laugh at how ridiculous he is, and just how clueless he seems to be.
The interpretation of Gray as ironic is strengthened by the narrator’s identity as an anti-hero; anti-heroes are oft-present in ironic and satirical narratives, and characterized by how they are “doomed to fail… and blame that failure on everyone but themselves.” These are explicit elements of Gray’s main character; he tells us his psychiatrist says he “doomed [him]self to fail,” and it is only after Her death that “for the first time, the thought occurs to [him] that perhaps this is all [his] fault.” Many of the literary figures alluded to in Gray— from Kerouac to Salinger’s Holden Caulfield to Bukowski to Camus—also employ anti-heroes. Anti-heroes function to offer “a critique of… reality” and serve as an “established form of social criticism.” Thus, one can infer this is perhaps the intention of Pete Wentz and James Montgomery’s book.
Lining up all of these clues— and interpreting each one in a certain way— creates strong evidence that Gray is deliberately ironic, serving as a social commentary on Wentz’s once-persona of a self-centered, whiny, misogynistic, and quintessentially emo mama’s boy, “[playing] a tiny violin… because everything has to be about [him].” Thus, with this interpretation, a joke is created between the reader and the authors, in which “the speaker is himself the butt of the ironic point.”
But the reader can only laugh at the narrator if they pick up on the tiny clues planted by Pete Wentz and James Montgomery. If they don’t, and believe that this book genuinely is “the discarded notebooks of an emo teenager,” “they’re the butt of [the] joke,” to invoke the words of electropop five-piece and former Decaydance signees Cobra Starship. These words originate from the Hot Mess track “You’re Not in on the Joke,” and the lyrics read, “Call your professor if there’s something you missed… I’ll always be just who you want me to be / And keep my tongue in my cheek.” The track (of course) features Pete Wentz; speaking to (of course) James Montgomery, frontman Gabe Saporta said, “[For the] people who don’t get [the joke], who only think we’re clowns… We only show you what you want to see.”
To strengthen the interpretation of Gray as intentionally ironic, the narrator even acknowledges the presence of this literary device. He tells us that he is, “aware of the irony of the situation” when it comes to the double-standards he forces on the relationship between him and Her. And he references irony a second time as well— the narrator remarks to the audience (in those extra-special parentheses) that his producer “ironic[ally]” drives a Mustang. This calls back to how, in 2007, Wentz and his band rented luxury cars and deliberately acted like stereotypical rock stars during their appearance on MTV Cribs, and Wentz wrote in his journal that “hopefully, you will get the joke.” (Similarly, Pete Wentz performed a scripted meltdown on MTV in 2008.) Gray functions in a similar way as these skits; to readers that expect nothing more than a “narcissistic rock star alpha male,” it maintains the illusion that things are just as they appear. But with Gray, a reader who has a little faith—and pays very close attention— understands that everything is not what it seems.
REALITY, AUTHENTICITY, TRUTH, AND SINCERITY
This brings us to the next section of our essay: while there is certainly a very compelling case to be made that Gray is ironic and “a joke,” this is so subtle you can’t be sure. And there is no real answer— only more questions. Because, in spite of all the unreliability—and rather paradoxically—Gray is still somehow incredibly honest. Again speaking with James Montgomery about Hot Mess (which featured Pete Wentz), Gabe Saporta once said: “[Just because something is a joke] doesn’t mean it also can’t be a real thing. [It’s] not serious… but I want it to be real. Instead of trying to focus on one part of my emotions, I want to give people a window to the whole thing. I want people to hear all of it.” Gray, once again, functions in the same way.
While one could point to the tiny clues planted within Gray to demonstrate that we are not meant to trust a word the narrator says—and we are, in fact, supposed to laugh at him—the book also wholeheartedly encompasses what it appears to be on the surface: an earnest love story, invoking the loftiest of ideals about being “on the road.” In many ways, Gray is still a romantic ode to “life… the bad, dirty, and savage kind,” with Wentz’s self-insert proclaiming, “I’ve always been a dreamer, have always believed in the power of love and art and loud, life-affirming rock and roll.” Despite the obvious clues planted within the text by the actual authors to indicate the narrator is unreliable, Gray is undoubtedly an intoxicating and romantic portrayal of “feeling alive on the road,” filled with drugs, sex, violence, and selfishness. And though MTV asserted that Gray is “not always pretty,” the prose sure is beautiful.
The narrator’s manic delusions are described in terms like “glorious” and “brilliant blue… an oasis” with girls appearing to be actual angels; likewise, pills and blood are as glittering and colorful as jewels, shimmering reds and blues. The realm of his pill addiction is pretty and inviting, filled with hazy sunsets, “prisms” of sunshine, and a soft bed with “fluttering” curtains. He likens The Pill Book to vintage Playboy and the pills themselves to “Distant galaxies hovering on the rim of space. Placid resort towns in Arizona. Snow-dotted villages in New England… Flurries. Each of them is a unique, little snowflake. Each of them is beautiful.”
The narrator’s mental health issues and pill abuse are also portrayed as desirable— the narrator says that people who think about cutting themselves, who destroy cell phones, who “pictur[e] the little blue Zolofts in their trembling hands” are described as on some higher plane than the mere mortals who achieve sanity, stability and normalcy— those people “said good-bye to their dreams a long time ago… and they’re content. They have sex, not love. They have careers, not dreams.” The violence in Gray is almost as beautiful as the pills— fistfights are “gorgeous,” “cavalry,” and “cannons sounding,” while the narrator smashing Her phone is “a fireworks display” and a “dying star in its last cosmic throes.”
And while the narrator frequently denigrates the meaningless hookups that serve as a source of anguish, guilt, and almost self-harm for him, the act of seduction is still practically religion. Even though he says of one girl “[My joke] wasn’t funny and her laugh was annoying” and “I hate her” his head is still “swirling when I pass her my hotel-room key, surreptitiously as if it were a promise. It’s passed like taking the new communion.” Finally, while the female celebrity he hooks up with in the book is characterized as an out-of-control coke addict who shrieks at her yes-women and calls them “cunts,” she is still described in terms of having been “buffed by diamonds” and “not mortal… something greater” while her compatriots are “swan-necked” “gorgeous” and “otherworldly.”
Additionally, while the narrator continually cheats on his girlfriend, yells at her, and smashes her phone, the way he describes her, and how she “[catches] moonbeams and h[olds] them quivering and soft on her lashes” and has eyes “greener… than pastures after rain” is nothing short of breathtaking. The toxicity in their relationship is subject to similar idealism—he describes himself as “romance’s last terrorist” and a literal “die-hard romantic.” The fact that the narrator and Her can’t work things out isn’t due to the fact that he is a “motherfucker,” or because she is a “faker;” it’s because “Times are tough for dreamers.” Finally, even the narrator’s overdose is a Shakespearean declaration of epic romance — “The Capulets and Montagues don’t have shit on me and you.”
In short, he makes it all seem like it is to die for.
And, while the narrator is glaringly unreliable— to the point where you can’t trust a word he says— and a “terrible person,” he somehow still strikes you as honest. So honest, in fact, that “It… it’s kind of refreshing, actually.”
He confesses to the audience his most horrible thoughts, of course, but his sometimes-honesty doesn’t end there. While he continually mistreats his girlfriend, speaking about a desire “to punish Her for not believing in me or my band,” he doesn’t actually try to convince the audience to dislike Her. Many might say that Gray is Pete Wentz’s vitriolic fantasy, where his “pen is a weapon, and [he uses] it to humiliate Her, to extract a measure of revenge” and murders his bitchy, slutty ex—right?
But, for all intents and purposes, she seems to be a decent person. While the narrator halfheartedly accuses Her of sleeping around, there’s never a moment of actual vindication for him. The assertions she is cheating always come late, at an incredibly convenient moment, and then don’t come up again until the next hysterical outburst. There is no moment of vindication, not ever. When he first accuses Her of unfaithfulness, he admits to the audience he is “going crazy,” and these are merely the paranoid, manic delusions he uses to justify his abysmal treatment of Her. Finally, he even confesses— in those extra-special parentheses— that “(she wasn’t)” actually fucking anyone behind his back.
Instead, she appears to the audience to simply be a tragically sweet girl— she worries about Her sick mother, she focuses on school and Her dreams, she is almost always excited to see the narrator (no matter what atrocities he’s committed), and she takes care of him. The few times she does lose Her cool, it’s justified— so much so that our narrator even confesses (on two occasions), “I don’t blame Her.”
And while there’s deliberately planted subtext planted regarding the narrator “projecting his insecurities onto Her” causing their relationship to fail, he speaks about how she doesn’t believe in him with a rawness that makes it hard not to believe he at least thinks he’s telling the truth: “She looked at my life as a folly, a children’s crusade. She didn’t have faith in me to… make art and save souls and, sure, maybe even get rich and famous and have hallways lined with platinum plaques… She knew I would fail. [She hoped I’d] come back to Her broken and ready to be put out to pasture.” And— to his credit—she does confess that she “doesn’t know” about his decision to prioritize a deal with a major over finishing his degree.
Likewise, just as sometimes it seems various girls he encounters do actually like him, and he’s merely making assumptions based off his own insecurities and bitter outlook on life, it sometimes seems that he’s right about them not truly wanting him. The actress, for example, “closes her eyes” during sex with the narrator, in contrast to how he keeps his eyes open even though “the light is so bright that it hurts” because he “needs proof this is actually happening.” Similarly, the beautiful celebrity seems “let down” when the narrator isn’t as eager to pose for paparazzi photos together as she is.
And while it’s clearly indicated subtext that Wentz’s self-insert cringing at his girlfriend’s “embarrassing” feminism is him projecting his own feelings of inadequacy onto Her, there’s another layer of meaning. He refers to the guys listening to Her opinions as “Dharma Bums,” referencing a Jack Kerouac novel where three men pretend to listen to girl’s airheaded thoughts about Buddhism as a prerequisite to running a train on her— like the guys who seem to take Her more seriously than our narrator does put hands up Her clothes while she speaks. (See: “Pretty Girls Make Graves: Behind the Title of Fall Out Boy’s Debut Record.”) There are a million tiny clues just like this.
All together, it creates a narrative so blurred and hazy, it’s unable to be fully understood. Sometimes, it’s even hard to tell where the narrator ends and where his girlfriend begins; he says “we are inseparable… she and I…arm in arm” and have “meld[ed] spirit and body;” they smell the same, act the same, and write the same. Gray is impossible for the audience to interpret, too smeared to explicate, too cloudy to explain. There are infinite slightly different versions of the story, all dependent on how you choose to view these hundreds of little details. Gray could be ironic, or it could be authentic. It could be neither. It could be both. I could be delusional. We really can’t ever know.
CONCLUSION, OR, “A STRANGE THING”
It’s enough to drive you crazy— as it has clearly driven me— but that’s the point. As exemplified by it’s title, Gray is meant to be nebulous, vague, and confusing, open to ever-shifting interpretation. Or, in the carefully measured words of Carson Daly, in the only taped interview in which Pete Wentz has discussed Gray: “This book doesn’t live or look either one way or the other.” A reader could view this as a terrible bit of trash by a rockstar that was muddily manhandled into something vaguely resembling a book by a former journalist; or a straightforward confessional and proud tribute to what life On the Road is like, drawing from writers like Kerouac and Bukowski and invoking ornate prose and lofty concepts such as love and dreams to celebrate (one) author’s status as an enfant terrible; or, as a self-aware capsule of who Wentz used to be, and what he used to represent— flaws and all— told completely through the eyes of a narrator who hasn’t yet figured out “[He is] the problem.”
But there is no answer, and there never will be an answer, leaving the reader eternally unsettled and confused. It’s so vague and indecipherable that, even after writing all of this, I sometimes still wonder if perhaps Pete Wentz is just a bad writer, and none of this is real, and I’m a very silly girl, and this is just a Rorschach ink-blot. Or maybe I just haven’t read enough books.
That is, if it were not for one little thing I noticed while writing this. We’ve already gone over how important allusions are in Gray, and there’s one Wentz and Montgomery make special note of. The narrator remarks to the reader at the beginning that he’s going to “keep all of his secrets inside of parentheses”— indicating that the reader should pay extra attention to those. And when he is surveying his girlfriend’s room after returning from tour, he notes that she is reading Blackwater by Kerstin Eckman, and that she is “(One of Sweden’s most prominent novelists)”.
According to reviews, Blackwater is a novel where we begin with a narrator telling us about a murder that took place long ago; there are then prolonged flashbacks regarding the crime and everything surrounding it. Like Wentz and Montgomery’s novel, the book is filled with “lush and lovingly rendered” descriptions of the setting, characters who lie “for no reason at all,” and many detailed sex scenes and descriptions of infidelity. At the end of Blackwater, the book returns to the present, and the mystery is solved, “However, such a protracted search for ‘The Truth,’ for an explanation of what Really Happened, is relatively useless. It doesn’t resolve anything or give the events more meaning. It merely is …”. In the most succinct terms, Blackwater “evades understanding, let alone a solution.”
Just as promised, Gray‘s secret is hidden inside parentheses. And if that wasn’t enough, the prose hits on this clue again, describing Her bedroom as “a crime scene” in the same paragraph. It pushes on the allusion a final time, asking the audience the same questions Eckman’s tale poses to readers: “What went on here? Who were these people?”.
So, all of this is on purpose. As implied by the title, Gray is either-or, in between, lying betwixt all possible interpretations. It evades understanding. It evades a solution. The truth is useless. Likewise, you may recall I mentioned that Gray shares many elements with Closer; the point of the film/play is that “No one is made “closer” by the truth.” Gray exists between the extremes of fantasy and reality, irony and authenticity, truth and lies, satire and sincerity. In the words of Pete Wentz and James Montgomery’s narrator: “I am not the wolf or the sheep. I am another animal altogether.”
This same concept is true for Kerouac’s On the Road, one of Wentz’s strongest literary inspirations for Gray. Scholar Jonathan Devin asserted, “On the Road is neither ironic nor authentic,” but rather embodies sincerity in that “amalgamates” the two. Devin continues, “Kerouac posits that both irony and authenticity fail to remedy the malaise of modern existence, and he asserts that a new type of sincerity—projecting honesty through the earnest belief in the value of contradictions—points to the most viable means of coping with reality.” Like Gray, Kerouac’s On the Road is meant to embody the same contradictions found in life, and present them as sincerely as possible. This inherent paradox directs the reader towards an understanding that, in life, there are not always answers.
Perhaps the intentions of Pete Wentz’s book have been largely misunderstood by the audience, as many roman-a-clefs are; after all, the same is true of On the Road, which faced “swift and strong” backlash from critics, many of whom did not understand it. Wentz once wrote, “After writing On the Road, Jack [Kerouac] was interviewed incessantly, mostly about Dean Moriarty. Most journalists assumed he was Dean… Dean was Neal Cassady.” And perhaps that is the point— “roman a clef” translates to “novel with a key.” And maybe they aren’t always unlocked.
To call back to my Fitzgerald-Wentz analogy one last time, Fitzgerald’s own roman-a-clef Tender is the Night was also misunderstood, perhaps devastatingly so. Hemingway (who Pete Wentz adores) felt that the complete and utter critical and commercial failure of Tender “stemmed from superficial readings of the material and Depression-era America’s reaction to Fitzgerald’s status as a symbol of Jazz Age excess.” Thus, the book’s failure and ridicule was solely a reaction to Fitzgerald’s— and his fictional counterpart’s— status as the face of the long-dead and then-reviled “scene.” (You may be picking up some parallels to Wentz.) Though he had initially harshly critiqued the novel in a letter to Fitzgerald, Hemingway remarked to his and Fitzgerald’s editor Maxwell Perkins years later, “A strange thing is that in retrospect [Fitzgerald’s] Tender Is the Night gets better and better.”
To further analyze Hemingway’s comments regarding Tender in relation to Pete Wentz and James Montgomery’s roman-a-clef— Tender is the Night was not taken seriously due to the expectations of the audience created by the book’s premise and the era it was a product of, falsely assumed to be a tone-deaf and narcissistic celebration of the author and the worst parts of a faded culture, rather than – to borrow MTV’s words about Gray — “an unflinching look behind the curtain” that “detail[ed] the constraints of fame that pushed [the author] to the brink.” Following Fitzgerald’s death as a disgraced alcoholic and luminol addict (partially due to the response to Tender), the novel’s “critical reputation has steadily grown.” Later critics described it as “an exquisitely crafted piece of fiction,” Fitzgerald’s “most emotionally and psychologically complex work,” and “one of the greatest American novels.”
To me, Gray may not be perfect— but it is pretty much the same thing.
“All this effort to make it look effortless” — Fall Out Boy, off So Much (for) Stardust
4 thoughts on “Gray By Pete Wentz: An Unsung Great American Novel”
This was so well written that it made me want to read this book.
Thank you for reading, Ashley!
This was such a fascinating read! I was searching for something relating to this books lore on google when I stumbled upon this by accident but your arguments were so interesting and insightful I’m glad to have found it by accident!
Thank you Ness! I can probably help out with any lore-related questions haha