A Million Little Pieces
Let me start by saying that the primary reason I decided to read this book now was that I got it for free. Not that I wasn't curious; I've got a definite weakness for angst and drugs and devastation and redemption. I mean, shit like this is ludicrously popular because it like twangs something in us, right? It accesses some kind of emotional core or whatever, some place in us that has struggled too, that wants to see suffering end and the sun shimmer out from behind the clouds and a reward come t Let me start by saying that the primary reason I decided to read this book now was that I got it for free. Not that I wasn't curious; I've got a definite weakness for angst and drugs and devastation and redemption. I mean, shit like this is ludicrously popular because it like twangs something in us, right? It accesses some kind of emotional core or whatever, some place in us that has struggled too, that wants to see suffering end and the sun shimmer out from behind the clouds and a reward come to those who have kicked and screamed and fought to earn it. Right? Anyway: so there, I admit it, I've always assumed I would probably read this book eventually, and would probably even like it.
Before I get any further, though, I'd like to do a bit of ranting about the whole sordid, shitty scandal. First of all: jesus fuck, how stupid was all that?? I was working at Random House when it was going down; I remember that any of us who wanted to could go to the conference rooms where they were showing the Oprah episode where Nan Talese went on the show so the two of them could get all indignant and talk about how James Frey betrayed them and the American people and bunnies and apple pie. I stayed at my desk, because it was too stupid to possibly think about. It's a memoir, people, and memoirs are fucking subjective. Furthermore, it's a memoir of the first few weeks of convalescence after ten years of nightly blackouts due to extreme consumption of insane amounts of drugs and alcohol. Is it really that surprising that Frey forgot or fucked up some details? And even furthermore, it's a story, it's a book, people, and Frey had the sense to be a writer, to lay a narrative arc over things, to make beginning-middle-end sections, to insert snappy dialogue where it was probably a lot less snappy, to make people maybe just a little bit smarter and more interesting than maybe they really were. This is not wrong. The reason why books aren't explicitly true to life is because life is boring sometimes, and when you write a book or a movie or a comedy act, you can gloss over the inconsequential things and capitalize on the interesting bits.
It was ludicrous how Random House fell all over themselves to work both sides of the issue ("You guys think he's still relevant and important? Oh, then we of course stand by our authors. But wait, you guys over there think he's a fuckup and a liar? Well we were lied to too! Poor us! Please don't stop buying our books!"). Puke and puke. I also have a lot of anger about Oprah (much of which well-meaning friends have tried to get me to get over, but no fucking thank you), and I think she too was just exclusively concerned with protecting her brand and her market share, and that everybody scapegoated Frey in an unforgivable way. But then, of course, there's this: scandals sell some fucking books. Sure, Frey was humiliated on TV and throughout the media, but that motherfucker also made a shit-ton of money. Random House and Oprah kind of had to play both sides of the issue, because both sides were going to buy, buy, buy. Remember that other Oprah mini-scandal with Jonathan Franzen, how she put him on her book club and he said no thanks? Well, let me be clear: the only Oprah books I've ever read, and probably ever will
read, are Franzen's and Frey's. Oprah is so powerful that even the people who hate her make her money and are probably good for her overall. That's fucking scary.
Anyway, enough of that; on to the book itself. Will anyone be surprised by this point to hear that I didn't hate it? Well, I didn't. In fact, I liked it a good deal. There were passages where I was pretty damn riveted, honestly, when I couldn't wait until my next cigarette break so I could read some more. Like I said, it's tough to beat the kind of suffering and struggle and survival that's on display here. I've had friends in NA and AA, and many more who maybe should have been; I'm a good audience for this kind of thing. Moreover, though (smoking aside) I've never been an addict myself, I quietly agree with a lot of Frey's ideas (as presented here, that is) about the futility of the Twelve Steps, and how especially the "higher power" bit, along with things like "genetically predisposed" and "childhood abuse" and such like, could be looked at as just tidy ways of disavowing responsibility for one's own mistakes. I mean, for fuck's sake, I smoke a lot of cigarettes, and though yes, I do think I have a bit of an addictive personality, and sure, maybe because my parents didn't take away my bottle early enough I have an oral fixation, and yup, many of my relatives were heavy smokers, but still: every single time I light a cigarette, I am making a decision to do so. Every. Single. Time. I could very certainly not do it, and the times I've quit I've done just that. I am of course in no way saying that heroin is easy to kick, or that physical addiction is as simple to overcome as not striking that match. I am saying, though, that I agree with a lot of the things Frey says here. That's all.
And look: there's no doubt that Frey has crafted himself (or: his "self") into a serious bad-boy hero in this book. I'm sure that he is not nearly as smart and clever and recalcitrant and charismatic and nails-tough as he paints himself to be herein. But see above, okay? It's a fucking memoir. Does anyone for one second believe that any memoirist can remember conversations, word for word, from years ago? Of course not. You remember the general idea, maybe a phrase here or there, and you recreate. Recreate. A memoir is a creative process just like fiction is. Sure, there were times during this book when I rolled my eyes and thought "well isn't that tidy," or "I'm really sure he said that," but that's fine. I am a thinking human being, and I am going to bring my own thoughts and feelings and opinions to what I read, and I am going to dole out my respect and judgement accordingly.
The bottom line, for me, goes back to something I always say about memoirs. One of the quotes on my favorite memoir ever, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City , says something like "finally, a person whose life is deserving of a memoir has the skills to write one." Whether Frey really had a double root canal with no anesthetic, whether he commanded the adulation and respect of grizzled mobsters in rehab, whether he puked for ten days straight and cursed out all the therapists and is a perfect fighter and is actually afraid of nothing — that is all irrelevant, or at least secondary. What matters is that Frey has not only gone through some major major shit and lived to tell about it, he is capable of telling about it in a way that is generally compelling and often fascinating. Sure, he made a lot of really weird style choices (like random capitalizations and no indented paragraphs), which I found stupid and distracting. Sure, his story is often overdramatized and too pat. Sure, he paints himself as a pitch-perfect brilliant bad-boy-rebel anti-hero. But fuck. This is still a pretty great book, and I'm really glad I read it....more