This is a book I’ve read a lot about. It is referred to repeatedly in both Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History and David Shields’ Reality Hunger, two texts exploring the rise of openly autobiographical literature. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces is significant because it is a bestselling memoir, picked out and promoted by Oprah Winfrey, lauded by many contemporary writers (there is a Bret Easton Ellis quotation on the cover of this edition) and then subsequently revealed to be full of reams of bullshit.
There was a huge, clamourous clamouring for Frey’s head, spearheaded by the duped-feeling Oprah. It led to his American publishers issuing a full refund to anyone who bought it under the impression that it was 100% true. Which it isn’t. This, of course, was a massively successful publicity campaign, and though maybe a bit of immediate capital was lost at the time (I bet it wasn’t), in the long term the book’s very contentiousness has helped it grow to the status of a contemporary classic.
Because a lot of it is true, but not all of it.
A Million Little Pieces is the narrative of a 23 year old (upper middle class*) crack addict and alcoholic dealing with his addictions in a treatment centre. It is about the friends he makes, the rule-breaking romance he has, the reparation of his relationship with his family and the realisation that there is more to life than crack and liquor.**
It is, I suppose, a classic and uplifting “life wins out” kind of book. Frey refuses to embrace the deity-led teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous, he finds inner strength (or whatever) through human contact (friendship and love) and the return of his emotions.
It is good. It is powerful. It is tear-jerking and made me cry several times. I can understand why it was (and is) so popular. It’s evocative, it’s “positive”, it’s often funny, and it’s definitely quite interesting.
BUT (and here is the real caveat) lots within it has been exaggerated or lied about. But it’s not really a problem, is it, because no one reads A Farewell to Arms and says “I’d’ve liked it if in-” Actually, I’ll stop. I was going to describe the ending (which is not how the real life romance Hemingway based the novel on ended), but won’t, because A Farewell to Arms is great and I wouldn’t want to ruin it for anyone.
But that’s the issue, isn’t it, the sense of doubt that creeps in. Do these disparate people really bond in rehab to that extent? (We’re talking mafia dons and state judges) I can believe they do, but because Frey definitely DID lie about some things, EVERYTHING is debatable. But it doesn’t matter, imo, because ultimately it’s an involving read, written with a deliberate briskness and cloying repetitions*** that evaporate as the narrator’s health recovers.
It’s optimistic (except the page of “what happened next to the other characters”), it’s emotional, it’s interestingly structured and it deliberately holds off descriptions of “glamorous drug use”**** until the character no longer sees any glamour in them.
Frey does come across as damaged and addicted, but recovering. His friends are well drawn, the rehab environment is well created (even if it is all hocum, it’s CONVINCING hocum) and one finishes the novel (see footnote two) really feeling as if one has walked with a young man through the burgeoning half light that follows a truly, truly dark night.
What really happened doesn’t matter, because A Million Little Pieces is powerful and emotive and creates many compelling characters. If a book does those three things, it’s doing something right.
A good, solid, read. No regrets, bro.
* I feel a little bit of attention should be paid to this, but not enough to write more than this short footnote doing so.
** Though he fails to really describe what this is. Tbph, the book made me feel very self-destructive in places. Frey is right – the world IS awful, life is a drag, and he had his solution (crack and liquor) but abandoned it (them). For what? A successful literary career, eventually, but I believe there’s almost a decade between the end of this book’s narrative and its publication. Though it is long, so probably took a while to write. Sorry. This footnote’s too long.
*** I took these to be metaphors for the repetitive actions of substance addiction. I really hope they were, because I quite like it stylistically and would hate for the book’s affected sloppiness (which tightens as it goes on) to be Frey’s literary development as he wrote the novel (ooh, controversial, I called it a novel!) rather than a deliberate technique to mirror the protagonist’s recovery. Fuck it, it was definitely deliberate. If I call it a novel, it’s a technique. Boom. Done.
**** Having cocaine snorted off your erect penis counts as a “glamorous drug use” story in my view, no matter how much fey “oh god, I can’t believe I did that”ing the anecdote is packaged in.