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a million little pieces

5 march 2006

When Oprah Winfrey first chose James Frey's Million Little Pieces for her Book Club, I was completely uninterested in reading it. I hadn't been a very good Book Club member, anyway. I only wanted Oprah to lead me to middlebrow classics that I hadn't read before, and she kept choosing beastly long classics that I had waded through once in life – García Màrquez, Tolstoy, Faulkner – and had no intention of reading again at her instigation. Then she went and slipped in a contemporary addiction memoir. I nearly abandoned the Club altogether.

Then something interesting happened. Without changing a word of its text, A Million Little Pieces morphed from a routine heart-wringer into a byword for literary fabrication. The Smoking Gun revealed that Frey, in the guise of non-fiction, had simply made a whole bunch of stuff up. Maybe one can't go as far as to paraphrase Mary McCarthy and say that every word of A Million Little Pieces is a lie, including "a" and "the," but a whole lot of the longer ones are lies, especially the "Criminal" in Frey's famous self-identification: "I am an Alcoholic and a drug Addict and a Criminal." Frey never fell more afoul of the law than a couple of moving violations and a DUI.

So now of course I wanted to read his book. Because, through a sort of Borgesian transformation, the same words now take on a rich, ironic resonance. Consider the following passage as the heartfelt, no-nonsense end-of-the-tether cri de coeur of a hardened addict:

There is no future and no escape. There is only an obsession. To make light of it, brag about it, or revel in the mock glory of it is not in any way, shape or form related to its truth, and that is all that matters, the truth. (178)
That's conventionally inspiring. That's spare, terse, and all that, but seriously, it's also more than a bit of a cliché, isn't it?

Now think of the following passage as the sneering of a habitual, deep-seated liar:

There is no future and no escape. There is only an obsession. To make light of it, brag about it, or revel in the mock glory of it is not in any way, shape or form related to its truth, and that is all that matters, the truth.
That's audacious. It's perhaps brilliant. Because the very provenance of A Million Little Pieces, apart from its intrinsic cocky narrative voice, comprises the very kind of braggadocio and mock glorification that the book itself disavows. While telling us that all that matters is the truth, the author is addicted to the same lying that he rejects. At a stroke, Frey's prose has moved from post-adolescent maundering to post-modern ambiguity.

The only thing that saves A Million Little Pieces from its own maudlin excess is the fact that it's a con game. If the book weren't a tissue of lies, it would drop of its own weight. As it is, the book is no easy read. Frey alternates scenes of hideous self-inflicted trauma with blustering passages of tough-guy manliness.

Chucked by his parents into a midwestern rehab in his early 20s, the narrator of A Million Little Pieces decides early on that twelve-step rhetoric, and the support of an institution and a community, are nonsense.

I have been given this book [The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous] before. . . . When it was given to me, I threw it in the gutter or stuffed it in the bottom of the nearest garbage can. I have been to AA meetings and they have left me cold. I find the philosophy to be one of replacement. Replacement of one addiction with another addiction. Replacement of a chemical for God and a Meeting. (76)
The narrator's counselors try at times to remind him that the God-and-a-Meeting addiction hurts no-one, unlike the drink-and-crack addiction that has landed him in rehab. But the narrator just sneers; to him all addictions are identical.
It doesn't matter whether the addiction is drugs, alcohol, crime, sex, shopping, food, gambling, television, or the fucking Flintstones. (178)
Which seems unjust to Fred and Wilma, but let that pass. Conventional therapies diagnose addiction as a disease, but Frey's narrator is adamant: any concession that addicts suffer from illness is just a rationalization of weakness.
Diseases are destructive Medical conditions that human beings do not control. They do not choose when to have them, they do not choose when to get rid of them. . . . If a drunk is a drunk, but doesn't want to be drunk anymore, it is not a genetic disease. Addiction is a decision.
There's a half-truth in the rhetoric here that perhaps locates the appeal that A Million Little Pieces had for so many readers, before Oprah castigated its author for his perfidy. Indeed, one cannot choose to develop cancer; one can choose to decline a drink.

But that's a half-truth, of course. Which half you consider truth depends on how you perceive the world. A minority of extreme believers would say that cancer (or at least recovery from cancer) is indeed a choice: that all illnesses are a matter of willpower or the lack thereof. When I hear that kind of rhetoric, I feel like Woody Allen listening to Christopher Walken in Annie Hall: I have an appointment back on Planet Earth. But such beliefs represent one fringe of the context for A Million Little Pieces.

The other perspective (to which I'm much more sympathetic) would say, true, you always have a choice whether to hoist that glass or not. But we live in a society awash in alcohol and drugs. They are big business, relentlessly promoted, their use and abuse encouraged by all sorts of peer groups. Drunkenness, in such a society, is only slightly less within the drunk's control than blood sugar is within the diabetic's, and only slightly more within the drunk's control than cancer is for the patient raised in a toxic environment.

But it matters intensely what we call things, of course. And Frey is obstinate in his assertion that addiction is no illness. It's just a matter of not being tough enough.

And of course it matters intensely whether we call A Million Little Pieces a memoir or a novel. Read more . . .

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