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Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Million Little Pieces

A Million Little Pieces

by James Frey

(3/5 stars)

I finally decided to read this long after the Oprah controversy died out. Unless you've been under the proverbial rock there's no need to explain all that, except to mention that while it was originally published as nonfiction, we've since found out it is to some (if not most) extent fiction. As some kind of compromise, my library reshelved it in the substance abuse section, but you can still see the sticker from when it was in the biography section.

My take on the controversy is I never cared if he did lie or not. The validity of opinions aren't whether they happen or not. As a great fiction writer taught me, it's not whether the book is true as in it happened, so much as if it's true in spirit. The problem then with Frey's fictitious biography is its increasing phoniness as he falls in love and becomes the Chosen One with the power of resisting addiction without the Twelve Steps or any of that AA noise.

The story (how much is real or not depends on what Web sites you visit, I'm sure) is that after going on a monster bender in the wake of being dumped--and in the process badly mangling his face--his family gets him into a world-renowned treatment center. His first days are especially brutal as he undergoes drug therapy and then has two root canals with no anesthetic. (If you've have a root canal WITH anesthetic then you have to get the chills thinking about that.) Frey never goes along with the AA program or Twelve Steps because he doesn't believe in God. Instead he relies on the Chinese Tao, intestinal fortitude, and love with another patient named Lilly. Since dating between patients is forbidden they have to see each other in The Clearing on the QT. I doubt I'm spoiling anything by saying he survives the rehab and eventually gets out--how else could he have gone on Oprah 15 years later?

I was really interested in the opening third or so of the book as he begins recovery and his body starts to heal. For me things began to go downhill when Leonard the mobster (who is prominently featured in the even more preposterous-sounding sequel) convinces Frey to stay in treatment in a scene right out of Hollywood. That Frey worked as a screenwriter makes sense with the mobster cliche and especially the cute hooker with a heart of gold cliche in Lilly. Say what you want, but I didn't believe either of them existed, at least not in that way.

The whole secret love affair struck me as especially false, the kind of thing a Hollywood screenwriter would put in to make the story more attractive to women. By the time he rescues her from a crack house I was shaking my head with disbelief. And when one of the treatment center workers tells him afterwards that "he shouldn't have been able to do that" I snorted with derision. "What is he, Neo or Blade or Ghost Rider or something?" I was thinking to myself--not in those exact words, of course. Then we have to suffer through the predictable farewells and the final scene in the bar.

No one in this book, not even James Frey himself, seemed like a real person to me. They all seemed like characters and that's where the book fails. Whether it's fiction or nonfiction, a story like this has to have people who seem real or it doesn't work. As for the overall message, in the end it seems as simple as "Just Say No," which I'm sure most people battling some form of addiction seems too simplistic.

I walk away from this disappointed not that Frey didn't tell the truth about what actually happened, but that he didn't tell the truth in spirit.

That is all.

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