James Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces has been getting a lot of press lately. It seems that someone did some detective work and discovered that the author’s account of his involvement in a schoolmate’s car crash death was highly exaggerated.
I read the book shortly after it was published, and even back then, I was pretty sure that at least some of the events as releated in the book were a bit outside the bounds of credibility. I’ve never been in a rehab facility, or had extensive contact with the types of hard-core addicts and criminals that Frey describes in his book. Nor do I have the insatiable dirt-digging investigative urge that drives the contributors to The Smoking Gun. But brother, I can smell a big hunk of baloney when it’s shoved in my face.
I wrote a review of the book on Amazon; pardon me as I recycle some of my words and ideas from that review.
A lot of the details in this book seem far too good to be true. The narrator constantly and openly defies the rules of the treatment center, but instead of kicking him out as per policy, the authorities decide to keep him in treatment, because, well, he’s such a wonderful guy. He becomes friends with a Mafia don and a Federal judge, and they support him in everything he decides to do, even the potentially self-destructive actions, again because he’s just such an inherently lovable person. When the Mafioso says that he wants to adopt the narrator as his son (the narrator already has two loving parents who have made a tremendous effort to come to terms with his condition), my “B.S. Meter” overloaded.
There’s a character in the book named Bobby, who elicits a sort of contemptuous amusement from his fellow addicts for telling “entertaining lies”. I suspect that the real James Frey is a lot like Bobby.
Frey has recently said that he embellished some details for “obvious dramatic reasons”. I can relate to this, and won’t condemn him for that per se. I enjoy telling stories about my own adventures, and, well, sometimes the truth just falls a little bit short. In order to entertain the audience as much as possible, somethimes it’s better to tell what should have happened, instead of what did.
The problem comes from Frey’s labeling his book as a “memoir” instead of a “novel”. There’s a differnce between being a raconteur and an author, and people expect a certain level of truth in labeling on their books. And, to no one’s surprise, it turns out that Frey tried unsuccessfully to sell his book to several publishers as a novel.
Frey maintains that, whether it’s strictly true or not, the book retains its essential message and “emotional truth”. And a lot of readers, including Oprah Winfrey, have spoken up to defend the book’s value regardless of the strict truth, or lack thereof, of the story.
What’s ironic and frustrating is that the book needn’t have lost any of its impact if it had been initially published with a “fiction” label. A powerful illustration of this point can be found in another rehab story: Barry B. Longyear’s Saint Mary Blue.
Alcoholism and substance abuse exist just as much in the science fiction community as in any other subgroup of society. And they’re hushed up and swept under the table there just as anywhere else. So, as a young fan in 1988, it was quite an eye-opener to read Longyear’s story of an award-winning science fiction author who happened to be an addict, and his stint in rehab.
Longyear said quite openly that the book was based on his own experiences. But at the same time, he wrote it as a novel. It’s a well-written, realistic novel. But if you happen to run across some parts where you think, “I’ll bet it didn’t really happen like that”, then the natural response is, “So maybe it didn’t. It’s a novel, after all.”
With a central character who’s an author, Longyear indulges in some meta-references about writing professionally and stretching the truth. When a hard-as-nails biker comes up with a wildly exaggerated catalog of his drug abuse, the protagonist demolishes it by pointing out all the factual errors, inconsistencies, and implausibilities. Lying has its place, and some people make a good living telling lies. Many people enjoy reading well-told lies, as long as they know that’s what they are. The trouble comes when you try to pass off those lies as truth.
Saint Mary Blue shows what can be accomplished with a novel about addiction and rehab. It bears a powerful message for those who’ve been through the experience and for those who haven’t. Its central character rebels against the notion of putting his life in the hands of a “higher power”, because he’s never believed in any higher power that can influence his life. But in the end he finds that something as simple and close to hand as a group of people who care about you can be enough of a higher power, and can help you tackle the problems that you can’t solve yourself.
A Million Little Pieces, despite its problems, also has a powerful message. Its protagonist, too, questions the “higher power” concept, and reaches a different conclusion. He is determined to see himself through the experience without any help, relying on his own strength rather than a higher power. I think that this is also a worthwhile message, and deserves to be heard. There are some challenges in life that we can overcome through sheer self-reliance, and it strenghtens us to do so.
I find the two themes to be complementary rather than contradictory. Within each of us, there is a boundary between those things that we can solve on our own, and those for which we have to admit we need help. It would be foolish and self-defeating to assume that we need a “higher power” to solve every problem in our lives. But it would be equally harmful to assume that we’d never need such assistance. Having good illustrations of both options,as exemplified by those two books, is a positive thing in the long run.
So in the final analysis, I’ve got a lot more respect for A Million Little Pieces than for its author. I’d still recommend reading it; it’s a great story. Just remember the emphasis on “story”. And I’d also recommend reading Saint Mary Blue, and other works by Barry Longyear. And Longyear is an author for whom I have a great deal of respect.