Million Little Pieceswas the first addiction memoir I’ve ever read. Normally the entire genre makes me ill. All that self-absorption! Why on earth do you get to talk about how important your pain is when there are thousands of people who have other qualifications to write a memoir other than “I heart heroin.” I avoid abuse memoirs for the same reason. I find the whole thing sickening because as much as memorists “want to help others”, their books do nothing but provide a creative outlet for the memorist. It does nothing for the reader. Which is fine – not everything has to have a purpose in life. But I hate the coyness of that reason: “I wrote this book because I wanted others to know you could come through alcoholism/drug abuse/prostitution with flying colors!” Okay, whatever. Maybe others can and maybe they can’t, and maybe even the ones who can aren’t able to write, and that’s just fine. So anytime I’m at B&N and I pick up something like Dry or whatever, I just read the back flap and think… dude, no.
Million Little Pieces triumphed over this bias. Firstly, I loved the beautiful cover. A plaintive hand with tiny colorful beads on it against a green-blue cover said hope to me. I bought the book. It would not be correct to say I read it. I devoured this book. I did not sleep until every word had been read. I loved that book; it became part of my Permanent Library – the books that I will never get rid of, no matter what. And not only do I love that book, I also love James Frey. Even after Oprah threw his junkie ass under the bus, I continue to love him. I will read anything he publishes for as long as he writes – his writing covers all sins.
Still, in some circles he’s a pariah. A liar. Almost in the realm of a plagiarist. I never understood that. The man created something beautiful and meaningful. Whether or not everything in there was the dog’s honest truth, I don’t know or care. It wasn’t a biography; it was a memoir. If I ever write my memoir, it will probably be vastly different from other people’s memories of the time. It brings up the whole Roshoman debate: is my version “correct”, or is yours? And my answer is: mine is. Because I’m the one writing it. You want to write your version, have at it. But my life is forever marked with my own perceptions, and my own exaggerations, lies, half-truths, secrets, and all the other things that made people freak out when they discovered Frey’s work was in fact not 100% literal. (But make no mistake: it was literary.) The specific parts of his work that were attacked were the dental scene and his arrest. On the Oprah show, Nan Talese, the publisher, defended her author’s work by saying that no, the dental scene did not bring up any doubts for her because she too had once experienced dental work without any anesthetic. And Oprah said (I’m paraphrasing here), that’s ridiculous, Nan. People just don’t have dental surgery without anesthetic.That made me stand up and take notice. What if Talese had simply said, Oprah, black women do not become billionaires. Sorry, it’s never happened before, so it didn’t happen to you.Same exact set of facts: each personally experienced something unusual. But the O negated both Nan and James’s experience. Bullocks on that. I really don’t give a wet noodle if he had oral surgery without drugs or not. It doesn’t take away from the thrust of the story. And as for his arrest, yes, he apparently exaggerated. But so what? It works.
After initially supporting Frey, Oprah turned on Frey with a vengeance, telling her audience that “truth matters.” Maybe it does. But this wasn’t a confessional, it was a piece of art. And art is wide open to interpretation, and Frey had the right – the dog given right – to use his very brief jail time to make a larger point. Maybe he felt like a criminal and used the symbol of prison to further that. Or maybe he just thought he looked good in a prison jumpsuit. Point is, its not relevant to the story and despite what Oprah says, it has no bearing on James Frey the author or the man.
Memory is a tricky thing. As an artist, Frey – and everyone else – has the right to write what they know in this regard. It’s up to you and me to decide if we want to read it. In normal cases, I’d say no. But James Frey is one of the best literary voices of our generation, and I’d read anything he cares to publish. His vision and his skill are the truth. One simply can’t fake that.