Title: A Million Little Pieces
Author: James Frey
Published by Nan A. Talese (Doubleday)
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This book is beautiful.
A Million Little Pieces is a memoir by James Frey covering his time in a drug rehabilitation center, a place he ended up after spending twelve years of his life as an alcoholic and drug abuser. He was twenty-three when the events chronicled here took place. Doing some quick math we find...Yeeouch.
The book is decidedly picaresque, with new characters dropping in at the rehab center periodically throughout the book. We meet a mob boss with five last names (one for each state he has a presence in), a district court judge, a former world heavyweight boxing champion, a heroin addict who had both of his arms amputated after contracting gangrene (think Requiem, but much, much worse), the dean of a large midwestern Catholic university and a woman prostituted by her mother in exchange for drug money starting at age thirteen. His characterization of his parents is incredibly raw and brutal in its honest treatment of the hatred he feels towards them. The staff of the institution is equally varied and well-described; Frey avoids the standard 'doctors-are-evil' cliches and paints tender portraits of all of the staff, even those he didn't get along with. This could be because everyone who worked in this place are former abusers themselves.
Frey pulls no punches here - he gets sent to the hospital after falling face-first down a set of fire escape steps while under the influence and the opening paragraph describes what kind of state he's in:
I Wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin. I lift my hand to feel my face. My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut. I open them and I look around and I'm in the back of a plane and there's no one near me. I look at my clothes and my clothes are covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood. I reach for the call button and I find it and I push it and I wait and thirty seconds later an Attendant arrives.
That's an evil way to start off a memoir, but it certainly does the trick. We are given no clues as to who this guy is, where he's going or what he's done, a concept that works extraordinarily well because at that point Frey's waaaaaaaay
too fucked up to know for himself.
Oh, and did you notice anything a little off about the last sentence quoted above? Rhythm overrides grammar with this guy. There isn't a single quotation mark anywhere in the book. There's very little description; he lets his characters' words speak for themselves. Important words are capitalized out of context. Repetition, meter and rhyme are masterfully implemented. One walks away from reading this book knowing exactly how the author thinks. It's not a memoir so much as it's a 381-page poem.
This is better example of how he places his words. For clarity's sake, remember that the author is speaking second.
What type of substances do you normally use?
What time do you start drinking?
When I wake up.
She marks it down.
How much per day?
As much as I can.
How much is that?
Enough to make myself look like I do.
She looks at me. She marks it down.
His style bears a passing resemblance to Joyce but so much more raw. Every pinprick of pain this guy goes through stabs out and cuts. He removes his stitches with a pair of nail clippers (some of the stitches are are inside his mouth, no less) and you feel every thread snap. He gorges on cafeteria food and vomits and you can taste the bile. He goes through major unmedicated dental surgery (he is in a drug treatment program after all; people would be pulling out their own teeth for a hit or three of codine otherwise) and you can feel the drill bit tearing into your molars. (Make you wince? See my point?) Joyce wrote on the innocence of youth; this guy wasn't granted a childhood at all, let alone a wide-eyed one.
This is a heartbreaking work of literature, but the biggest emotional trauma comes in the form of a short appendix, listing what eventually happened to all of the patients Frey came to love in the institution. I'll keep the specifics to myself, but it's not pretty.
I also feel the need to remind you that this is a memoir - the author's recollections might be clouded and embroidered by time, but this all happened. I needed to keep reminding myself of that as parts of it were so extraordinary I assumed they had to be fictional. That fact makes it all the more engrossing.
UPDATE (1/29/06): Looks like the shit has hit the fan for Frey. The book was chosen as an Oprah book club selection
, garnering it tons more attention than it would have otherwise and a good portion of that attention was critical, not of the style or the literary merit of the work, but over whether it was, you know, true
or not. Some parts of the book don't really stand up to scrutiny
- I'm reminded of a scene in a dentist's office where Frey undergoes major surgery without anesthetic
of any kind because he was in a rehab program. It didn't ring true for me and apparently I'm not alone - turns out, such things are never, ever done. This brought the rest of the book under a critical eye or seven, and other things (like Frey's criminal record or lack thereof) surfaced.
The major problem seems to be what the definition of "truth" is, and I ain't goin' there, but it looks like I'm alone in that - people started piling on the bandwagon, claiming that Frey's story is less effective because he lied and people are hurt.
Personally, I find the idea of anyone getting THAT invested in a book, for salvation or empathy or whatever reason, to be creepy. It also seems to me that anyone who cares that much mustn't read all that much - if it's the only book you've read in a year it probably matters more than if it were one of fifty. Though maybe that's just me.