Sunday, November 4, 2012

Reading Journal: A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey (2003)

I'll get this out of the way first: I don't care if it's true. Maybe it mattered at the time, because it was being sold as a memoir, but this far along, I think it can only be considered a story, a "fictionalized memoir" or an "autobiographical novel," using either term with a giant asterisk. I could, however, feel the controversy around the book affecting my reading of it and making me more attentive throughout. When I started thinking, for instance, "The addict voice he uses, all the 'want want want want want' etc., seems really cartoony," I wondered if I'd have even questioned it were I thinking it factual; and for all the repetitions he uses - incantations or refrains occasionally well-placed, but generally employed solely for emphasis, like those Star Trek: The Next Generation characters* did - and, as far as I can tell, completely arbitrary capitalization, I wondered "Would I forgive even worse writing if this were true?", because with memoirs, maybe because not everyone with a personal story is a capital-W Writer, I tend to criticize technique much more charitably. To me, what's especially interesting is that Frey first tried to sell this as fiction, because I would think that in a slush pile, it would look a lot like the hundreds of overly confessional based-on-a-true-story rehab "novels" that they reject pro forma. It makes me wonder: after a rejection of a short story for being too clearly "true" to be good fiction, would I try to publish it as a personal essay? If I was proud enough of the work, I think I would. And the only differences I see between that choice and Frey's "memoir" are that (1) that M-word carries a seemingly inherent claim of truth, and (2) my essay would not be 430 pages long.

But aside from all that: is it any good? Yes. I found the story compelling and very hard to put down. You could call his rhythms and style "stolen," from everyone from Henry Miller through William S. Burroughs or Jack Kerouac, though (as I already said) I can't understand the language conventions he chose to challenge, or why: if making Town or Hero a proper name, how are "small Town" and "football Hero" not? Any writer is free to do as s/he pleases with the language, but if I can't figure out the rules of the game - or if there aren't obviously any to speak of - I probably won't play.** As a whole, I thought Frey's fondness for repetition dragged the prose down more often than sped it up, but overall the writing moved at a surprisingly fast clip.

Taking the long-view, the book's not as ground-breaking as it would have been were it all true, or were it written before its stylistic forebears, but it's a book a lot like many books many people like; why, therefore, shouldn't people like it? We get a character who really needs help, and who works at getting it, meeting a ton of interesting characters and obstacles along the way - sounds like a decent story to me. And as a final note: I was reading it waiting for a takeout order in July or August, and in the Toronto Star that day, there was an "if you liked this, buy that"-type list. It surprised me to see that A Million Little Pieces was listed as a book popular with teens, but it makes a lot of sense - I don't think I'd be the first to say that the Frey character increasingly reminded me of Holden Caulfield as I neared the book's end, in the way that he discovered that despite his objection to nearly everything he the world, it was still possible to make his way in it. For that, I think the book's worth reading, pack of lies or otherwise.

*-Please comment below if you remember the name of these characters. Also, please don't laugh at me for watching this as a child.
**-Worth noting: I finished the book regardless...!

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