Friday, January 13, 2006

James Frey

I finished A Million Little Pieces on the airplane on the way to Miami from Boston. It took me a little over three days. I had a very hard time with the material, and the fact that everything that I was reading really and truly happened. I skipped the part about the trip to the dentist and the two root canals without pain meds. My poor teeth couldn't take it.

On Larry King on Wednesday night James Frey was a guest. He was answering questions regarding the truth and validity of his books (the sequel, My Friend Leonard, available now). The Smoking Gun recently published their investigative report on the novel (which I will call it from now on) and claims that pretty much everything that James talks about in the book is a lie.

I encourage you, if you have read the book, to read what TSG has said about it. While I did enjoy the book for its literary appeal and its courage, I now have a completely different view. I'll explain why.

While reading the novel, I had an image of the main character in my mind. He wasn't handsome, he wasn't normal, he was a loner who didn't have any friends and that up until this point had lived on the outskirts of society. I pitied him. I felt for him. I was sad about the beginning of his life. I will admit to being confused on one point while reading the novel: the main character went to college. Not really the activity of choice for self labeled Alcoholics, Drug Addicts, and Criminals. And by the books account, he had been drinking very, very heavily since he was ten years old and had been doing hard drugs since he was a young teen. So it really didn't jive with me that someone who could do so many illegal activities could actually manage to take the SATs, get a good score, and apply and get in to college. Also, in my experience, like minded people hang out with like minded people. In the book he has a girlfriend and many friends that call and miss him. If he was truly such an outcast, either one, all of those people would be societal degenerates too, and would need to be in that treatment center as much as he did, or two, he wasn't really such an outcast at all and it was all in his head. Which, I could live with, so I read on.

No, before I read TSG's accounting of the book, my review was thus: while the story of success is very good, I am greatly disheartened that Oprah chose this novel for her bookclub. Its good, the writing style is excellent, but the overall story is not good at all. Its irresponsible. And here is why.

I've never been to an AA meeting. I've only peripherally known alcoholics, and I don't know any who go to meetings. But I know, in my heart of hearts, that AA works for many people, and that AA does a lot of good things for its members. James Frey's account of it in his book is distrustful and irresponsible, because how many people will read his book and think, "I can quit this on my own, just like him!" Its wrong. And the lonewolf approach should not be glorified because for most I don't think it works.

Second, the God issue. I'm not one to push my belief on anyone. But repeatedly James Frey say's he doesn't believe in God and that any belief in a higher power is ludicrous. I pushed through the novel, hoping that, as with most people, by the end he would see that through his own testimony, clearly a higher power was at work and he was being saved for some great purpose. But no. Not once. Not once does he acknowledge that God was at work in his life and that his interactions with friends and peers were being used by God to the betterment of everyone involved. In fact, he belittles those that use "a higher power" as a reason to get better because it's a "cop out" because there is no such higher power. I was saddened. Mainly because I have always thought of Oprah as a spiritual person, and the very lack of spirituality in James Frey seemed a contradiction. At one point, he admits to having beat up a Priest in Paris for touching him inappropriately, and even as I read it I thought, "what? This is way too contrived." The book was first published in 2003. I imagine that coincides very nicely with the Catholic church scandal that rocked Boston and most of Catholicism. It just seemed to fictional.

So my final thought? I would recommend the book be read for its literary value. His writing style is captivating if not at times kind of sea sickening. It has a rolling pattern that is often hard to follow, but its very Ernest Hemingway, and you have to admire that. As a writer I know it was probably difficult at best for him to continue in that pattern of speech. But the effect is lovely.

But TSG's report. I suggest you read it as I haven't time to go through it all here. But it appears that every criminal act he says he commits in the books is a lie. He was never in jail for more than a night or a day and he never hit a cop and I doubt severely he ever hit a Priest. My biggest doubt? That he ever did crack cocaine. According to TSG, he has a record of cocaine, pot, and alcohol and some other pills. I bet that's where it stops. I told you when I envisioned this character to be sad, ugly, and shy, with wandering eyes that wouldn't hold a stare. I envisioned a loner, a person that might hide behind their hair, and wouldn't be very clean. Take a look at his picture in real life. He really is a frat boy. He looks like a rich suburban snob who's parents didn't pay enough attention to him. And apparently, according to TSG, he graduated from said University. No word as to GPA but having known many, many, many pot heads in my school that went for a semester, dropped out and went home, came back, got in trouble, went back home, I know that no one doing as many drugs as he said he did could have held down a 2.5 GPA, which is standard to graduate from any school. The issue of his graduation is not brought up in the novel, if it were, I assure you I would have questioned its validity or the validity of his claims.

I am so sad that this has happened. I know he was probably a starving author (it is said he's written many books and screen plays, including the one for this book which is being made into a movie by the likes of Brad Pitt. Groan.) and had to get a hook for the publishers to publish his book. I know it was declined 11 or 12 times. TSG has the exact number. I know he probably misled people trying to make a living. And while, yes, he may have been in rehab, it was probably because his rich parents thought he had one too many cocktails on the golf course with his frat brothers.

I enjoyed your novel, Mr. Frey. But shame on you. And shame on Oprah for standing by you now, and not demanding of the publishing house that the work be relabled and placed in the fiction category. (Consequently, the publishing house is printing disclaimers on new editions citing the names have been changed and that events have been dramatized.)

It is a great work. A great work of fiction.