(Note: Originally posted May 23, 2003)
When you see the gloves come off in the literary world, you can't help but rubberneck. In the pre-publication interviews for his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, James Frey not only took some unprovoked jabs at writers Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, and David Foster Wallace, but he stated unequivocally that he would be the best writer of his generation. All of this from a man who had yet to publish a book when he made his statements.
Ironically, A Million Little Pieces opens on a man stripped of his ego, waking from the stupor of a weeks-long alcohol and drug bender to find himself on an airplane unable to figure out where he is going or where he has been, his face smashed in from a fall that resulted in the loss of four of his front teeth. He's a twenty-three year old addict of nearly every drug, returning first to his parents and then promptly being placed in a rehab center. From that point, both James and the reader have the past clarified in short, often painful slices of flashback and dialogue with various people ranging from a recovering crack addict/former prostitute love interest to an alcoholic Louisiana judge to a Las Vegas mobster. All of this takes place in a rehab center under the auspices of recovery-speak. Through the course of the book, James has major dental surgery without anesthesia, picks numerous fights with just about anyone who crosses his path (and a few who don't), rejects any hint of AA and God, yet comes to terms with his ego and the Fury (that which makes him often proclaim: "I am an Alcoholic and I am a Drug Addict and I am a Criminal"). By comparing himself to others around him, evaluating himself by their addictions and their recovery, James shapes his own theory of self, of addiction, and of sobriety. While listening to one of the daily “Lectures” he must suffer through—this one led by an unnamed “Rock Star” who sounds a bit like Steven Tyler—Frey’s understanding of what it means to be an addict develops:
An Addict is an addict. It doesn’t matter whether the Addict is white, black, yellow or green, rich or poor or somewhere in the middle, the most famous Person on the Planet or the most unknown. It doesn’t matter whether the addiction is drugs, alcohol, crime, sex, shopping, food, gambling, television, or the fucking Flinstones. The life of the addict is always the same. There is no excitement, no glamour, no fun. There are no good times, there is no joy, there is no happiness. There is no future and no escape. There is only an obsession. An all-encompassing, fully enveloping, completely overwhelming obsession.Without a doubt, this is book is a difficult read, both in terms of the writing style and the subject matter. I, too, am a recovering alcoholic. Like Frey, I couldn't fathom kicking my habit with the help of AA and for many of the same reasons (obstinance, unwillingness to accept or believe in a "higher power," etc.). A lot of what Frey deals with reminded me of that part of my life where the urge to drink was much stronger than the desire to stay sober. By the end of the book, Frey has won over the people that are most skeptical, the ones who believed he would fail without the 12 steps. Most importantly, though, he wins over himself. In the first hours of his release from the center (where he will then head to a short prison term for beating up a cop in his "previous life") he will insist on stopping at a bar. It is this scene where Frey as a writer is most effective.
I have a decision to make. It is a simple decision. It has nothing to do with God or Twelve of anything other than twelve beats of my heart. Yes or no. It is simple decision. Yes or No. I look into myself. Into the pale green of my own eyes. I like what I see. I am comfortable with it. It is fixed and focused. It will not blink. For the first time in my life, as I look into my own eyes, I like what I see. I can live with it. For a long time. I want to live with it. I want to live.Do I think Frey has the potential to be the best writer of this generation? It is possible. But he has a long ways to go. For me this book seemed more forced than natural. The seemingly arbitrary capitalization of words, the lack of punctuation, the omission of dialogue tags, quotation marks, and one single indention in the entire novel not only made the reading difficult at times but it also tended to make it seem derivative. There are points where this worked, where the discomfort of the reader with the style/design matched the discomfort of the subject matter, but overall it just creates some undue distractions. For some reason, I felt I was reading an avid practitioner of Kerouac’s list of essentials for spontaneous prose; or rather, someone who may have been given the list and told “See #13, Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition….” But I’ll give Mr. Frey his due. He’s written a memoir worthy of a read. And besides, I really don’t feel like getting my ass kicked right now.