A Million Little Pieces A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
Publisher: Doubleday
Year: 2003/2005
Pages: 448

After following the PR fiasco subsequent to TheSmokingGun’s hefty report this past January, I found myself drawn inexorably to Frey’s A Million Little Pieces—not because I expected it to be good, but because I wanted to see what maudlin crap had lured the classically-minded Oprah into recommending it to bored housewives across the nation.

The issue is this: why would a person fabricate a story like this and then get it published nationally under the guise of nonfiction? Actually, the answers to those questions are easy.

  1. When he marketed it as a fictional piece (in other words, what it is), he was turned down by 17 consecutive publishers.
  2. If the book is a true memoir, its stylistic faults can perhaps be overlooked because of the raw power of its narrative and the emotional response it probably invokes in a lot of people. If the book is fiction, it’s marginally better than an Intro to Creative Writing Assignment.

There, I said it. A Million Little Pieces is a bad book—an awful book, in fact. Frey attempts a narrative style somewhere between stream of consciousness and the truncated, dialogue-like prose favored by some modernists. Here’s the problem: everything Frey does is a cliché. From his tropes—silly use of repetition, for instance—to his motifs—a tortured attention to eye color, for instance—to his stock, exaggerated characters—the clarinet-playing black judge from ‘Nawlins, the gangster with the heart of gold, the kindly old driver for the clinic, the steely ward manager who hates Frey at first but has a grudging respect for him by the end.

The most unbelievable (and with good reason) is Frey’s character. Rightly, he thinks that 12-Step programs are worthless1, but naturally Frey paints himself as the cowboy—the maverick, who doesn’t need any stinkin’ 12 steps, who’ll beat his addiction on his own. He claims to have undergone a dual root canal without the benefit of anesthetic or painkillers, perhaps a testament to just how crrrrrazy! he’s supposed to be, or maybe just a testament to his delusions of manliness.

One of the items disputed by January report is that very dental work. After the brouhaha, Doubleday began including an author’s note in the book. Frey had this to say:

There has been much discussion, and dispute, about a scene in the book involving a root-canal procedure that takes place without anesthesia. I wrote that passage from memory, and have medical records that seem to support it. My account has been questioned by the treatment facility, and they believe my memory may be flawed.

First of all, the claim in the book is that patients in rehab aren’t allowed painkillers or anesthetics. Now, I might subscribe to the former, but seeing as how the latter—in this case—is usually lidocaine (a local, non-narcotic anesthetic), there is no reason to believe that it would have been proscribed; indeed, to deny Frey anesthetic during a root canal would probably be illegal. It would certainly violate his dentist’s professional ethics. Secondly, I believe Frey said on TV that he “couldn’t remember” whether or not he had been given anesthetic. I happen to think that the “most intense pain I’ve ever felt” would be something that clearly did or did not happen. I’m willing to bet that it didn’t, and that Frey doesn’t have any medical records that “seem to support” his claim.

But I digress: for those not in the know, Frey’s book follows his admittance in a rehabilitation clinic in Minnesota after a downward spiral of drugs and alcohol that started at the tender age of ten. At first, he is defiant, and his hate for the people is matched only by his self-hatred. Then, he meets a girl named Lilly (a crack addict and former prostitute) who slowly manages to warm his cold, crack-frazzled heart. Of course, any fraternization with the opposite sex is strictly forbidden at this clinic, but theirs is a love that knows no boundaries (gee, really? How did we know?). Frey’s already excruciating prose is amplified to Shit Factor 10 when he tries to write some romance into his torpid characters—he thinks, for instance, that repeating the phrase “water-blue eyes” every time that Lilly is in the vicinity counts as a leitmotif worthy of Shakespeare. Their tender moments together are just as agonizing: “Oh James, say you love me!” [insert something about water-blue eyes].

From start to finish, A Million Little Pieces is a travesty; I felt more pity for my own anguish as a reader, having to slog through page after page of attempted depth, than I did for character-Frey as an unanesthetised root canal patient. Frey is a sloppy, novice writer with a suitcase full of worn rhetorical devices and ready-made plot structures, inexpertly weaving a tale that turns so ridiculous that it must climax with Frey’s recounting his near-death beating of a Parisian priest who came on to him (complete with such lines as “You must not resist the will of God, my son!”). I wonder if that story is made up, too….

Frey’s dishonesty is now a matter of public record. What is not commonly known—though perhaps surmised by those with any sense—is just how startlingly bad his writing is, as well. I can see now why he had to resort to fraud.

  1. He’s right—AA, for all its proponents, has pretty much the exact same numbers as other treatment types[]
§1210 · June 14, 2006 · Tags: ·

5 Comments to “A Million Little Pieces”

  1. Jeff says:

    I just want to know why the hand on the cover is covered with candy sprinkles.

  2. Ben says:

    Maybe “nonpareils” is a street name for crack.

  3. Ellen says:

    I see DaVinci Code is on your “planned list” – let us know what you think. To me, that’s another book killed by bad writing. I MIGHT have let it slide as mediocre writing, but I got a deal at a bookfair on 3 of his books, and it was the 3rd of them I read. And he writes the same book over and over, so I knew exactly where the story was going character-wise a couple of pages before it got there. Besides that, am not a fan of writing that has hundreds of chapters, but each is

  4. Ben says:

    I’m not looking forward to reading The DaVinci Code at all. I’m not sure how long it’ll be before I get to it, either—I’m really trying to tackle Mossman’s Stones of Summer now. At any rate, I’m sure I’ll manage it yet this year.

  5. Rusty says:

    The Da Vinci Code: pretty good page-turning story, bad English, absolutely rubbish codes. In fact they’re not even worthy of being called codes. The book does, however, gain bonus points for being the first thriller I’ve read in which the main characters are involved in a mad rush to get to… a library.

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