Sunday 31 July 2011

A Million Little Pieces - forgetting the debate

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (2003: John Murray (Publishers)) The author writes of his experiences when, aged 23, he entered one of the most expensive and exclusive rehab centres in the USA. James Frey had brought his life to within seconds of the end through years of drug abuse. He details his time in rehab, during which he gradually takes back control of his life, though not quite in the way he’s supposed to.
Book recommendations come at all sorts of times. Drunken taxi ride home with a team-mate after an end of season curry night out? Alright then, let’s talk books. That’s just the kind of high life I lead. As I was settling back in the car seat, all smug at successfully navigating a night of carefully controlled revelry without embarrassing myself, BAM! – out of no-where, here comes a book recommendation from my fellow Bec Old Boys player.
Cue Amazon one-click and my iPhone, and I bought this one there and then, before I even commenced my usual dance outside my front door as I fished around for my keys with the ticking clock of a need for the toilet counting down perilously.
I eventually got around to reading this whilst on holiday in the Lakes a couple of weeks ago.
So what did I think of it? If you know one thing about this book, it’s the controversy that surrounds it. Internationally lauded at the time, the author has faced massive criticism since details came out which made his version of events questionable at best. Presented as a memoir, most now agree that A Million Little Pieces is fairly loosely based on the facts, though it’s still pretty unclear as to what is real and what is not.
Knowing this before turning the first page does make you read it in a curious way. It takes a while to stop analysing the events of the book. It takes a while before you stop wondering “did that bit really happen” at every turn, and start just reading it for what it is. As much as I tried not to let it, the context this book does get in the way a little.
But eventually, it does melt away. This is a long book, so there’s plenty of time for you to hear it properly. And when that happened, I liked what I heard.
No doubt about it, Frey writes in a compelling way. The pain and the trauma draws you in. The ordeals Frey describes and the emotion that feeds on the back of them hit home in a big way. The whole book (well, most of it) is spent in the confines of a rehab centre – not a lot actually happens, but Frey finds enough action to explore to ensure the 500-odd pages go by without any real hanging around.
Frey’s style is also a massive plus. It’s not quite conversational, but it works to convey a thought process that you can instantly understand. Frey lets you into his head in an incredibly effective way, and he uses a distinctive writing style to do it.
All of which is to say this is a hugely enjoyable and emotional read.
But if you’ve skipped ahead already to check out the GBR rating (don’t act innocent, I know most of you do it), you’re probably asking yourself “well, if it’s good, why not a higher score?”
Well, a couple of reasons. The main one is the way in which Frey presents himself. True, he’s incredibly open about his battle with addiction, and he’s quick to describe himself as a loser who’s sunk about as low as someone can go. But between the lines, he’s kind of up himself. The dialogue he gives himself, the way he tackles confrontational situations, the philosophy he develops – it all just drips of self congratulation. Frey is presented as the smartest, wittiest, most bad-ass, loyal, mature, deepest person in the world. The black and white words on the page are pretty humbling, but it’s incredibly clear that Frey thinks a lot of himself. He ends up coming off as a lonely hero, a great man flawed by addiction. And I don’t buy it.
So where does that leave me? A book I really enjoyed. A book that has a lot of merit in it. A book that deserves to be read and understood. But one that asks you to jump a pretty significant fact-or-fiction hurdle. And a protagonist that is way too cool for school for my liking.
This is a great book. A sure fire 9 GBR if it was a novel. But it’s not. It’s a memoir. Whether it’s 100% fact or not doesn’t bother me a huge amount. What does is the way Frey writes about himself, especially  between the lines. Which may be a bit harsh, but I prefer my heroes a little more humble.
Deep breath. Next week, something completely different.

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