by James Frey
Anchor, September 22, 2005
I really wish I'd gotten my shit together to review this before all of the news about how much of it might be fiction started swirling around. But since I didn't, I feel some responsibility to talk about that, as well as about the book itself. Oh well.
The drama, in case you live under a rock, is that the truth of a number of the claims Frey makes in this book, a memoir, is being contested. You can take a look at this article if you'd like more information. My thoughts are that Frey probably did exaggerate or simply make up some of the things he writes in A Million Little Pieces. Mostly, though, I don't care.
My not caring is twofold. First, this is a great book, and it would be a great book if it were fiction, so why should it matter how much of it actually happened? Secondly, I think it's naive to expect a memoir to be 100% factual (if 100% factual even exists). People write with an agenda, people even remember with an agenda, and that's always going to come across, to some extent. That being said, if it's true that Frey exaggerated or invented a lot of what is in this book, then a disclaimer to that effect should have been printed at the front of the book. Tim O'Brien, one of my favorite writers of all time, wrote several partially-factual/partially-fiction works dealing with Vietnam. His response to critics of his not being 100% accurate was that he was writing the truth about what being there felt like, about what being there was, and sometimes the actual facts fit into that and sometimes they don't. I can accept that, and I even admire the perspective. But it's not fair to the reader not to lay it out at the beginning if that is what you are doing. O'Brien does lay it out, and Frey probably should have.
That all being said, I thought this was a very high quality book. The plot is, in many ways, predictable. Frey is a young, well-off, white alcoholic, drug addict, and criminal. The book is the story of his six-week "last chance" rehab, during which time he comes off his addictions and begins his path of sobriety. Nothing revolutionary there. However, Frey's writing is top notch, which makes the story interesting to read, and his take on addiction and recovery is much less that you find in most people who write about it and much more like that I've found in the real life addicts I know. Frey has little respect for AA or 12 stepping in general, and he insists throughout the book on taking responsibility for his own actions and for his addictions. He even finds fault with the untouchable tenant that addiction is a disease. To me, at least, these things are interesting. And whether Frey the human being ever really held them or to what extent matters very little to me. What I'm interested in is what Frey the writer has to say about them.
I like this book because it was interesting to read, it didn't remind me of every other addiction book I've ever read, and it made me think. None of those things require a single word of it to have been true. So I recommend you read it. However, if there is a sharp and important delineation in your mind between fiction and memoir, you'd probably better read this one as fiction.