Back On the Rock

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Small Frey

The controversy surrounding James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, hardly needs more ink, but who can resist jumping into the fray. Curiously subordinated in the debate over Frey’s liberties with the truth is a discussion of the literary merit of the book itself. How did such a contrived, heavy-handed work earn the accolades of which it is now being stripped? Has the literary world given into the sensationalism that plagues the rest of the entertainment industry where the gawker element of “reality” supercedes the quality of the work itself?

Frey struggled for years to get A Million Little Pieces published as a novel. There is a reason for that: it is badly written. Bloated with cardboard characters, excessive detail and what the back jacket proudly proclaims as “stylistic tics” – an overwhelmingly monotonous tone, deconstructed grammar, piecy phrasing and endless, endless, painfully endless repetition - Pieces is an interesting read, but not necessarily a good one. Frey uses his curious writing convention to add spice to his story, like throwing in a hip hop backbeat to remix an otherwise lame song. What is sad is that passing the book off as a memoir, changed not only readers’ reactions to the content of the story, but reviewers’ reactions to the quality of the writing. Frey, the unpublishable author, became Frey, the “voice of his generation.” A shocking switch, since Frey’s writing style is the one thing that has stayed consistent in his flip flops about the veracity of the book. Who cares if it’s true? The writing ain’t that great.

Addiction literature, in its plumbing of our worst weaknesses and our basest behaviours is, well, addictive. Frey is not the inventor of this genre, nor is he the master. That he has now called the genre into question is perhaps his greatest sin. For a treatment of the same subject by far better writers, pick up Caroline Knapp’s Drinking or Augusten Burrough’s Dry. The latest memoir by Burroughs is, by the way, now being questioned for its accuracy. It may not be entirely truthful, but if Burrough’s past work is precedence, his next book will, unlike Frey’s, be artful.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Miami Miles: Race Day

Here I am. I’ve trained too little, drank too much, slept too little and scratched a lovely little pattern all over my body. But none of this matters now. It’s 6 am and I’m at the start of the ING Miami Half Marathon. My very first. Getting to the starting line feels like a huge accomplishment. Looking at the nearly 14,000 runners assembled for the half and the full marathon reminds me why I love to run. There are old people, young people, fat people, skinny people, able bodied and physically challenged, every ethnicity imaginable. Each of us is different, but the current, the palpable chemistry that runs through the crowd connects us all. I forget about the training. I forget about my goal. I forget about the cow itch and my sore hamstrings. I just want to run.

Later, my team members will talk about the sights – the beautiful homes, the picturesque streets, the views of the ocean. The details are a blur to me. I remember it like a movie. I’m there, but not really. I’m wherever it is I go on a really great run. Somewhere in my head. Somewhere deep inside myself.

At mile 5, my reverie breaks. The dreaded blister returns. I could kick myself for not preventing it. I run the next three miles testing out positions for my left foot. I run on my toes, my heel, the outside of my foot – anything to avoid putting my left foot down squarely. By mile 8, I’m miserable. My left ankle is throbbing from all the contortions. Hang in there, I tell myself. Worse case scenario, you have 50 minutes left. At mile 10, a young volunteer with a warped sense of humour proclaims to the crowd “It’s mile 8. 5 more to go.” I resist the urge to take off my left sneaker and beat the kid to a pulp.

Images pop out at me like postcards. An eight year old girl with a sign that says simply, “Go runners.” A wheelchair athlete pushing himself up one of the challenging inclines to the tumultuous applause of the able bodied runners who pause, sacrificing their goal times, to watch him meet a much greater goal. Running through the narrow streets downtown in between hundreds of screaming spectators. A little black boy whose face lights up so brightly when he sees me, I momentarily think that I must know him.

At the twelve mile mark, I figure the only way to end the pain is to run faster. So I put my foot down and try to run as fast as I can. Instead of trying to avoid the pain, I just acknowledge it and run with it. It works for about three quarters of a mile. Just when I think I’ve had enough, the finish line comes into view. We round a deceptively long corner and I make one final big sprint home. The clock says 1:56. Later my chip time rounds out at 1:53:42. Not bad for a first timer.

But the clock doesn't tell the whole story. 1:53:42 can’t capture the memories of the last eight weeks: the different routes I’ve run, seeing a new side of Jamaica; the friendships I’ve forged with RM and my little group of banking buddies; our conversations; the goals we’ve set and shared. So I didn’t make 1:45, but I achieved something more than a goal time. I set myself a challenge and I met it. I committed to something for eight weeks and I stuck with it. I reconnected with the stronger side of myself – the side I like, the side that tries hard and pushes hard and doesn’t give up. The side that revels in being 35 and knows that that number, like my time, is only part of the story.