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.


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