Vino et Veritas

Having written a post earlier about James Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces, I probably should remark on the recent brouhaha about the story, which you would have had to have been in a persistent vegetative state not to have noticed.

It turns out that Mr. Frey’s tale of recovery from multiple addictions was perhaps as much fiction as fact. Among other things, he wrote of jail time that he never in fact served. He fabricated an excruciating account of undergoing multiple root-canal procedures without anaesthesia. He concocted a tragic backstory about being responsible for an adolescent girlfriend’s death. In other words, he simply made a lot of stuff up and passed it off as the truth. A lot of people are pretty upset, not least of whom is his principal benefactor, the towering Oprah Winfrey, who dressed him down before the Entire World yesterday.

I’ll be the first to admit I was drawn in as well. The book is immensely engaging, and the reader experiences it not as a retrospective account, but very much in the present tense. The descriptions of the ruination brought about by the author’s addiction are harrowingly real. It is an extraordinarily effective piece of writing.

What struck me all along, as I remarked in my previous post about the book, was Mr. Frey’s oblique form of boastfulness. He seemed very well aware that a story of having swum up from the nethermost abyss of sin to sea level is at least as admirable as the conventional “look-how-swell-I-am” memoir of starting in a cellar and rising to great accomplishment. This is a bit less impressive if one floats to the surface due to some sort of natural buoyancy, so, as I mentioned in my initial review, he took pains to portray himself as “capable of acts of bravery, defiance, commitment, and self-discipline that are almost beyond belief.”

So now we have to make an adjustment, from “almost beyond belief” to “admittedly false”. But do we doubt that he was in fact seriously addicted – that he was drowning in the same maelstrom of drugs and alcohol that has destroyed so many lives? I don’t think anyone is even suggesting that. What is it, then, that is so hurtful to so many people about this reluctant confession?

It must be that readers actually felt that they were in the presence of something more than human. Mr. Frey created a character that was larger along all axes – larger in sin, larger in despair, larger in cojones, and, ultimately, larger in redemption – than just about anyone any of us had ever met. To be able to ride with such a character – easy to do at first, because he knelt at our feet in his utter abasement, so we could easily jump on – as he endured unendurable pain, stood up to the most fearsome bullies, and overcame insurmountable obstacles against hopeless odds, all in his own way, simply from the unbreakable strength of his own crooked timber, well, that was a fine ride indeed, and well worth the price of admission, which was just a few dollars and a few lost hours of sleep. We were all exalted as we watched the meanest clay become Man.

But no! It turns out that James Frey isn’t the dashing confronter of brutes, rescuer of lost damsels, bearer of agonies, and hardened jailbird that we thought he was. He’s just another battered and rather insecure human, like so many of the rest of us. What a letdown. And worst of all, he lied to Oprah.

But wait a minute here. As I said, nobody seems to be disputing that he did indeed recover from the very depths of drug and alcohol addiction. Isn’t that worth some credit? I can say from personal experience that many, if not most, who fall into that hole don’t climb out. And he wrote a truly outstanding book about it. Could we have done that?

Here, in my opinion, is what needs to be borne in mind: this book was widely, if not universally, acclaimed to be an extraordinarily powerful and affirming tale of the human potential for salvation, and had a profound effect on its millions of readers, including me. The effect was due to three confluent aspects of the story: first, the Stygian depths of sin and destruction – both physical and social – to which Mr. Frey’s character had fallen; second, the superhuman stubbornness, fearlessness, and spiritual sinew that enabled him to accomplish his redemption, against all odds; and third, our belief that it was all true. Reduce any of those aspects – make the pit shallower, make the climb out of it less solitary or difficult, or, perhaps most important of all, let on that the whole thing was just another work of fiction – and the baraka disappears.

So one must judge the book on the basis of what it gave – even if only on loan – to its readers. Though the spell may now be broken, it could never have been cast at all except in just the way it was, which is why, I expect, it was not published as a novel. Yes, Mr. Frey isn’t all he made himself out to be in his book, and that is a disappointment, (though perhaps in retrospect not astonishing, as scrupulous honesty is not exactly a characteristic trait of drug addicts and alcoholics). But I would much rather have had the experience that it gave me – and how glad I am that I read it before The Smoking Gun got to it! – than for it never to have been written at all.

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  1. eugene says

    Mal, I can’t help to associate Oprah’s decision and Sergey Brin’s decision. While Sergey Brin may eat his own words and criticized by people from left to right, I think his decision will be a good one and only history will tell us whether his decision helps to open/fortify the great wall around China. In a complex world it is very hard to act exactly according to a simple motto. Just as Aesop’s fable about father, son and mule told us, he can’t please everyone. Then the courage to hold his position and to be responsible for his own action is much more admirable. At least Google is consistent now in their position. Google will tell everyone in every country that what you try to search in filter due to local laws. So even in U.S.A. here any search returning materials violate DMCA will be filtered. The compromise may looks lacking of moral courage, but it may be the only path to achieve greater good. If the we all start to aware what we didn’t aware before, our evolution then just starts. Oprah’s decision looks decisive. But inevitably this event shows she tries to make a complex world into a simple black and white pictures. She decides to mend a mistake but without distinction or understanding of pure power of literature, even not true, still can be a joyful experience to readers and it may advance readers’ spirit. Of course Mr. Frey did not come clean to present his book as a novel so he is dishonest. But I think for any one who really believe any written memoir as a true confession is too naive to understand power of literature. My sister, who is a historian, always tells me that everyone’s memoir that she has participated for field study all consists false allegations, inconsistencies and false memory. Even though those figures do not intend to cheat, but we all know our memory usually consists stories written by us to alleviate our regrets, dissappointments during life. I guess what annoys me about Oprah is that she promotes a simpleton view of world and unfortunately, many people buys it and never have chance to understand the “real” world.

    I think I sound like John Forbes Kerry now. Oh wait, I guess I will not pretend I did not do something wrong in the past. And I guess I have not flip floped enough as he does.

    Posted January 28, 2006 at 2:17 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Eugene,

    Not what I’d call a “pithy” comment, but interesting. As you point out, there are subtleties here that are largely overlooked.

    I don’t think Frey’s memory failed him so much as his commitment to sticking to the truth. But the effectiveness of the book was enhanced as a result. Ars gratia artis.

    Posted January 28, 2006 at 6:15 pm | Permalink