[Reviewer's note: originally reviewed prior to Frey's revelation that parts of his "memoir" were in fact fictitious; Oprah's self-aggrandizing public[Reviewer's note: originally reviewed prior to Frey's revelation that parts of his "memoir" were in fact fictitious; Oprah's self-aggrandizing public whinging crappola-fest directed at Frey notwithstanding, Pieces remains a literary achevement of our generation.]
Quietly tucked away in the self-help and recovery shelves of your local bookstore, a literary maelstrom is raging.
On the surface, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (Doubleday; $22.95, hardcover) is a chronicle of the author’s rehabilitation from severe drug and alcohol addiction. As a non-fiction story of “recovery,” Pieces is easy for store owners to categorize, and thus they bury it between A Codependent’s Guide to the 12 Steps and The Understanding Shame Workbook. Unfortunately for readers, this is probably not the place they find themselves browsing very often.
Only by word of mouth did Frey’s work happen to come my way. And I, in my ignorance, quickly relegated toward the bottom of the pile, mistakenly believing that here, yet again, was an author who wanted to share how I, too, could find my higher power, work my program, turn my life around and be saved from the life-destroying abyss of addiction.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
While it is true that A Million Little Pieces is Frey’s account of his rehabilitation at an unnamed, resort-style Midwestern clinic, it is at its core a treatise on the absurdity of the entire twelve-step culture, and a testament to the author’s conviction that there exists no power higher than unclouded perception, intelligence, and a person’s own willingness to seize control of his behavior and take responsibility for his actions.
But beyond this brief synopsis lies a literary experience unlike any I have encountered before, to the point that I find myself understanding what Dante meant in his Paradiso, when, confronted with the face of God, he could only describe its divine grace by documenting instead his inability to describe it. The aforementioned store owners should consider themselves fortunate that, without reading Frey’s work, they find it so easy to categorize, because, after reading it, they would find themselves instead staring at the cover for hours on end as it lay on the desk, recognizing that Pieces not only defies categorization, it transcends it.
What are the elements that define great literature? In Joyce’s Ulysses, it is the transmogrification of language into an art form that mirrors the human thought process. In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, it is the distillation of prose to its purest essence. And in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it is the creation of a fully realized epic world entirely distinct from our own. In Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, it is all these. And more.
Pieces opens with 23-year-old James waking up on an airplane in flight. His front teeth are missing, his face is beaten and torn, and his clothes are stained with urine, vomit and blood. He has no idea where he is or how he got there. As the story unfolds, we learn that this moment is the culmination of over ten years of self-destructive behavior involving heavy abuse of alcohol, crack cocaine, methamphetamines and virtually every other mind-altering addictive substance known to mankind. At this point, James is The Monster: “I have a murderous rage and I need to kill. Kill my heart, kill my mind, kill myself.”
And it is with a monstrous intensity that Frey leads us through the story of his young life, growing up in an affluent, upper-middle-class family and turning to drugs and alcohol at an early age in an attempt to silence his unexplainable, uncontrollable rage. During his first weeks at the clinic, James’s battle with his inner demon manifests itself in his struggle to face himself in the mirror (while at the same time trying desperately to overcome his frequent, violent nausea), bringing the weight of this battle to bear directly on the reader’s shoulders.
As intense and graphic as Frey’s chronicle may be, including a physically and emotionally detailed description of James’s visit to the dentist that makes the (fictional) scene from Marathon Man seem pleasant by comparison, Pieces is, perhaps more than anything, heartbreaking. Here is a memoir that is at once painful to read, yet impossible to turn away from. As James progresses through rehabilitation and therapy, we learn that, through a tragic misunderstanding at an early age, James has been denied the one thing that every human being must have to survive: “More than anything, all I’ve ever wanted is to be close to someone.” James, by his own admission, and as far as he can remember, has never felt love. From anyone. For anyone.
James learns (indeed, already knows) that love is the key to redemption. The opportunity for romantic love arises with Lilly, another patient at the clinic, though contact between them is forbidden. The human James glimmers through momentarily, as Lilly calls James to tell him she misses him: “No one has ever missed me before. People tend to be happy when I’m gone.” True love, however, runs deeper. Among the characters of “A Million Little Pieces” are Leonard, a mob heavyweight, and Miles, a respected Southern judge. Like James, both have disgraced their families. And, like James, both seek redemption. The interaction among these three amounts to nothing less than a manifesto on the value of love and respect, as each assists the others on their paths toward redemption.
Frey crafts the world and characters of A Million Little Pieces using an odd style of writing that, while momentarily disconcerting at the outset, becomes the perfect vehicle for James’s story. By using present tense, with no paragraph indentation and no quotation marks for dialogue, and noting the importance of various concepts through capitalization, these elegant, raw devices convey James’s thoughts precisely, and his experiences come through with searing clarity, uncluttered and unfiltered. Pieces is a direct stream of refreshing honesty from an intelligent consciousness. And as James’s thoughts are (frequently) reduced to rapid-fire one-word arguments with himself, Frey’s style becomes pure poetry: “Stay. Fight. Live. Take it. Cry. Cry. Cry.”
A Million Little Pieces deserves a place with the great literature of modern times, as a must-read example of what authors of any genre can aspire to. If any reader remains unmoved by Frey’s powerful, heartbreaking work, it is then that he or she should seek something off the self-help shelf.