Friday, March 30, 2007

Why James Frey Doesn't Get It

by Heather King -- Publishers Weekly, 1/17/2006

Heather King, author of Parched, examines the deep differences between her memoir and A Million Little Pieces

I first read about James Frey's A Million Little Pieces in a New Yorker review. I was working on my own memoir, Parched (Chamberlain Bros.), at the time, so I scanned the piece with interest. Frey and I had a couple of things in common: we'd both had major substance abuse problems; we'd both been to Hazelden (him for six weeks, circa 1992; me for four weeks, six years earlier). But there the similarities seemed to end. It wasn't so much that we were of different genders, that I was a teensy bit older than him, that we'd chosen different approaches to staying sober. No, it was that Frey was angry. The whole tenor of the review was that Frey was angry. The testosterone-fueled rage! The studly ire! In light of my own 20 years as a falling-down blackout drunk, it struck me as an odd stance. The people who really had cause to be angry, it seemed to me, were the ones I'd trampled, cheated on, stolen from and lied to on my way to the nearest bar.

Now that the accusations of lying have surfaced and I've actually read the book, I see the differences go even deeper. Drama is the movement from narcissism to humility, but Frey is exactly the same at the end of his story—minus the drugs—as he is at the beginning: an insecure braggart without a spark of vitality, gratitude or fun. "A ballsy, bone-deep memoir," called it, but for any alcoholic worth his or her salt, throwing up blood, puking on oneself, and committing petty-ass crimes in and of themselves couldn't be bigger yawns. What's gritty is the moment, knowing you're dying, when the world turns on its axis and you realize My way doesn't work. What's ballsy isn't just egomaniacally recounting your misdeeds; it's taking the trouble to find the people you've screwed over, looking them in the eye, and saying you're sorry. What's bone-deep—or might have been if Frey had done it—is figuring out that other people suffer, too, and developing some compassion for them. Oprah speaks of "the redemption of James Frey"—but redeemed from what, and by whom? Sobriety, in my experience, isn't the staged melodrama of sitting in a bar and staring down a drink to prove you've "won"—as Frey does upon leaving rehab. It's the ongoing attempt, knowing in advance you'll fall woefully short, to order your life around honesty, integrity, faith.

So, in fact, is writing. It's every writer's sacred honor to "get it right," but perhaps the burden falls heaviest on the memoirist. As a memoirist, it seems to me, something has to have happened to you that you're burning to tell. You've undergone some kind of transformation that matters not because it says something about you, but because it says something about the world; because it touches on the mysteries of suffering and meaning. There may be great leeway in being faithful to this emotional truth, but you have to have an emotional truth to begin with. The details you remember, your stance towards the people you meet, your interpretation of your experiences: all have to spring from this deeper level; this vision you carry around like a secret; the yearning to get it right that eventually drives everything you think, say, do. You have to have some kind of love for the world, with all its terrible suffering; you have to be willing to cut off your writing hand rather than betray by a word what it's taught you. The problem is that it doesn't seem to have taught James Frey much of anything, which is why A Million Little Pieces rings false, on both levels, from start to finish.... REST OF ARTICLE HERE

click here for Heather King podcast interview at NCR

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