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Dustin LindenSmith

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On James Frey's A Million Little Pieces: A million little lies?

A Million Little Pieces (amazon.ca | amazon.com) was selected for Oprah's Book Club last fall, notable in that respect for being the first contemporary work selected by her for quite some time. AMLP is author and screenwriter James Frey's account of how he became rehabilitated from a heavy addiction to alcohol, cocaine, crack, and other drugs, and I just finished reading it a few weeks ago. (Frey's IMDB entry is here.)

By all accounts, it's a gripping, suspenseful, touching, and moving story. It's also written in an unusual but effective style: it is without standard punctuation, it uses unorthodox capitalization to emphasize certain words, and certain phrases and sentences are repeated several times in a given paragraph or page for even further emphasis.

Parts of the story border on the horrific. Detailed accounts of his detox, which include descriptions of oft-daily vomiting and shitting of blood, vomiting up parts of his stomach (?), undergoing a double root canal without anaesthetic, and tearing off one of his toenails as a form of self-punishment, are all heart-stopping. Pivotal aspects of the book also include his criminal offences, which are purportedly numerous, and at a critical point in his rehab he must face felony charges from a confrontation with police in Ohio which are expected to lead to his serving upwards of 8 years in a federal prison.

And this is where Frey's story becomes dicey. Especially if you consult the editors of the famous tell-all website, The Smoking Gun. Because even though several parts of the story don't ring true (for example, the book opens with him on an airplane, covered with vomit and blood, with a broken nose, a hole in his cheek, and blood all over his face -- one wonders which airline in the US would ever accept a passenger like that on board, let alone unaccompanied), Frey has insisted several times (including on his appearance on Oprah) that everything in the book is factually correct. Not so, according to TSG.

The Smoking Gun first suspected factual errors in Frey's book when they tried to obtain the mug shots from Frey's escapades to post on their website (this is one of the site's most popular draws -- celebrity mugshots from folks as varied as Bill Gates, Michael Jackson, and Tom Delay). They had trouble locating those mugshots though, and that led them to do some fact-checking on Frey's criminal claims in his book.

The results of their research are exhaustively outlined in this 6-page article on TSG, and essentially they break down most of the claims in the book. James Frey himself has refused to address the claims personally (aside from having his lawyers send a cease-and-desist letter to TSG, but he has posted bits of TSG's allegations on his own blog, albeit without comment.

If the TSG research is correct, I think that James Frey has some explaining to do. And it's not that I don't find his story to be any less compelling or worth reading, it's just that, if the main facts of his story are untrue, then the rest of his story can be reasonably called deeply into question as well. And that, of course, makes it essentially a work of fiction. A good work of fiction, but a work of fiction nevertheless. Although, according to this post on GalleyCat, it was a work of fiction which was rejected by 17 publishers when Frey submitted it as a work of fiction before revamping it as a memoir for its current incarnation.

I'm very curious to see how this turns out. But even before all this, the book has started a hell of a buzz, I know that. And spent several weeks on the bestseller lists, too.

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grammardog January 10th, 2006
Very interesting... I hadn't heard any of the backlash about whether or not the book was truly a memoir in the technical sense, but did find myself asking if a few things in the book (particularly the air travel issue) could actually have happened. I guess it doesn't much matter, for my purposes... I enjoyed the read well enough (though I could have done with a little less stream-of-consciousness stuff) and I was only reading for entertainment's sake. Knowing some of it might have been fiction doesn't diminish that at all.

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