Prose and Cons

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Did James Frey, on the night of October 24, 1992, pull up outside a bar in Granville, Ohio, in a white Mercury? Was he drunk and high on crack at the time? Did he jump the curb, bump a cop with his car, and then get dragged out screaming and beaten up by the police? Did he then go to rehab, write a book about it, inspire millions of readers and make a ton of money?

Of all the stories told in and around James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces, many are currently in dispute, but that last one is not. To date A Million Little Pieces has sold 4 million copies, helped not a little by the fact that Oprah chose it as her book club's first-ever non-fiction title. The only book that sold better than Frey's last year was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

But what exactly did all those readers buy? A Million Little Pieces is the graphic, bombastic story of a troubled, angry young man who—despite his well-concealed heart of gold—manages to get himself addicted to drugs and booze. After a string of arrests he winds up in a Minnesota rehab center, where he befriends a scary-funny gangster and falls in love with a tragic recovering crack addict. Redemption ensues.

But The Smoking Gun, a website that specializes in investigative journalism, has published a lengthy report that challenges some of the basic facts in Frey's book. They found no evidence that Frey had a relationship with a girl who died in a car accident in high school, an incident that does much to stoke Frey's dark-star energy. They found his claim to have engaged in a melee with police officers when he was arrested in 1992 to have been fabricated. Most disturbingly, in a way (since a major plot point hangs thereon), the Smoking Gun report questions Frey's claim that he spent three months in jail post-rehab.

Did he lie to boost his story's drama, and his street cred? (Have we learned nothing, nothing, from the downfall of Vanilla Ice?) Frey isn't giving an inch—or he gives an inch, but that's all. He wrote on his website: "Let the haters hate, let the doubters doubt, I stand by my book, and my life, and I won't dignify this bulls___ with any sort of further response." On Wednesday (having apparently reconsidered that last bit somewhat) he appeared on Larry King with a more nuanced position: "A memoir is a subjective retelling of events," he said. "It's an individual's perception of what happened in their own life; this is my recollection of my life." Oprah, in her inimitable semi-divine fashion, called in to the show to lend her carefully phrased support: "The underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me, and I know it resonates with millions of people who read this book."

There's a distinction being made here that's worth scrutinizing. The "subjective retelling" defense invokes the double layer of distortion that's inevitable in any memoir: events are filtered through the author's memory, and then they're fuzzed even further by the inherently impressionistic nature of any literary medium. Short of the unexpected appearance of a Recording Angel, there isn't much a memoirist can do to pull aside that two-ply veil. But before we get lost in an epistemological fog, let's not forget that those distortions must be kept separate from the wilful deceptions of an author who's giving in to ulterior motives. Some falsehood comes with the territory of the memoirist; others must be deliberately imported into it.

Frey's second line of defense is a little more formidable. As he put it on Larry King, "the emotional truth is there." In other words, whatever the nitty-gritty bookkeepers turn up, his story has an empathic force, a psychological power, that makes the actual factual status of his writing kind of moot, and renders trivial the question of where it should be shelved in the bookstore.

But that defense simply invites the question, if it's not factual, why didn't Frey publish A Million Little Pieces as fiction? By claiming that his story was literally true, Frey endowed it with a heightened immediacy and an emotional force that it lacked as a novel—in effect, he borrowed a little extra emotional oomph from his trusting readers, who treated his narrative as 100% lived experience, real dues paid by a real person. That's not trivial. If Frey wasn't entitled to that immediacy and that force—if he stole that oomph rather than borrowed it—well, that's cheating. And he should come clean and give it back.