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Books / eXile Classic / May 29, 2003
"A Million Little Pieces" by James Frey
“A Million Little Pieces” by James Frey. Doubleday 2003, $22.95
***

This is the worst thing I’ve ever read.

A Million Little Pieces is the dregs of a degraded genre, the rehab memoir. Rehab stories provide a way for pampered trust-fund brats like Frey to claim victim status. These swine already have money, security and position and now want to corner the market in suffering and scars, the consolation prizes of the truly lost. It’s a fitting literary metonymy for the Bush era: the rich have decided to steal it all, even the tears of the losers.

Frey sums up his entire life in one sentence from p. 351 of this 382-page memoir: “I took money from my parents and I spent it on drugs.” Given the simplicity and familiarity of the story, you might wonder what Frey does in the other 381 pages. The story itself is simple: he goes through rehab at an expensive private clinic, with his parents footing the bill. That’s it. 400 pages of hanging around a rehab clinic.

It feels longer. It feels like years.

For all Frey’s childish impersonation of the laconic Hemingway style, this is one of the most heavily padded pieces of prose I’ve seen since I stopped reading first-year student essays. Frey manages to puff up this simple story to book length thanks to one simple gimmick: he repeats. Repeats the beginnings of sentences. Repeats the beginnings of phrases. And the endings. Endings of phrases. Phrases and sentences.

And while his prose is repeating, his tale is descending. Descending into Bathos. Bathos in which he wallows. Wallows. In bathos. Bathos, bathos, bathos.

The results can be quite funny, altogether unintentionally, as when Frey tries to dramatize the travails of love:

“I start crying again.

Softly crying.

I think of Lilly and I cry.

It’s all I can do.

Cry.”

I found myself laughing every time I read this, imagining Daffy Duck doing the scene: “It’th all I can do!” then turning to the audience to clarify things: “Cry, that ith.”

Of all Frey’s repetitions, the most common is the conjunction “and.” It’s “and” after “and” after “and.” He seems to think he’s broken the transition problem right open. Every time he needs to connect two thoughts or actions, he simply plops an “and” between them.

This can work, when it’s done by somebody with talent — Frank O’Hara, for example. O’Hara’s poem “the Day Lady Died” uses a breathless, self-centered narrative full of “and”s to contrast with the sudden stop when he learns of the death of Billie Holliday.

The trouble is that there’s no end, no variation and no irony whatsoever in Frey’s awed, non-stop list of his every move, as in this gripping account of going to the dentist: “I go back to the medical unit and I find a Nurse and I tell her I have to go to the Dentist and she checks the outside appointment book and it checks and she sends me to a waiting room and I wait.”

I found myself becoming morbidly fascinated by the number of conjunctions Frey could pile into a single sentence. The one I just quoted has six “and”s. Not bad, but hardly a record. A few pages earlier, Frey offers a sparkling account of getting a bowl of oatmeal which is sustained by seven “and”s; “…I see that I’m late and I see People look up and stare at me and I ignore them and I get a bowl of gray mushy oatmeal and I dump a large pile of sugar on it and I find a place at an empty table and I sit down.”

Frey has another stylistic tic almost as distracting as his conjunctions: he capitalizes some but not all nouns, making his would-be laconic, macho narrative look as if it had been dictated to Emily Dickinson on a day she’d been sipping laudanum. Lulled by the dull story, you drift into consideration of the pattern, if any, behind these capitalized nouns.

But the caps make no sense, study them as you will. They can be downright confusing, as in “I snuck into my neighbor Ira’s Garage…”, where the capital “G” turns a house into a car-repair business.

Caps are also used to sanctify some of the therapy-babble Frey learns at the clinic. Jonesing hard, he dreams of mounds of drugs. This, a therapist solemnly informs him, is “…a User Dream,” caps and all. Indeed. When you fall asleep hungry, you might have an Eater Dream. If you lust in your sleep, you may experience one of those Fucker Dreams.

These capitals feed nicely into the insanely self-aggrandizing tale. Frey’s every whim is capitalized and cherished. When he feels calm, a rehab therapist informs him, “You had what is called a Moment of Clarity.”

Walking on a trail outside the clinic, Frey names and capitalizes everything: “Trail,” “Tree,” “Animals.” Then he sees a lower-case “bird.” I was offended for our feathered friend. Why don’t the birds get their caps like everybody else?

But then Frey is no expert observer, as he proves in one of the funniest scenes from his nature walks, when he meets a “fat otter”: “There is an island among the rot, a large, round Pile with monstrous protrusions like the arms of a Witch. There is chatter beneath the pile and a fat brown otter with a flat, armored tail climbs atop and he stares at me.”

Now, can anyone tell me what a “fat otter with a flat, armored tail” actually is? That’s right: a beaver! Now, can anyone guess what the “large, round Pile with monstrous protrusions like the arms of a Witch” would be? Yes indeed: a beaver dam!

Any kindergartner would know that, and anyone with a flicker of life would be delighted to see a beaver and its home. But for Frey, a very stupid and very vain man, the “fat otter” is nothing but another mirror in which to adore his Terrible Fate. He engages the beaver in the most dismal of adolescent rhetorical interrogations:

“Hey, Fat Otter.

He stares at me.

You want what I got?

He stares at me.

I’ll give you everything.

Stares at me….”

And so on, for another half-page. You want to slap the sulking spoiled brat. The Fat Otter should’ve slapped him with its “flat, armored tail” and then chewed his leg off and used it to fortify its “Pile with monstrous protrusions.”

But if you hit Frey, you would be in serious trouble. Not just because Frey’s dad is a filthy-rich international corporate lawyer, but because, as he never tires of informing the reader, Mister James Frey is one tough bastard. He gets in real fights, albeit only with moribund addicts twice his age.

Frey makes his bones on the mean corridors of his clinic by going through painful reconstructive dentistry without anaesthetic. Because he’s an addict, he can’t even have local anaesthetic (or so he claims). He goes through about 30 pages of what he calls, in his inimitable style, “Pain pain pain pain pain” in the dentist’s chair. He then totters back to his room unaided. After that, he is the baddest dude in the whole private clinic. He wins the respect of the very baddest of his fellow inmates, who become his best friends.

Guess who his new friends are. Go ahead, guess! I’ll give you a hint: just pick the most ludicrous cliches in American TV aimed at pubescent male audiences. Forget about subtlety. Imagine this novel was a screenplay by the dumb brother in Adaptation. Who would he pick for the hero’s friends?

Well, here are the guys who became Frey’s pals: Leonard, a highly-placed Mafia killer from Vegas; Matty, a black former world champion boxer; Miles, a black Federal judge from New Orleans who plays the clarinet.

There they are, the most childish dreams of every little rich white boy: being down with the brothers and the Mafia. The tough guys. The Jazzmen. Having friends with connections in those two equally artificial cities, Vegas and New Orleans.

Frey makes other friends who are also straight out of Central Casting — like Ed, a Steelworker from Detroit. Ed, like all these other walking cliches, turns out to have a soft, sentimental heart under his tough exterior: “Ed is a hard man. Big, strong, tough as the material he works with, and I have never seen him be vulnerable in any sense of the word, but as he talks of his sons, his eyes get soft and wet.”

A steelworker who’s “tough as the material he works with”? I thought that sort of cliche died with Vachel Lindsay. But then Frey’s a very old-fashioned writer, who combines the homoerotic machismo of Hemingway with the sentimentality and syntax of Saroyan and Sandburg — a nasty mix, a soiled, archaic rich-boy populism.

Never one to be shy, Frey squeezes every drop of bathos out of his new pals. Leonard, the Mafia guy, reveals that his whole career was based on his loyalty to Mike, a Mafia boss with a heart of gold (suuuuuuure!) who raised the orphaned Leonard, taught him the business and then was shot down while Leonard watched. Mike’s death scene is another cliche: “Leonard’s voice cracks and tears start running down his cheeks. ‘I held [Mike] as he bled. Just held him and told him how much I loved him. He was still conscious and he could still talk, but he knew he was done. Right before he went, he lifted a bloody hand and he put it right on my cheek. He looked me in the eye and he said, live honorably and with dignity, respect the memories of all your parents…’ And then he died, right in my arms, shot down like a fucking dog. He died in my arms.’

Leonard breaks down and starts weeping.”

At the end of the novel, Leonard becomes Frey’s fairy Godfather, announcing:

“…I would like you [Frey] to be my Son. I will watch out for you as I would if you were my real Son, and I will offer you advice and help guide you through your life….”

Frey’s tale of being adopted by a Mafia figure epitomizes the greed for notoriety, as decor, which drives this novel and its whole genre. Frey already has two trusting, devoted, wealthy parents. It’s their money and devotion that get him to the clinic in the first place. But when they come to visit him in the clinic, he’s furious. He can’t stand being around them. Frey claims to be puzzled at the intensity of his anger at his real parents, but it’s really very easy to understand. Mom and Dad have already given him what he requires of them: money, security, and the confidence to go slumming and then, when the time is right, to cash in on his Manhattan connections to become famous.

By visiting him in the middle of his street-cred winning campaign, Frey’s parents threaten to ruin the whole con. Rehab, for trust-fund druggies like Frey, is a place to be born again, as the son of cool Mafia Dons and the trusted friend of serious black guys. Having Mom show up and hug you right in front of them is worse than Mom dropping you off at the Prom.

Luckily, Daddy has to take off for Brazil, and Frey can return to bizarrely detailed descriptions of every single hug and tearful farewell between him and his new pals.

And I mean detailed. It takes Leonard and his new son three pages just to get out to the limo. And there, of course, there must be another maudlin goodbye, stretched to absurd length. Anyone else would’ve said, “We hugged and said goodbye,” but Frey takes you through every step of the process, padding his bathos as if explaining “hug” to a Martian: “Leonard steps forward. He puts his arms around me and he hugs me. I put my arms around him and I hug him. He lets go and he steps away and he looks in my eyes and he speaks.”

And even after the blow-by-blow account of the big hug, it’s not over, because of course there must be another macho-yet-tearful farewell: “[Leonard]: ‘Be strong. Live honorably and with dignity….’

I look back. In his eyes.

‘I’ll miss you, Leonard.’

‘We’ll see each other soon, my Son.’

I nod. I force myself not to cry.”

Frey and his tough-guy friends spend more time weeping and hugging than the runners-up in a Miss America competition. Frey’s aggressively male stance has something archaic, even campy about it. Frey has placed the entire book in a gender-segregated institution, recalling Hemingway’s title Men without Women. (Male patients are not allowed to say anything more than “Hello” to female patients in Frey’s rehab center.) And like most homoerotic novelists of the 1930s, his true period, Frey resorts to violence to prove he’s no homosexual, confessing (that is to say, boasting) that he beat a French priest to death for daring to place his hand on Frey’s utterly masculine thigh.

It’s odd that a novel in which a gay-bashing murder is treated so casually should be so esteemed in the US. I thought y’all had decided that it was no longer OK to beat gay men to death for casual come-ons. But then the US is moving back in time so quickly that perhaps I’m thinking of a moment now far in the future.

Frey ticks off the entire Hemingway shopping-list, including boxing and impotence (which Frey blames, of course, on the drugs, the drugs, the terrible drugs). He goes on at great length about the importance of watching a title fight, which makes him and his fellow rehab patients feel like “men.”

Women are minor characters in the book, and the least-convincing passages of all are those in which Frey attempts to hint at a grand love affair in the past or tries to contrive a love interest with an addicted former prostitute, Lilly. Here’s the hymn to love with which he ends a chapter:

“I miss Lilly.

I miss Lilly.

I miss Lilly.”

My reading of this passage is that he missed Lilly. But then I’m a trained literary critic. Other readers may have other, equally valid interpretations.

Frey misses Lilly so much, so often, that you begin to suspect she didn’t exist, and was added to the text to neutralize the lifelong homosexual panic in which this belated Norman Mailer finds himself. It’s a pity Frey never studied Stevens. If he had, he’d have known that the more times one repeats an assertion, the less convincing it becomes.

With Lilly and the gay-bashing story in place to reassure the reader that Frey is a man’s man, Frey feels free to devote the last third of the book to protracted and lachrymose farewells. Frey, who’s now the toughest and most beloved guy in the whole rehab clinic, says goodbye to all his streety friends with many a sniffle and hug.

The sheer, crude, maudlin bathos of the farewells first amused and then began to frighten me. Here, for example, is Frey’s moment of bonding with his black New Orleans clarinet-playing Judge roommate:”I am a Criminal and he is a Judge and I am white and he is black, but at this moment none of that matters.”

Oh, but that’s nothing. He’s got a million sob-scenes more self-indulgent and false than that one. How about this example of closely-observed detail: “[Lilly] smiles. With her lips, her teeth, her eyes, her shaking hand.” I just wish I could figure out how she managed to make her shaking hand smile. That would be worth watching.

As his utterly unconvincing romance with Lilly progresses, Frey dives deeper and deeper into cliche: “I am in love with a Girl, a beautiful and profoundly troubled Girl who is alone in the World….”

The man was born too late; he should have been writing subtitles for silent-film melodrama.

Sticking closely to silent-film formula, Frey (and I think caps are warranted here) Rescues the Girl. Now he is ready to go out and face the world.

All that’s left is, oh, 120 pages or so of tearful farewells. He says goodbye to his dorm warden:

“He reaches and I reach and our hands meet. We hold strong and firm we stare in each other’s eyes and there is a bond of respect.”

Then it’s on to the clarinet-paying roommate:

“He reaches out his hand and I take it and we shake hands. We release each other’s hands and we hug each other. We hold each other for a moment and Miles says good luck, James and I say you too, Miles.”

And before we can even wipe the tears from our eyes, Frey is parting from his counselor and her tough yet sensitive Fisherman boyfriend: “I step forward and I hug her. There is emotion in the hug, and there is respect and a form of love. Emotion that comes from honesty, respect that comes from challenge, and the form of love that exists between people whose minds have touched, whose souls have touched. Our minds touched. Our hearts touched. Our souls touched.”

If you can find a worse paragraph than that in any published book, I’d like to see it. At least it disposes of one more character. Alas, Frey must still hug the Counsellor’s boyfriend, who says — I swear to God, this is a direct quote: “I ain’t much for words, kid.”

But like every other laconic character in this book, the Fisherman has more dialogue, borrowed from a Spencer Tracy film: “Make us proud, Kid.” I hate to quibble, but nobody has talked like that since 1933. If they ever did.

Never mind, never mind; it’s time to take the bags out to the car and meet Frey’s brother, who’s come to take him home. Guess what they do first! Yeah: they hug: “He hugs me. I hug him.” It’s these sudden twists that make Frey’s story such a page-turner.

And so, like a child returning to his nice warm bed, Frey returns to the privileged world which has supported him all through his life. His rehab friends, of course, cannot. After all, they’re authentic, and their authenticity means they have to die violent drug-related deaths in order to validate the streety credentials this rich brat has won in the clinic. They must die so he can strut.

So at the end of the novel, Frey supplies a list of what allegedly happened to his friends from rehab. As you’d expect, most are dead, imprisoned, or vanished. But after all, they were only local color, proud scars that will give Mister Frey some lively stories to tell at the summer place in Maine.

And this self-aggrandizing, simple-minded, poorly observed, repetitious, maudlin drivel passes for avant-garde literature in America?

My homeland is in worse shape than I thought.

This article was first published in Issue #167 of The eXile, May 2005.

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7 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. Homer Erotic  |  April 21st, 2009 at 11:06 am

    I think it would be interesting if John Dolan would add a little postscript describing his reaction to finding out the whole thing was a bunch of stuff Frey made up and watching Frey go back on Oprah to get dressed down by Ms. Winfrey herself for his deception. (“Laughing. And laughing and laughing and laughing. Laughing until I pissed my pants with my wife bolting up in shock and horror off the couch on which we both sat as the puddle of acrid yellow water grew underneath my legs and feet.”) Seriously, though, I wonder if he at all suspected the whole thing was a narrative cut from proverbial whole cloth?

  • 2. Homer Erotic  |  April 21st, 2009 at 11:20 am

    Postscript: I guess Dolan as much as says he doubts the factual nature of the narrative with such words as:

    Guess who his new friends are. Go ahead, guess! I’ll give you a hint: just pick the most ludicrous cliches in American TV aimed at pubescent male audiences. Forget about subtlety. Imagine this novel was a screenplay by the dumb brother in Adaptation. Who would he pick for the hero’s friends?

    I was looking for him to say so in a very explicit fashion, which was probably a tad cement-headed of me.

  • 3. Kavuye Toon  |  May 31st, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Read this here http://exile.ru/articles/detail.php?ARTICLE_ID=7994&IBLOCK_ID=35&phrase_id=24654

    and you’ll see how he figgered it oot

  • 4. Bruno  |  June 4th, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    WOW, does Frey’s writing suck. Normally I would read all of John Dolan’s article, because he is good. But there were so many Frey excerpts that I wanted to barf, so I couldn’t. I can’t believe that this guy got published.

  • 5. Trevor  |  November 17th, 2011 at 6:20 am

    Man it’s good to see this again! Not only to be reminded that no, I don’t need to concern myself with the merde that passes for contemporary literature but also because it shows how plain weird the American conception of masculinity is these days. “Manly men! …Who hug and cry and really love eachother! But totally not gay!” No wonder 300 was so popular.

  • 6. Jesse Kaellis  |  November 2nd, 2012 at 5:47 pm

    This is pretty great. You mind if I show it Harper/Collins and my agent,
    Eric Simonoff?
    From: James Frey

    View Contact
    To: Jesse Kaellis
    ________________________________________
    My agent is digging it so far. Waiting to hear from Harper Collins.
    From: James Frey

    View Contact
    To: Jesse Kaellis
    ________________________________________
    The book is with Harper Collins. I haven’t heard no, so the book is still in
    the system. It always takes awhile. I’ll follow up with them tomorrow.

    Dear Jesse,

    Thank you for sending us your writing samples. They have a unique tone and show a lot of raw talent.

    Unfortunately Huntington Press will have to pass on publishing this work; it just doesn’t quite fit with our program. However, I have to tell you that I think you have some serious potential, especially with paragraphs like these:

    “This story haunted me. It galvanized the whole valley and I was following it. There is something about the relentless cheeriness of an incandescent sun that makes horror stories like that all the more shocking and sublime.”

    I was very impressed. Thanks again for thinking of us, and good luck with the other places you’ve approached.

    Very best wishes,

    Heidi Olson
    Huntington Press

    Michael
    Hide Details
    FROM:
    • Jesse Kaellis
    TO:
    • Signorelli, Michael
    Message flagged
    Tuesday, April 19, 2011 3:12:10 PM
    Message body
    Thank you for the prompt reply. In fact, thank you very much. I figure about
    another six weeks maximum and I will send you my revised manuscript. If my
    instincts count for anything I think that it will work. Jesse

    Seek ye me and live.

    —– Original Message —-
    From: “Signorelli, Michael”
    To: Jesse Kaellis
    Sent: Tue, April 19, 2011 11:53:29 AM
    Subject: RE: Michael

    Jesse,

    I got your message. Thanks for the call. Hey, this sounds like good news! You
    should definitely accept Patrick’s offer to publish your stories. Because
    Subterrain is a magazine, you’ll retain book publishing rights. There’s no
    worries about losing the rights to include them in your book. So, yeah, that
    means you’ll be published. Congrats!

    M

    —–Original Message—–
    From: Jesse Kaellis [mailto:kaellisjesse@yahoo.com]
    Sent: Monday, April 18, 2011 9:25 PM
    To: Signorelli, Michael
    Subject: Michael

    I am asking for guidance. The managing editor, Patrick Mckenzie, from Subterrain
    Magazine wants to publish about six of the Vegas stories. Brian Kaufman of Anvil
    Books had given him my manuscript. The magazine is publishing an issue themed on
    chance and he likes the insider perspective that my Vegas stories illuminate.

    I would like to have a publishing credit. I’m assuming I retain the copyrights.
    I don’t know. I don’t know much.

    I got the manuscript in linear order. I have organized the stories into a
    sustained narrative. I have 85,542 words and 222 double spaced pages. I want to
    be able to use the stories, especially those Vegas stories in any possible book
    I may someday publish; hopefully with you. What should I do?

    Jesse Kaellis

    Seek ye me and live.
    Saved from sent box August 19, 2011

    —– Original Message —-
    From: James Frey
    To: Jesse Kaellis
    Sent: Fri, January 7, 2011 5:50:46 PM
    Subject: Re: Attached manuscript.

    My agent is digging it so far. Waiting to hear from Harper Collins.

    Re: Attached manuscript.
    Hide Details
    FROM:
    • Jesse Kaellis
    TO:
    • James Frey
    Message flagged
    Saturday, March 5, 2011 11:13:26 AM
    Message body
    James,

    Thanks for helping me. I guess it isn’t going to be that easy. I will talk to
    Michael, thank you. Does Eric Simonoff have any interest? Jesse

    Seek ye me and live.

    —– Original Message —-
    From: James Frey
    To: Jesse Kaellis
    Sent: Sat, March 5, 2011 9:43:58 AM
    Subject: FW: Attached manuscript.

    J -

    See below. You should write him. Start a dialogue. Not the best news, but a
    great start.

    Best -

    J

    —— Forwarded Message
    From: “Signorelli, Michael”
    Date: Wed, 2 Mar 2011 17:17:14 -0500
    To: ‘James Frey’
    Subject: RE: Attached manuscript.

    James,

    This guy is what you say he is: raw and talented. I love the feel of his
    voice. But I do not have the personal resources necessary to shape this into
    a market-ready book. The major difficulty, as I see it, is its being a
    collection of many, very short stories. If he comes up with a novel-length,
    sustained narrative, I would be happy to look. But as it stands, there would
    be too many factors working against this in-house.

    Still, I would be interested to know what else this guy’s up to. Is he
    placing stories? Writing online? Giving readings? If ever he wanted to chat
    about book publishing, if you haven’t already taught him everything he needs
    to know, I’d be happy to speak with him.

    As always, thanks for the look.

    Best,

    Michael

    —–Original Message—–
    From: James Frey [mailto:James@fullfathomfive.net]
    Sent: Thursday, January 20, 2011 12:29 PM
    To: Signorelli, Michael
    Subject: FW: Attached manuscript.

    M -

    Here it is, hope you dig it. Needs some TLC, ut think the guy is raw and
    cool and interesting and talented.

    Best -

    J

    —— End of Forwarded Message

    Saved from sent file on August 19, 2011

  • 7. steve  |  August 17th, 2013 at 6:35 am

    dude, the commenter envy is a bad thing…I know it very well as i can see…lol.


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