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A Million Little Pieces
by James Frey
First of all, it is worth noting that at first this book was marketed as a memoir. However, it came to light that it was in fact a piece of semi-fiction based heavily on James Frey’s experiences as a drug addict and his time in rehabilitation. Therefore, it cannot be looked upon as a non-fiction memoir. The book starts with James waking up on a plane badly beaten up and severely recovering from his latest drugs and drink binge. He is swiftly taken to rehab and the book documents his recovery there.
My Quick Review
If you think this memoir reads like a novel, that’s because essentially it is a novel. At first, when I was reading it, I kept on finding it unbelievable that it is was all real. Then I found that so much of it wasn’t. However, this should not deter one from appreciating this book and the fact that it is a fine piece of writing.
First of all, it is one of those page turning gems. At over 500 pages long, it look me only a week to read it. It definitely had that “unputdownable” quality about it.
One of the first things that strikes you about this book is the writing style of James Frey. There are no indented spaces for paragraphs and his sentence structure is unconventional to say the least. I feel the book was all the better for it. Personally, I thought this symbolised the jumbled, disorganised thoughts and scrambled brain of James the recovering addict. Speech is not indicated by the usual speech marks and sometimes you had to really stay on the ball to realise which character was saying what. This was something that I did not mind and seemed to get used to very quickly.
However, writing style aside this was not an easy book to read. The scene where James determinedly pulls one of his toe nails out purely for some kind of release from mental anguish, will haunt me forever. I could barely read that scene and had to keep on breaking off from it. I only just made it through by reading it with one eye closed (no, I don’t know the logic behind that either). I think I even retched at one point. This however does show the power of James Frey’s writing. That is only one scene that I found hard to stomach. I haven’t even mentioned the dental surgery performed without any anaesthetic, the scene when James finds Lily in the crack house and the many, MANY scenes of him vomiting.
One thing, that kept on puzzling me, was why did Frey capitalise certain words that wouldn’t normally be capitalised. They would always be nouns such as “Room”, “House” and “Road”. I couldn’t decide if it was to emphasise his detachment from the real world (as opposed to his usual heavily “medicated” state) or a way of mocking the whole rehabilitation process OR was it a way to provide more meaning to the words, more significance and weight to them? I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on this.
For me, the only negative aspect of this book were the scenes between James and Lily. I always found myself rolling my eyes every time they met up. I found the scenes unrealistic and overly sentimental, almost cheesy. I felt like the book as a whole was better than that. I can see why James Frey introduced a love interest to the story (and of course it may actually have had happened in real life, we’re never sure which parts of the book are fact and which are fiction), but I wish it had been told in a more believable way.
James as a character or a semi-character is deeply flawed (obviously), but does this make him an anti-hero? My first thought is that it does’t. How can someone who has lived his life the way he has be called any kind of hero. However, he does quite miraculously start to rebuild a relationship with his parents, help Lily and other friends he made in rehab and best of all rehabilitate himself. These are commendable feats, but I’m still uneasy with referring to him in a heroic way.
I do also question the rebuilding of his relationship with his parents. He seemed to quite quickly and easily see the faults in their relationship and the things he had done wrong. He then very gracefully communicated this to his parents. Whilst I appreciate someone can become enlightened and broken relationships can be mended, I’m not convinced by the ease that James did this with.
Overall and despite a handful of faults, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was my favourite on the list so far, until…I read the next book on the list. More on that next month.
So, let me know what you think of A Million Little Pieces. I think this is great book for a book club discussion.
Questions to Consider
1. A Million Little Pieces presents some unusual formal innovations: Instead of using quotation marks, each piece of dialogue is set off on its own line with only occasional authorial indications of who is speaking; paragraphs are not indented; sentences sometimes run together without punctuation; and many passages read more like poetry than prose. How do these innovations affect the pace of the writing? How do they contribute to the book’s rawness and immediacy? How is James Frey’s unconventional style appropriate for this story?
2. How does Frey create suspense and sustain narrative tension throughout? What major questions are raised and left unresolved until the end of the book? Is this way of writing about addiction more powerful than an objective study might be?
3. Why does the Tao Te Ching speak to James so powerfully? Why does he connect with it whereas the Bible and Twelve Steps literature leave him cold? How is this little book of ancient Chinese wisdom relevant to the issues an addict must face?
4. James is frequently torn between wanting to look into his own eyes to see himself completely and being afraid of what he might find: “I want to look beneath the surface of the pale green and see what’s inside of me, what’s within me, what I’m hiding. I start to look up but I turn away. I try to force myself but I can’t” [p. 32]. Why can’t James look himself in the eye? Why is it important that he do so? What finally enables him to see himself?
5. When his brother Bob tells James he has to get better, James replies, “I don’t know what happened or how I ever ended up like this, but I did, and I’ve got some huge fucking problems and I don’t know if they’re fixable. I don’t know if I’m fixable” [p. 131]. Does the book ever fully reveal the causes of James’s addictions? How and why do you think he ended up “like this”?
6. Why are James and Lilly so drawn to each other? In what way is their openness with each other significant for their recovery?
7. Joanne calls James the most stubborn person she has ever met. At what moments in the book does that stubbornness reveal itself most strongly? How does being stubborn help James? How does it hurt or hinder him?
8. The counselors at the clinic insist that the Twelve Steps program is the only way addicts can stay sober. What are James’s reasons for rejecting it? Are they reasons that might be applicable to others or are they only relevant to James’s own personality and circumstances? Is he right in thinking that a lifetime of “sitting in Church basements listening to People whine and bitch and complain” is nothing more than “the replacement of one addiction with another” [p. 223]?
9. What are the sources of James’s rage and self-hatred? How do these feelings affect his addictions? How does James use physical pain as an outlet for his fury?
10. How is Frey able to make the life of an addict so viscerally and vividly real? Which passages in the book most powerfully evoke what it’s like to be an addict? Why is it important, for the overall impact of the book, that Frey accurately convey these feelings?
11. When Miles asks James for something that might help him, James thinks it’s funny that a Federal Judge is asking him for advice, to which Miles replies: “We are all the same in here. Judge or Criminal, Bourbon Drinker or Crackhead” [p. 271]. How does being a recovering addict in the clinic negate social and moral differences? In what emotional and practical ways are the friendships James develops, especially with Miles and Leonard, crucial to his recovery?
12. James refuses to see himself as a victim; or to blame his parents, his genes, his environment, or even the severe physical and emotional pain he suffered as a child from untreated ear infections for his addictions and destructive behavior. He blames only himself for what has happened in his life. What cultural currents does this position swim against? How does taking full responsibility for his actions help James? How might finding someone else to blame have held him back?
13. Bret Easton Ellis, in describing A Million Little Pieces, commented, “Beneath the brutality of James Frey’s painful process, there are simple gestures of kindness that will reduce even the most jaded to tears.” What are some of those moments of kindness and compassion and genuine human connection that make the book so moving? Why do these moments have such emotional power?
14. In what ways does A Million Little Pieces illuminate the problem of alcohol and drug addiction in the United States today? What does Frey’s intensely personal voice add to the national debate about this issue?
You don’t have to answer these questions in your comments, but they might help to get you thinking about the book or to prompt a discourse.
(Questions issued by the publisher.)
November’s book is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I’ll be starting the conversation for this on Monday 4th December.
For a list of all the other books we’ll be reading this year, please click here.