"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.
I think of Lilly and I cry.
It's all I can do.
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.