If a book causes you to stop every few paragraphs and say, "This is unbelievable!" it just might be. Unbelievable and untrue, as has been revealed about James Frey's blockbuster "memoir," "A Million Little Pieces."
Yes, I'm one of those who read the book, though not on Oprah's recommendation. I read the book because my cousin, Bay, insisted I read it. She insisted everyone read it. No one who entered Bay's home, for decades a welcoming retreat for people (and dogs) of all ages, could leave without promising to read Frey's book.
So I read it and admired its raw truth, even if I willingly ignored the nagging and experienced voice in my head: "Nobody has root canals without anesthesia," as Frey claimed. (And even if Nan Talese, Frey's editor and publisher at Doubleday, says she once had a root canal without anesthesia.) I even gave my copy to a young woman sitting next to me on an airplane who was on her way from rehab to a halfway house. We hugged, for crying out loud. (Anna, if you're reading this, I hope you're doing well and I'm sorry.)
Then came Oprah, who endorsed the book as one of her book club picks, which bestows instant celebrity and bestseller status on a writer, followed by The Smoking Gun, a Web site (thesmokinggun.com), which published a detailed expose of fabrications throughout Frey's memoir.
Oprah, who initially defended Frey's true-ish work as nonetheless valuable, apologized Thursday on her show and told her audience that she felt duped.
Me, too. Finding out Frey invented important parts of his life story is like finding out that Frank McCourt ("Angela's Ashes") is really French and his father was a teetotaler.
On her show Thursday, a clearly angry Oprah challenged Frey (as well as Talese) point by point and retreated from her earlier defense of him. Early in the scandal, Oprah had called CNN's "Larry King Live" when Frey was a guest to say that though some book's details apparently were embellished or altered, the essence of the book was true.
As of Thursday, Oprah had changed her mind. It is clear now that Frey fictionalized much of the book and that Doubleday advanced a memoir that should have raised flags.
Does it matter? Yes. In a hundred different ways, it matters.
For one thing, I never would have plodded through such awful writing had I known the story wasn't true. Frey's writing style is broken, shattered, bumpy the literary equivalent of "The Blair Witch Project's" cinematography. I figured the style was for effect, meant to reflect his drug-addled state of mind, and hoped it would improve as he did.
The writing never got better even though Frey kicked his addiction without any help from the 12-step program used successfully by others at the rehab clinic where he spent six weeks. The principle thrust of Frey's book is that he conquered his cocaine and alcohol addictions through sheer will. Frey professed repeatedly that he doesn't believe in a higher power and he could go it alone. To read the book is to believe he succeeded.
I confess that I liked that part of the story. I admire toughness and strength of will in people. But Frey's deceit on other matters casts doubt even on that part of his story. How addicted was he? Descriptions in the book in which Frey daily (sometimes hourly) vomits up chunks of his insides don't quite fit the Smoking Gun mug shot of a robust young man the spoiled son of prosperous parents when he was supposedly a hopeless addict.
In an era characterized by cynicism, what could be more cynical than telling a story of overcoming when one has nothing, or little, to overcome?
More important, millions of people do profit from 12-step programs and overcome addictions because and only because of them. Frey's proud condescension and his lies mock the good such programs do, trivialize the struggles of others, and negate any hopes his book may have inspired.
Finally, as Americans have lost faith in a spectrum of institutions from religion to journalism to government to business the memoir was considered a reliable bastion of veracity, a sort of literary group therapy where people could gather to expose or confess their deepest selves. We read memoirs as much to learn about ourselves as about those who pen them.
Frey's memoir is not so much a story of addiction and redemption as it is a tale of denial, betrayal and narcissism driven by raw ambition. In other words, a memoir of our times true and revealing after all.