Free James Frey! 

In defense of the post-truth memoir

Monday, Jan 23 2006

pq2: Calling Million Little a memoir functions as a sort of semantic enhancement, padding Frey’s literary basket with violence and excess, the same way George Bush stuffed his flight-suit jock with what appeared to be either sweat socks or a mute Chihuahua.

As anyone not in the grips of a massively exaggerated crank-and-ether binge for the past week or so must surely know, putative khaki badass and macho-adjacent rich kid James Frey has been outed as having invented large chunks of his criminal curriculum vitae.

Here was an author on top: adored by his publishers, their retail outlets and legions of passionately devoted readers. And what kind of thanks does he get? Instead of a call from the Pulitzer committee, or a Nobel nod, he’s contacted by The Smoking Gun, a batch of nitpicking idealists with nothing better to do than comb his prose for invented episodes. Little things, like not doing any time when you say you were inside for months, bonding with cons; or claiming to have caused a train wreck and killed a girl, when you didn’t do either. (It just happened that she died, and the makings of operatic catastrophe were all there!)

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To which Oprah Winfrey, the woman who bequeathed him a Book Club kiss and launched him into the mega-sales stratosphere, said, more or less, “So what?” The doubters can call him a liar. He can be derided in print by morally superior literary peers. (Mary Karr, whose memoir, The Liars’ Club, remains the best of breed, declared that James had “the moral stature of a mollusk.”) But that’s missing the point. We’re talking melodrama, not morality. Salvation and entertainment, in no particular order. “Let the haters hate!” snarls almost-in-jail-once Jimmy on his Web site. And he’s right. Galileo was shunned by all the big dogs of his day, too. Same with Leroy Neiman.

Far from diminishing his genius, the fact that pit-bull-head-size chunks of Frey’s memoir are rank fabrications serves only to highlight it. Sure, James Frey could have stuck to the facts. It would have been easy. But an innovator doesn’t take the easy way. He innovates. Ignores history for impact. Invents incidents when incidents need inventing, whatever it takes to render a parade of grandiose, ferocious episodes of chemical self-immolation, garnished with boatloads of puke, blood and hugs. He is that bold!

Forget the faux scandale about whether this or that, you know, actually happened. This is all you need to know: BF (Before Frey), writers lived in fear. Slaves to veracity. But James Frey, whose life story rivals only Harry Potter’s in popularity, has sniffed the air and caught a whiff of Tomorrow. He has Gone Beyond. Has, by the simple act of casting off accuracy in favor of invoked emotion, ushered in a revolution.

Why bother with accuracy when the feelings are real? Was it three hours in an empty office, or three months behind bars? Doesn’t matter! What the writer felt when the stuff that really happened was going on is exactly the same as what his character feels when stuff that didn’t really happen goes on in the book. And that’s what the reader feels. Keep up with me here.

Imagine, along with the author, what it would be like to be stuck in the joint with all kinds of heavy-duty criminal types. Just because it never happened does not mean it didn’t hurt. Or that the book itself is not still a memoir. What goes between the covers is not just a man’s history, but a history of what he wishes he had been; life is whatever you think it was. Virtual autobiography for a virtual world — perfect!

Now, finally, a memoirist can cook up epic confrontations and conflicts worthy of the outsize emotions he already feels about himself. And why not? We already have the ability to generate all manner of genuine-looking photographs. If the technology’s there, why shouldn’t a writer Photoshop his personal history, too? Like Oprah said, it’s still valuable. It’s still his story.

What this author has done amounts to nothing less than liberation. After Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, the writer is free, if he or she wants to be, from oppressive, vaguely Old Europe-y notions about what is or isn’t “nonfiction.” Like our current president, whose life arc parallels Frey’s on so many levels, the self-proclaimed Addict, Alcoholic and Criminal in A Million Little Pieces has stepped over standards and precedent as an impediment to Getting the Job Done. The job, in this case, being the creation of a history compatible with one’s own myth.

It’s fucking beautiful.

But wait . . . I swear, I’m so excited I’m spotting. Which may have to do with the hernia operation I endured this morning with nothing but a can of Solarcaine and a half bottle of expired Anacin — which I actually CRUNCH, motherfucker — to take the edge off.

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