Sunday, January 29, 2006
Talented bad boy with tattoos and previous? Or sad sweary Mary with a Hemingway fetish?
James Frey & Me
As observers of the American literary scene will know, the above pictured beardy, James Frey, is a bestselling memoirist. His stark, searing, staccato, sordid, no-expletives-barred I-did-drugs-and-survived rehab confessional A Million Little Pieces has sold about 3m copies in America alone, most of them since Oprah Winfrey made it her book of the month late last year.
Except, it isn't - it isn't a confessional. Following revelations on a blog called www.smokinggun.com, it turns out that James F made up large parts of his blood-flecked memoir, including crucial chapters where a teenage girlfriend dies in a railway crash, and he undergoes terrifying root canal dentistry without aneasthetic.
You probably know the ins and outs of the Frey scandal, but to give you a measure of his egregious and wholesale fabrication, Frey devotes dozens of pages of his book to the appalling dental ordeal - where, because he is an addict, he is refused a painkiller yet still has his teeth sliced open while strapped to the chair. This part of the book is full of keynote Frey passages, like: 'Pain. Pain pain pain pain pain.' Etc. Etc etc etc etc etc. It's kind of predictable and repetitive yet it does have a power of its own - you do turn the pages.
But if that power comes from the feeling that 'my God, this really happened, this poor bastard really had root canal work without aneasthetic' - and I think a lot of the book's potency does come from the non-fiction aspect - then the power is unmerited. Frey has plugged his book into the mains without permission. He's pirated this power. Because, as he confessed on a second and much more hostile Oprah show last week (the lady has turned against him), he cannot 'honestly remember' whether he had dental work without aneasthetic or not.
So, let's get this right, you wrote 30 pages about having root canal work without aneasthetic, yet you can't remember whether it 'honestly happened'? In other words, you kinda... 'made it up', right?
And it gets worse. Probably the most crucial plot point of the book is when Frey gets busted for attacking some billyclub weilding cops while off his face on crack, and then - as a result - gets slung in jail for three months, at the end of which he goes to see his girlfriend, the girl he met in rehab, and she dies.
Frey, it turns out, didn't go to prison. He didn't have a fracas with the cops. He wasn't even on crack. He just drank a bit, got arrested for Driving While Intoxicated, was 'cooperative and polite' according to the arresting officers, and was quickly released from his police cell. All in all he spent about two hours banged up. Not three months. Less than a morning. Not a quarter of a year. That's quite a big mistake.
Hilariously, Frey's follow-up memoir - My Friend Leonard - purports to begin where the last left off. With Frey in the county jail. Uh-huh. The very first passages of the book describe how Frey was nearly beaten to a pulp while in chokey, and then describes life as it was during that hellish 87th day in jail.
Perhaps he meant to say his '87th minute in jail'. And perhaps he meant to say not 'beaten to a pulp' but 'immediately let out of the police cell after my mother bailed me for $700'.
Anyhoo. All this is common knowledge. So why am I getting all het up?
Two reasons, both connected to the fact that I am also a memoirist - my first volume of memoirs comes out in May this year (as if you didn't know) with Bloomsbury Books.
1. Frey has fucked it up for all of us autobiographical writer types. As any memoirist knows, you have to lie A LITTLE BIT when you write your own life. For a start, nobody goes around with a tape recorder all the time, so you just have to recreate, or mechanically reconstitute, conversation and dialogue - as interestingly as you can.
Also, you telescope timing and switch events around, to give your book something like a plot, a narrative, an arc. Real life seldom has a tight and perfect story curve, or any kind of story curve, so in the memoir genre you are obliged to finesse just a tiny bit. If you didn't, your book would be unreadably sluggish and pedantic. 'The following year was less eventful, though I did buy some nice pyjamas', etc etc.
I think these tricks-of-the-trade are permissible (others may disagree). A memoir is a subjective memory of certain parts or aspects of a life - it's not the tell-all journalese that is an autobiography.
But Frey went way beyond this discreet legerdemain. He made up stuff by the shedload. He arguably plagiarised other books. He created whole new scenarios from scratch. He sat down one day and thought: I know, I'll fucking lie. And why? Because, according to reports, he originally wrote the book as a novel. And fair enough. But then he found he couldn't sell his book as fiction - 17 New York publishers refused it.
However, as non fiction, it was much more marketable - so that's what got sold. Frey and his agent successfully repackaged the book as memoir, without taking the fibs out. Tsk. Tsk tsk tsk.
Here we come to the crunch. For me. As a result of this scandal, every memoirist, and every memoir, will now come under enormous scrutiny - and be checked for adherence to absolute fact. We are all going to have to put ugly disclaimers in our books from now on ('some details have been changed'). Every time a memoirist opens his laptop, he or she will have the scary image of a frightened Frey looming over his shoulder. Thanks. Wanker.
2. The second reason I am personally pissed off with James 'I spent eight minutes in prison' Frey is that I have/had a second memoir in the pipeline. This memoir was going to detail all the bad stuff in my life. The really bad stuff. The heroin addiction, the crack habit. Because I have had a life as crazy if not much crazier than the life detailed in Frey's bestseller. The difference between my life and Frey's 'life', however, is that mine is fucking TRUE. I really did do two months in prison - and not for defacing library books - I was on a fucking RAPE CHARGE. I really WAS kidnapped by Hezbollah. I really DID get in a knife fight in Marseilles. I really DID live in a hotel in Bangkok that sold heroin on room service. I really WAS stranded in a forest in Siberia coming off heroin after being ejected from a troop train.
But who, exactly, after Frey, is ever going to believe me?
PS. I just found this interview with Frey, pre-scandal, on a website called Zulkey.com. In the light of his revelations, its priceless. Particularly this Q&A:
Q: After your release from Hazeldon, you spend three months in jail in Ohio. How did that compare to rehab?
Frey: Jail is really fucking boring, and occasionally, really fucking scary. It is about doing time and getting it over with and staying out of trouble. Rehab is about fixing and changing your life. It, however, can also be boring and scary.
Yeah, James. Those TWO HOURS you spent in a police cel must have been 'really fucking scary'. I mean, two whole boring hours without a nice latte. How scary is that?! You could have got a slight cramp in your wimpy white arse from sitting down on that nasty hard chair. And how did you manage to stay 'out of trouble' during your several minutes in prison? I'm amazed you weren't buggered in the communal shower then forced to become the big man's bitch, given that you spent literally the time between breakfast and elevenses imprisoned in that hellhole.
Posted by sean at 12:03 am