Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Would you like a Whopper with that Frey?

I have to weigh in on the James Frey controversy. I'm sure you've heard by now that The Smoking Gun's thorough investigation suggests that James Frey's "memoir" A Million Little Pieces was seriously embellished. The funny thing is that Frey exaggerated his criminal record to establish his Bad-Ass Criminal persona. "Bratty privileged suburban frat-boy addict" just didn't carry enough literary cachet.

As someone who has written two books, one fiction, one nonfiction, I can tell you that I embrace the idea that fiction is the easiest way to tell the essence of a story. My young adult novel High Water tried to capture the essence of what it was like to grow up dorky and insecure, always wanting to be popular and fitting in. But I knew that my real life was far too boring to sustain a narrative, and besides, I would inevitably get the details wrong. So I made up a story about two seventh-grade girls getting separated from the group on a class rafting trip and left to fend for themselves in the Sierra wilderness.

But, if you do go the memoir route, you have to be prepared to stand by the facts. Frey's book has always sounded totally unappealing to me, and now I am relieved that there's no reason to read it.

The most interesting article I've read about Frey's work, written pre-scandal, is a scathing book review written by an American expat for "The Exile," a Moscow-based alternative newspaper (you've gotta love the web!). In his review, John Dolan makes the case that "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."

As a mother I will add that the most disturbing allegation is that Frey inserted himself into the story of a real girl who lived in his town who was killed when her date's car was struck by a train. Frey claimed that she was his only friend and that he was involved in the scenario that led to her death. There is a real family involved, and if he appropriated that tragedy for literary devices, passed off as fact, that is truly sick.

I know this is off topic from my usual musings, but as a writer I've been watching in absolute morbid fascination as Frey's story has come unraveled, and wondered what it means that the American public was so mesmerized by it in the first place.

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