The sound bite and the fury

Literary bad boy James Frey says Dave Eggers can eat his dust. His self-promotion is tiresome, but his addiction memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," shows he has the right stuff.

Topics: Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, James Frey,

The sound bite and the fury

Should celebrity be classified as a controlled substance? Consider first the available medical literature: rambling and confused statements, delusional behavior, outbursts of megalomania, and in the case of People magazine’s Steven Cojocaru, unflattering shags — all triggered by the sudden and confounding infusion of quasi-fame. The blazingly dysfunctional path of today’s insta-celebrities is not something children should be exposed to or, come to think of it, most adults. Enough fooling around, then. Bring on the PSA campaign.

And for campaign spokesman, please consider James Frey, the rising author who has, in effect, done the thing he swore never to do: He has traded in one addiction for another. That is, he has written a ballsy, bone-deep memoir about coming off drugs — titled “A Million Little Pieces” — which he is now promoting with such hopped-up, synthetically fueled mania that reading his interviews becomes a form of retox.

“A Million Little Pieces” has all the hallmarks of a Publishing Event. An eye-grabbing cover: the Buñuellian image of a human hand sheathed in micro-pills. A movie-ready subject: the near-death spiral and phoenixlike rebirth of a rich suburban kid. (Boy, Interrupted.) A string of high-profile blurbers: Pat Conroy, Bret Easton Ellis, Gus Van Sant. And, most telling of all, a publicity Anschluss, engineered by Random House’s genteel Nan Talese imprint.

The big noise began with a now-famous New York Observer interview, two full months before the book’s release, in which the 33-year-old Frey wasted no time sawing off the legs of his rivals. “I don’t give a fuck what Jonathan Safran whatever-his-name does or what David Foster Wallace does. I don’t give a fuck what any of those people do. I don’t hang out with them, I’m not friends with them, I’m not part of the literati.” Don’t even get him started on Dave Eggers. “A book that I thought was mediocre was being hailed as the best book written by the best writer of my generation. Fuck that. And fuck him and fuck anybody who says that. I don’t give a fuck what they think about me. I’m going to try to write the best book of my generation and I’m going to try to be the best writer.”

And that was just appetizers. Before he was done, Frey had revealed:

  • that the initials tattooed on his left arm stand for “Fuck the Bullshit It’s Time to Throw Down;

  • that the message in front of his iMac reads: “A page a day. Anything less is unacceptable you punk-ass-bitch-motherfucker. Anything less is unacceptable.”

  • that his wife calls him a savage “because I eat with my hands. Because my best friends are my dogs. And I like pit bulls. And N.W.A. And I love boxing. Writers aren’t like that anymore. They’re all these guys who have fucking master’s degrees and are so ‘sophisticated’ and ‘educated’ and … well, I’m not a guy with a master’s degree … I can write big fat books, but I’m not an effete little guy.”

    Somewhere on Heaven’s savannah, Papa Hemingway was firing off Gatling-gun salutes. In subsequent interviews, Frey has struck a more chastened tone and has even exhibited some blunt decency, but any interviewer who sticks around long enough is bound to be rewarded with another round of chest butting.

    “It’s a new phenomenon that writers aren’t willing to say, ‘I want to be the fucking best!’” he told Entertainment Weekly. “For most of the 20th century, when people like me grew up wanting to be writers, people like Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer — none of these people got into writing and didn’t take it fucking seriously. They got into it saying, ‘I’m going to write books that change people’s lives. I’m going to write the best book of my generation. I’m going to be remembered as someone who changed the way people think and write and live.’ Well, I don’t have a problem saying I want to be the fucking best.”

    Shifting gears: “I don’t sit at home and think, ‘Okay, I’m going to make this person think this about me.’ To a certain extent, I don’t give a fuck what you think about me.”

    A writer who wants to be thought of as the fucking best but doesn’t give a fuck what anyone thinks. Oh, the webs we authors weave when we leave the safety of the printed page. I happen to think “A Million Little Pieces” will be a top seller with or without the aggressive hyping — as the most scalding account of addiction in recent memory, it deserves to be — but not all publicity is good publicity, and if these take-no-prisoner interviews continue, the book in question may soon be dwarfed by the Other Story: James Frey’s bombs bursting in air. He may become the latest cautionary example of how writers compromise themselves the moment they open their mouths.

    Can any book live up to the expectations James Frey has created? Well, if this bullheaded, lionhearted book doesn’t reach the level of masterpiece, it’s not for lack of trying. Frey has devised a rolling, pulsing style that really moves — an acquired taste, perhaps, but undeniably striking. It may not make him the world’s best fucking author, but at least he can console himself with how far he has climbed in the world’s estimation. A decade ago, he was, by his own admission, “an Alcoholic and a drug Addict and a Criminal.” He had begun drinking while still a child. At 12, he was smoking pot. (It was the only drug he was able to give up: not strong enough.) At 15, he was selling drugs and liquor. At 18, he was blacking out every night, and at 21, he was throwing up, pissing and shitting blood. Booze, crack, pills, acid, mushrooms, meth, PCP, glue: He did them all. And after skipping bail in three different states, he took a face-first tumble down a fire escape, broke his nose, gashed his face, knocked out four of his teeth — and woke up on a plane. The party was over.

    When the book opens, Frey is being shipped off by his parents to Minnesota’s famous Hazelden drug and alcohol treatment facility. Prostrate and strung out he may be, but he’s no pushover. From the onset, he breaks rules, rebels against clinic authorities and rejects the 12-step pieties propagated by his well-meaning counselors — refuses, in effect, to follow the Recovery Arc. And so “A Million Little Pieces” ends up following an arc of its own. It’s about a stubborn, prickly, fucked-up guy who, with the help of the Tao Te Ching and some appealingly unsavory rehab mates, finds his own road back to life. “There is no God,” he declares, “and there is no such thing as a Higher Power. I will do it with me. Alone … Every time I want to drink or do drugs, I’m going to make the decision not to do them. I’ll keep making that decision until it’s no longer a decision, but a way of life.”

    As Bette Midler once observed, when a cokehead says, “Let’s go somewhere and talk,” what he really means is, “Let’s go somewhere and I’ll talk.” And that’s essentially what “A Million Little Pieces” is: 382 pages of churning, self-mortifying, self-aggrandizing talk — no indentations, no quotation marks — nothing to stop the unspooling of consciousness.

    “I open the door and I walk out. I make my way back to the Unit. Night has fallen and the Halls are dark. Overhead lights illuminate them. I hate the lights I want them gone. I wish the Halls were darker. I am craving the dark the darkest darkness the deep and horrible hole. I wish the Halls were fucking black. My mind is black my heart is black I wish the Halls were black. If I could, I would destroy the lights above me with a fucking bat. I would smash them to fucking pieces. I wish the Halls were black.”

    This is as good an example as any of Frey’s style: the Germanically capitalized nouns, the steady drumbeat of baldly declarative sentences, the incantatory rhythms. Stretched to book length, of course, the baldness can turn portentous and the incantation can curdle into mere repetition. “A Million Little Pieces” is mannered, exasperating, far too long, stiff with masculine posturing, at times disingenuous. (How is the Tao Te Ching any less prescriptive or beholden to higher authority than the 12 steps?) And yet it’s a fierce and honorable work that refuses to glamorize that author’s addiction or his thorny personality:

    “I want a drink. I want fifty drinks. I want a bottle of the purest, strongest, most destructive, most poisonous alcohol on Earth. I want fifty bottles of it. I want crack, dirty and yellow and filled with formaldehyde. I want a pile of powder meth, five hundred hits of acid, a garbage bag full of mushrooms, a tube of glue bigger than a truck, a pool of gas large enough to drown in. I want something anything whatever however as much as I can.”

    In this way, Frey earns his moments of awkward, hard-wrung pathos:

    “The Gates are open and thirteen years of addiction, violence, Hell and their accompaniment are manifesting themselves in dense tears and heavy sobs and a shortness of breath and a profound sense of loss. The loss inhabits, fills and overwhelms me. It is the loss of a childhood of being a Teenager of normalcy of happiness of love of trust of reason of God of Family of friends of future of potential of dignity of humanity of sanity of myself of everything everything everything. I lost everything and I am lost reduced to a mass of mourning, sadness, grief, anguish and heartache. I am lost. I have lost. Everything. Everything.”

    They’re not always pretty, these linguistic pileups, but coursing through every page is the author’s palpable desire — a desire that might effetely be called Dostoevskian — to scrape down to the very marrow, to transcribe everything, everything about this particular experience.

    The result is a book that makes other recovery memoirs look, well, a little pussy-ass — a book about the body in all its horror. Spit, snot, urine, shit. The deadly shakes, wall-rattling screams. Skin gouging, hair tearing. Nails pulled off toes. A grueling, anesthesia-free round of dental surgery. And more vomiting than a whale-watching expedition:

    “Blood and bile and chunks of my stomach come pouring from my mouth and my nose. It gets stuck in my throat, in my nostrils, in what remains of my teeth. Again it comes, again it comes, again it comes, and with each episode a sharp pain shoots through my chest, my left arm and my jaw. I bang my head on the back of the toilet but I feel nothing. I bang it again. Nothing.”

    Frey is so unrelenting with the details that the occasionally protruding spikes of black humor are a form of clemency for the reader. I loved the moment when he describes his Hazelden buddies for his quietly appalled mother: “My closest friend is some kind of Mobster. My Roommate is a Federal Judge. My other friends are Crackheads and Drunks. I sort of have a Girlfriend, and she’s a Crackhead and a Pillpopper and she used to be a prostitute … They’re the best friends I’ve ever had.” And there’s a mordantly funny reflection on “Friends,” which is blaring surreally from the clinic TV: “The only people I know who spend so much time in one Apartment usually have black plastic taped over the windows and guns in the closet and burn marks on their lips and fingers and huge locks on the door. They are not witty people, though their paranoia can be amusing.” (That’s a remark one could imagine, oh, Dave Eggers making, but coming from someone who’s actually spent time in such apartments, it’s immeasurably more biting.) And, perhaps most enjoyable of all, is Frey’s rant against an unnamed rock star (Steven Tyler?), a Hazelden alumnus who comes back to deliver a highly romanticized account of his own recovery. “Were I in my normal frame of mind,” Frey writes, “I would stand up, point my finger, scream Fraud, and chase this Chump Motherfucker down and give him a beating … I would tell him that if I ever heard of him spewing his bullshit fantasies in Public again, I would cut off his precious hair, scar his precious lips, and take all of his goddamned gold records and shove them straight up his ass.”

    That was Frey then. This, sadly, is Frey talking more recently to Entertainment Weekly: “When I walk into Random House, they treat me like a rock star. People are breathless. They can’t believe I’m alive. They’re like ‘Oh! Oh! Oh!’” Sounds like just one more bullshit fantasy to me. Frey is being compared to lots of people — Eggers, Bukowski, Wallace — but the swaggering gait and the relish for the mike are more akin to Norman Mailer than anyone else. Like Mailer, Frey publicly grapples with the dark, unruly force within him. (Call it “the Fury”; call it “the Beast”; it doesn’t matter.) And like Mailer, Frey imparts the sense of an embattled ego struggling not just to assert but to impose itself, to clear the field of all comers. And so if we think of “Million Little Pieces” as Frey’s “Naked and the Dead” (the same foxhole camaraderie, the same insistence on male ritual), what are we to make of the public persona Frey is consciously or unconsciously creating through the unstable medium of publicity tours? Is this his “Advertisements for Myself”?

    In fact, it took Mailer years to overcome his initial success. And while he went on to write great books — “Armies in the Night,” “The Executioner’s Song” — he has spent the last two decades playing the role of dial-up provocateur, obscuring his considerable gifts as an observer by allowing himself to be observed more and more by others. He blows hard, all right — so does Gore Vidal — but that doesn’t make either one of them serious.

    I think James Frey, by contrast, is serious. I like how, in his Observer interview, he talks about “moving against the trend of irony” and being “a bullet in the heart of that bullshit.” A writer unafraid of feeling is someone to stick around for. But if celebrity is an addiction, and if addiction, to quote Frey, is a choice, then his choice begins now. He can spend more time in his glassed-in lion’s den, chewing on the red meat fed him by interviewers, or he can take himself as seriously as he wants to be taken. Squeeze the hyperbole out of his pores and quietly (or noisily) refine his craft and tell the stories he wants to tell. He can, to quote the Tao Te Ching, let it be. And maybe, in the process, he’ll become what he so desperately wants. At any rate, it’ll be fun to watch him try.

    This story has been corrected from the original.

  • Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer. His books include "Mr. Timothy" and "The Black Tower."

    More Related Stories

    Featured Slide Shows

    • Share on Twitter
    • Share on Facebook
    • 1 of 11
    • Close
    • Fullscreen
    • Thumbnails

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
      Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
      Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Here by Richard McGuire
      A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
      The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
      This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
      For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Over Easy by Mimi Pond
      When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
      You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Shoplifter by Michael Cho
      Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
      This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

    • Recent Slide Shows



    Comment Preview

    Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

    You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>