All this happened, more or less
—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
Way before Oprah made his memoir, A Million Little Pieces , famous, James Frey must have taken a long, hard look at his life and decided to tell his story the Vonnegut way.
Frey’s book sold over four million copies because it blended the contemporary taste for pre-packaged slices of “reality” with the peculiarly American affection for the embarrassingly confessional memoir.
A generation ago, William Burroughs shocked the world with his insider’s notes on addiction and devastation, from Junk to Naked Lunch . Today, Frey’s willingness to declare himself a repentant former addict, a worthless, unreliable, out-of-control abuser of a wide cocktail of substances, attracts not shock but book deals and TV spots. The most humiliating drunken episodes, the splatter patterns of his vomit, the friends he betrayed, his jail time, the car crash he was involved in, the messes he created—he left nothing out.
Then The Smoking Gun ran a lengthy and thorough investigation into James Frey’s life. They concluded that Frey wasn’t an out-of-control addict so much as an out-of-control liar. The car crash was embellished. Some of his low-life friends may have been imaginary; his sins, his jail terms, the infamous description of vicious surgery on his teeth without benefit of anaesthesia—all of these had been greatly exaggerated.
The TSG investigation sparked a furious debate over how truthful we should expect a memoir to be. Oprah declared that it didn’t matter if James Frey hadn’t been through all of the pain he had described, so long as he’d been through some of it. Slightly brighter commentators pointed out that there was a word for what Frey had written, and that word was “fiction”.
Non-fiction, by definition, is supposed to be about fact: memoirists, in particular, are expected to write about what actually happened as opposed to the story that sounds better. As Frey’s story shattered into a million little pieces, it became clear that it was impossible for him to understand why writing a dishonest memoir is such a swizzle. In Frey’s view, TSG has proved that he wasn’t as much of a bad boy as he made himself out to be in his memoir—so that means he’s actually really a good person. Frey and Oprah might not understand this, but his literary career was built not on style but on sympathy, and that sympathy was offered because people believed his story. Imagine a heartrending memoir written by a cancer patient; then imagine that patient confessing she had actually had a bad attack of flu. Most intelligent readers would jib at being manipulated so cynically; but that is exactly what Frey has done.
To be fair to Frey, he’s surrounded by a popular culture that insists on literary relativism. In today’s world, Darwin and theories of evolution are just a story, one kind of story; “intelligent design” is another kind of story that deserves equal time. (This can drive the scientifically-minded insane; they offer proof and rigorous research in support of evolutionary theories, only to be met with calm assertions of proof-and-research free faith, and demands for equal time.) Vietnam is another kind of story, with several alternative versions; Iraq has an official story, and unfortunately, several samizdat versions with widespread appeal. You could be excused for growing up in the belief that the truth is infinitely flexible—even the truth of your own life can be adjusted, and analysed, and massaged for alternative versions, even when you know that those “versions” are, to put it more plainly, lies.
What Frey and Oprah are missing out on is, oddly enough, something that medieval storytellers knew. There’s a reason why Defoe worked so hard in Robinson Crusoe to set up that elaborate structure of documents and reliable narrators who would convince his audience that this was the story of a real shipwreck, a real survivor. There’s a reason why so many of the 18th century novels presented themselves as “The True and Astounding Storie of…”—the “true” was just as important as the “astounding”. The reader’s enjoyment would only be enhanced if he could be persuaded to believe that fiction was just as true and satisfying as the real world.
We need the appearance of truth in fiction, and that’s what Frey provided in his memoirs, not realizing that in journals, biographies, autobiographies and memoirs, we need more than the appearance of truth—we need and are entitled to the solid grounding of fact. “All this happened, more or less”: that’s a great claim. Unfortunately, it’s one only a fiction writer is entitled to make, not a memoirist.
(Published January 23 in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard)