Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Million Little Pieces

I am often attracted by the title of a book: obscure, satirical, witty, philosophical are my usual choices. Even though it’s not the final word on it, I know somewhere I am hooked by it. This one too had a good title and beyond that I found there were a million little things going wrong for this book. This being an autobiography there are limitations on how exciting one can make it, not that the author has not tried but more on that later. James Frey, 23 years old, an alcoholic, drug addict and criminal, details about his stint at Hazeldon rehabilitation clinic in the state of Minnesota and intermittently flashbacks on the kind of life he had lead outside.

Now when I look back, it’s hard for me to not draw an analogy of the storyline with an elephant. Yes, even I am surprised how close it comes to be that. Let’s start with the trunk, the most existing part, if I may say so, for no other animal has it, often intriguing, sometimes violent. The story too begins captivatingly; James is missing his front teeth, has a hole in his cheek, a broken nose, swollen eyes and can barely stand. He’s on a plane to the oldest Residential Drug and Alcohol Treatment Facility in the world. You feel the story kind of gripping you there. But once at the clinic it’s all about vomit, urine, bile and blood. Every day the same routine and it continues until you reach the middle of the book. It keeps coming and coming and coming, the vomits. Somewhere through those pages you yourself feel nauseated and your stomach revolting. But still I continue with the pages.

The reader then leaves the trunk and moves towards the head and the big flapping ears. James has kind of settled in and explores the world around him. He does not like following the rules; and being a rehab facility there are lots of it. The story then revolves around the daily routine: cleaning job, breakfast, lecture, lunch, lecture, dinner and some other things thrown in between. You rush through the pages and nothing exciting comes up; not that anything happens in a rehab clinic otherwise. But yes there is a root canal procedure which James goes through, without any anesthetic, which kind of flaps your ears but again it is very ghastly portrayed. Then there is the ‘not getting along’ scenes with the authorities and with the inmates, the usual stuff which happens when you are a new to a confinement unit, full of not very nice people and all trying to get out. Fortunately for him, James makes more friends than enemies.

The big body of the story is about how James ridicules and shuns the clinic’s Alcohol Anonymous program called the Twelve Steps because of the programs dependence and belief in the higher power. Not sure if it’s the right kind of message he wants to send out to his kind of people, going through the same grind to get well. The daily routine of lunch and lectures continue, but there are also details pouring in about his friends from facility and their stories. James then starts to like a girl, Lily, from the women’s unit, who herself has a history of drug and prostitution, and there seems to develop a spark between them. His parents also join the clinic under a family counseling program, much against James’s wishes. He then goes into extensive flashbacks on how, as a twelve year kid, he starts his stint with drugs and alcohol, and anything and everything that can cause a high. This part is where you want your kids to close the book because there are so many graphic descriptions of these episodes that the young guns might want to give it a try. He also describes his run-ins with the law and that he is wanted in an assault case against a police officer. Even though being friendly with girls in the unit is against the rules James falls in love with Lily and starts to think of life beyond and after Hazeldon. There are other bits and pieces that happen in between but that only adds to the pages and nothing to the reader’s experience.

And then when we think things will pick up, we are shown the tail, an insignificant appendage. James has miraculously got the criminal charges against him reduced to felony and misdemeanors and just has to face three months of jail. He gets to being comfortable with his parents and goes ahead to do his jail term. In the last page of the book James describes the state of affairs of his buddies from his rehab time and how Lily commits suicide the day he gets released from jail because her grandmother passes away because of cancer.

But as a whole when you look at the elephant of this book, you feel that’s not all it is. You search around and realize that there is a lot of hue and cry in the literary circles about the authenticity of the events that James has mentioned in his book. People are debating about his criminal cases being conjured and not being as serious as been depicted. The root canal treatment, without anesthetics, is being questioned by the same very clinic where it happened. And so on and so forth. James, giving into these allegations, has agreed that a lot of it in the book are embellishments to make the story richer and to drive a point to help addicts and alcoholics. So much was the discontent around that the author has added a ‘note to the reader’, in the starting of the book, suggesting that all is not true in the book. Another grouse, mine though, is the utter lack of punctuations and quotation marks throughout the book. He might have been snorting crack during his grammar classes too, but the publishers should have had a steady head. The book even made it into Oprah Winfrey’s ‘Book Club’ and in one of her shows she described it as ‘like nothing you’ve ever read before’. Hope she fired the chap who shortlisted this one for her.

Similar to the attraction towards titles, I have a certain dislike for prefaces and prologues. I am sure if I had read the note by the author I would have stayed away from this one.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

titles attracts me too but the first thing i will do before buying is a 'quickie' of the prologue section. it really helps.

stay away from autobiographical works of drug addicts.