Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Audiobook review: A Million Little Pieces by James Frey

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey is the author's vivid story of his fight against drug and alcohol addiction.

It begins with him waking up on a plane, disoriented, beat up, broke, unsure of where he's been or where he's going. His parents collect him and take him to a treatment facility, where he veers between wanting to turn his life around and wanting to surrender to his self-destructive habits – habits that, at the age of 23, led him to the verge of death from 10 years of severe alcoholism and 3 years of a crack addiction, among other drugs. When asked how much of each he consumes each day, he responds flatly: “As much as I can."

Frey doesn't try to represent the voice of all those who battle their addictions. In fact, he is clear to voice his individuality. His stint in rehab is at a facility that boasts the highest success rate of any in the world – a staggeringly low 17%. Unimpressed, he resists the disease model of addiction and the prescribed 12-step formula (“it's the only way" they tell him over and over again). He gains insight into himself and what he calls "the fury" through the support of some of his fellow patients and a few rules-bending staff, but he is determined to accept complete responsibility for his actions rather than admitting his powerlessness over addiction.

While it runs counter to accepted wisdom on addiction and recovery, Frey's philosophy is a truth that resonates for him, and he makes it resonate for his audience, belying the cookie cutter approach to treatment the staff try to force on him.

Our brief but vivid glimpses of his fellow patients include Lily, the fragile former prostitute he falls in love with, breaking a cardinal rule in a facility that doesn't allow conversation between patients of opposite sexes. Other friends are Leonard the sympathetic mobster, who ends up being his most loyal protector, Miles the clarinet playing judge, and staff members Hank and Joanne, who manage to keep Frey from being kicked out.

Frey's visceral narrative describes events in minute detail, from undergoing dental surgery without anaesthetic, to therapy sessions, to small kindnesses and pettinesses directed at him. He excels in beautiful descriptions of ugly pain, physical and psychological.

As read by Oliver Wyman, the audiobook of A Million Little Pieces is a gripping, emotionally raw rendition of Frey's experiences and thoughts. Using subtle but definite differentiation between voices, Wyman transforms Frey's distinctively repetitive, staccato but lyrical style into a rhythmic and hypnotic reading.

A Million Little Pieces was the first selection of the newly relaunched Oprah's Book Club. The audio edition won the AudioFile Earphones Award and Publishers Weekly Listen Up Award. The audiobook by HighBridge Audio is (sadly) abridged on eight compact discs, or six cassettes, for a total of 10 hours.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)