A Million Little Pieces – James Fey
This had been on my reading list for a while. I must have seen or heard a review of it somewhere. My awareness of the book was post the Oprah fall out, whereby the book had been sold as a memoir and Oprah championed it; then inaccuracies or fictional elements came to light and Oprah felt duped. So perhaps it was discussion around this idea of a fictional memoir that intrigued me. Plus I liked the title and cover of this book and Fey’s next one Bright Shiny Morning. So, enough incentive to give it a go.
But the book was really boring and I found it a slog to get to the end. The characters were trite and one dimensional the language uninspiring. It is one of the many books that follows the structure that, according to my mum – an ex-primary school teacher – is typical of how children start to write stories…This happened and then this happened and then this happened. Except that in this book nothing really happens. A man goes into drug rehabilitation, he doesn’t want to do the 12 step programme and wants to kick his habit his own way. He succeeds for his time in the unit and the book ends with his release. Along the way he also has a love interest, a family who love him but that he resents and a gangster friend/mentor.
So why am I bothering to write about this book? Well, I am interested in how it resonates with a contemporary culture of self-help typified by something like Oprah. It is a kind of superficial redemptive narrative where we follow a central narrator and his struggle for survival. The end note tells us he got through things – “James has never relapsed” – whilst most of the other characters fell off the wagon or died (although by the end when they are name checked I can’t remember who most of them are). At a stretch I might concede that the deadpan nature of the writing and lack of emotional depth to the book is meant to be some kind of comment on contemporary culture. A purposeful blankness. But it doesn’t work because the narrative arc is so tied up with the idea of redemption, where not everybody makes it but we do. I did find it interesting how, as a reader, I still invested in the typical narrative even with such meagre prompts. I wanted James to meet up with his girlfriend, I wanted him to get through the drug programme, I wanted him to resist a drink, I wanted him to somehow magically get out of his pending jail sentence. Even whilst these things irritated me and on a more critical level I didn’t want them to happen, there was still a kind of pull for this satisfying/dissatisfying story. I guess that’s the power of archetypal narratives and first person narrators!
The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka
This was really interesting to read after my previous moan about James Fey’s first person narrator. The whole book is written as “we” and “us”. It tells the story of Japanese women who traveled to America in the early 1900s as brides, to marry Japanese men who had preceded them. The book follows the settlers through their arrival, consummating their relationships, finding work, having children up until the second world war when they are sent to prisoner of war camps.
There is a good summary and review here, also including some of the prose:
The beauty of the book is how it depicts so many lives, mostly involving struggle, but with both happy and sad moments and with many different shapes, textures and attitudes. It gives a sense of individual lives being part of a bigger picture and of how people do their best to make a life in particular social circumstances. I don’t think that I’ve ever red a book written in this voice before.
Oranges are not the only fruit – Jeanette Winterson
Last year Why be happy when you could be normal? went on my reading list. Then I thought, perhaps I should read Oranges are not the only fruit first….just because it was written first I suppose and it seems like the later book is a revisiting or a return to the same themes.
Oranges are not the only fruit is a good example of a book that is fictional and, somewhat autobiographical. Unlike Oprah, we don’t in fact care whether it is true to a particular life or not. I will however be interested to see what the relationship of her new more overtly autobiographical book is to the novel. Will recount some of the same stores? Will it be written in a similar style?
I have found an interesting online article about Oranges are not the only fruit, the novel and the TV series. It suggests that the TV series was a realist text where the book was not. I have only seen fragments of the TV series, when I was too young to be interested in it but this is intriguing be a bit in relation to James Fey’s book. Like several books I have read recently Fey’s novel almost seems to be written with this more filmic or TV type narrative structure in mind.
An extract from the article:
“In this paper we argue that realist strategies facilitated the success of the television version of a lesbian coming-of-age novel. Cultural production aiming to challenge the prejudices of “commonsense” has everything to gain from working with popular cultural forms. The mechanisms of closure characteristic of popular narrative can facilitate the effective communication of radical ideas.”
See here for the whole thing: http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC39folder/OrangesNotOnlyFruit.html