With apologies to Alex Ross, whom I just called stupid—and I really do admire his writing, by the way, especially his New Yorker profile of Björk, which came out in the summer of 2004, ahead of the release of Medúlla, which is Björk’s almost-totally-vocals album and by far her most interesting effort . . . by far? . . . really? . . . —but this is just stupid.
By this I mean this, a presumably good-faith effort at participating in the Great Truth & Memoir Debate of Ought Six (for the last time, I’ll confess to having been verbomassive on the subject here), wherein Ross connects James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces to Solomon Volkov’s Testimony. The latter purports to be an as-told-to memoir by the great Soviet composer Dmitri Dmitrievitch Shostakovich (check out Shostakovich [pictured] via Vollmann via Scott, or else just find a copy of his Fifth Symphony and listen to the timpani-happy, life-affirming finale over & over again . . . “The rejoicing is forced,” Shostakovich “wrote” in his “memoir,” “created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing’ . . .”) but has been accused, instead, of being a lie. So Ross says this:
In the case of Volkov, serious questions were raised from the start about the authenticity of the manuscript; in 2004, Laurel Fay presented what I regard as unambiguous evidence that Volkov indulged in deliberate fakery. Not only was he disingenuous in his claims to readers, but, it seems clear, he put one over on Shostakovich himself. Yet a lot of people responded to Fay's charges with some version of the defense that James Frey presented on the Larry King show—that the book still contained an “essential truth” or “emotional truth” about the life of a Soviet artist. In other words, you’re allowed to fudge the facts in order to dramatize a significant message.
Why equate the “memoir” of one of the 20th century’s musical giants with the “memoir” of an addict and, even worse, a nobody? Truth can be historical (Shostakovich); it can be literary (Frey?); and it can be therapeutic (Oprah!). But they’re not the same, the consequences are not nearly the same, and while I might be able to subscribe to parts of this—
For me, though, falsifications on this scale indicate that there is something significantly wrong with the message itself—that it tells a deeper lie about life in a totalitarian state, or, for that matter, life in the grip of addiction. The truth is elsewhere. Maybe not far away, but elsewhere.
—in no way does the Testimony Tempest (let alone the Frey Kerfuffle) allow Ross to get away with this—
As several essayists have observed in recent days, the Frey case exemplifies a diseased attitude toward truth in American society, which is visible all across the cultural spectrum and goes straight to the top. Bush's argument for a war in Iraq discarded literal truth in favor of essential truth. There's another name for essential truth: myth. Totalitarianism depends upon it.
—because that’s just stupid. By which I mean, OK, blame Frey for Iraq . . . that’s fine. But myth? No way, Alex. You’re mixing things up. (I’m repeating myself, by the way.) Myth need not, myth does not = lies. And anyway—Stalin, Bush, and . . . James Frey?
It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “Your business is being, you know, just dumb.”