A Million Little Pieces
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Self-reliance as a means of salvation
James’s insistence on taking responsibility for his actions is a major part of his personality. This quality remains constant throughout the book but is put to different, more constructive uses as the story progresses. It is fair to say that James is stubborn, even selfish, as the story opens. He flat-out refuses to allow anyone to help or even befriend him in the beginning stages of his stay at the clinic, which results in a very lonely existence. James seems to see this as a part of the “tough guy” act that he’s apparently been living most of his life. He refuses to abide by the Alcoholics Anonymous mantra to “Let Go and Let God.” As time goes on, this behavior transforms into a relentless sense of personal responsibility. James does not believe in letting someone else shoulder the consequences of what he’s done, so he must make a conscious effort not to use drugs based on his own will. He’s given a chance to blame his condition on both a childhood ear infection and the fact that his family may be genetically predisposed to addiction, but he is reluctant to even use those excuses. In the end, James’s self-reliance settles into a form that allows him to accomplish his goal of being sober for the rest of his life.
Addiction as hunger
Throughout the book, James wanders the halls of the clinic, thinking about how badly he needs to feed himself. This intense hunger obscures all rational thought. In his first few meals at the clinic, he eats uncontrollably, using his fingers to shove the food down his throat. As the book progresses, it’s apparent that James’s need to eat occurs mostly when the Fury (what James calls his anger) is present or in danger of appearing. As James learns to control the Fury, he no longer has to eat as frenetically as he does in the beginning of his stay at the clinic. He also learns that there are other ways of feeding the Fury and his addiction: Lilly satiates it, as does being around his friends and feeling as though he is a part of a family. Toward the end of the book, his gluttony—whether for food, anger, pain, attention, or drugs—abates. As he watches a group of men in his clinic stuffing themselves with a steak and lobster feast, he begins to realize that his intense hunger, a form of addiction, is not unique to himself but also present in other addicts at the clinic.
Beauty as inspiration
James’s first recollection of beauty is of his most recent ex-girlfriend, a girl with long blonde hair and “Arctic blue” eyes. She was a student at his college. We never hear much about her, though, except in bits and pieces, and we never even learn her name. At best, we have a very abstract picture of her beauty. She sounds like every man’s image of the perfect woman: tall and blonde. However, Lilly, who James outright proclaims is beautiful enough to make him forget what he wanted to say, is almost a polar opposite of the Girl with the Arctic Eyes. Lilly is scrawny, wears badly fitting clothing, sports scars and a cheap plastic watch on her wrist, and has black hair. Even the two girls’ eye color is nearly in opposition: Lilly’s eyes are watery blue, not a hard, icy blue. However, both are beautiful to James, and both types of beauty have their own unique hold on him.
Likewise, James is struck many times by the beauty of a winter storm, the landscape that’s just outside the clinic doors, and, at one point , his last breakfast at the clinic. In striking contrast to beauty, and its capability to assume the many forms that help James out of various slumps, is ugliness, and its opposite effect on James: seeing Lilly in the ugliness of the crack house reflects a place that James has been and doesn’t want to be in ever again. And seeing an ugly new arrival at the clinic who’s clearly an addict with an ugly attitude only reminds James of the fact that once, not long ago, James could see himself reflected in that very ugliness.
The Fury is the name James uses to refer to his anger, his addiction, and his self-destructive impulses. Throughout most of the book, the Fury rules James. It compels him to lash out or avoid others, to consume massive amounts of drugs and alcohol, and to destroy all that is good in his life. Early on in James’s stay at the clinic, the Fury is uncontrollable and nearly insatiable: he replaces his urge to consume drugs and alcohol with food, and he has a violent run-in with a fellow patient. As time goes on, James becomes more aware that he must beat the Fury, and that if he does not learn to control it, it will kill him. One way James controls it is through his relationship with Lilly. He replaces his addiction for drugs and alcohol with love for her.
When James’s parents come to the clinic to take part in the Family Program against his wishes, the Fury rises in James. But he realizes that this is more selfish anger than anything, because after their arrival, James and his parents make remarkable progress. Although his parents leave the program early and the Fury rises, it does not manifest itself in any compulsive behavior or violent action. The truly telling point, though, is at the end of the book, when James orders a pint glass of whiskey to test the Fury, to see if he’s strong enough to fight his addictive urges. Even though the power of the Fury is almost unbearably strong as he stares at and smells the whiskey, James is able to overcome it and have the bartender pour the glass down the drain.
Throughout the book, eyes are critical symbols. They are used as means by which to read people, or as true testaments of how James really sees himself. In the beginning of his stay at the clinic, James makes a concerted effort to look in the mirror and see himself. However, he can’t look himself in the eyes for the longest time. Lilly’s grandmother notices James’s eyes first and says that they are “pretty.” It’s not until after an attempt at running away from the clinic, a soul-baring visit with Lilly, and several weeks at the clinic that he’s able to finally look himself in the eyes—a major achievement.
James’s memories of the Girl with the Arctic Eyes are also built primarily around the way that their eyes met and locked on each other, “pale green against Arctic blue, locked and loaded.” She is entirely identified by her eyes—she never gets a name. In the end, this girl’s eyes reflect the depth of her emotion for him: she is unable to sustain a relationship with him, whereas Lilly, who has, by contrast, “water blue” eyes, is able to sustain a loving relationship with him. When James does his final inventory, he looks into his own pale green eyes, remembering one awful sin that he is not sure he can forgive himself for. In that moment, the pale green seems dark, dirty, and impure. When he has unburdened himself of the sin, however, he can once again look himself in the eyes and see their true color. In fact, he identifies his new, liberated, sober self as the “Pale Green.”
James is more or less homeless in this story, and he even starts out not knowing where he is or how he got there. In the first part of the book, we learn that James “lives in” North Carolina, but we see no real connection to this place. His parents live in Tokyo. They take him to a rarely used summer home in the first chapter, but it’s not referred to as home. In fact, we learn later that his parents have another home in Michigan that James has never even seen. In one of his self-inventories, he mentions having lived in Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, and Paris, but he never refers to any of these places as safe, comfortable, or full of good memories.
Not until James decides that he’s going to try to commit suicide by overdosing does he refer to any place as being comfortable and familiar. When he finally does this, he describes someplace dark and dank where he can procure drugs and then lie down to die. When James is searching for Lilly in the Minneapolis bus station, he notes that he is “at ease among . . . the drug dealers, pimps, and homeless.” However, as James nears the end of his stay, we see him using the word and the concept of home more frequently. He speaks of making a home with Lilly when they both get out of rehab. In one of the book’s more critical moments, as he’s holding Lilly at the crack house, trying to bring her back to the clinic, he refers to going back to the clinic as “going Home.” James has found a new definition for home, one that he can equate with feelings of normalcy, comfort, and support.
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