The ongoing discussion of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces reminds me irresistibly of the controversy over Solomon Volkov's book Testimony, which purported to be the memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. 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. 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. 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.