By James Franco
I believe it was Sir Walter Ralegh, world-explorer and inventor of the bicycle, who wrote: “He takes the account of the rich, and proves him a beggar, a naked beggar, which hath interest in nothing but in the gravel that fills his mouth. He holds a glass before the eyes of the most beautiful, and makes them see therein their deformity and rotteness, and they acknowledge it.”
Now Sir Walter was talking about death, but he might just as well have been talking about book reviewers, and this has me worried. I just finished James Franco’s debut collection of short stories, Palo Alto, and I can’t help but wonder if he’s got an extra helping of gourmet gravel on the way.
Everybody knows that book reviewers are all old and homely. James Franco is young and almost embarrassingly hot. Book reviewers are social misfits with no friends and zero sex life. James Franco has fifty registered fan clubs, dates actresses and models, and kissed Sean Penn. Book reviewers are shopworn and poor. James Franco wears Prada and makes $4 million per movie. Book reviewers are obscure little nobodies. James Franco is going to be nominated for an Oscar this year – and he might even win it.
And worst of all, from the gravel-eating perspective, it’s a well-known fact that book reviewers are all failed, frustrated novelists whose lazy, self-absorbed manuscripts got dinged back from the publisher so fast they bounced. Those book reviewers – and about a million other people-with-manuscripts out there – have convinced themselves that the publishing world has degenerated into a celebrity-worshiping vacant-brained popularity contest. And James Franco got a book of short stories published.
James Franco got a book of short stories published. In a very real sense, that’s not only all a review of Palo Alto has to say but all it can say. What bitterness isn’t buttressed by that single sentence? What cynicism does it not succor? What jeremiad does it not justify? James Franco, a very young, very pretty Hollywood star, got his debut short story collection published by venerable Scribners, the publishers of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. The book has long, thoughtful blurbs from Susan Minot, Amy Hempel, and Gary Shteyngart. It might not just be book reviewers who want to puke.
I worry that the reviews will not be kind. It’s possible I worry needlessly – after all, book reviewers are also nerdy, needy little hangers-on; they may think praising Franco’s book is kinda like hanging with him. In that case, their reviews will be full of earnest-young-artist claptrap. They’ll mention his art show installations, his self-mocking turn on Days of Our Lives, his MFAs from Brooklyn College and Columbia, and then they’ll pull on their boots and try to find some cultural resonances in poor little Palo Alto.
Are those cultural references there? Nope. Palo Alto is fifteen stories long, 196 pages and a hi-larious author photo in which our young start looks like he’s trying to read a traffic sign without his contacts. The book has all the substance of a jet contrail. There’s no resonance here. Depth is avoided like a pan-handler.
But you know what? Also like a jet contrail, Palo Alto is bright against the morning sky, and it has linear direction – it’s made of linear direction, it couldn’t deploy if a loft in Dumbo depended on it. Franco opens the book with a quote from Proust. The whole rest of it is Dennis Cooper in a lazy mood.
All the stories in Palo Alto are basically the same – at none of his various MFA programs was our young author told to explore, say, the Vietnam War (or even the Franco Prussian War, titter) – and good for him, and good for his teachers not to encourage him to try to be Proust. You know some of them must have been tempted to do that, and he was wise not to listen. I don’t know if Franco plans to pursue writing, but here in 2010 his talent is a slender, trembling reed – anything more than a limited repertoire would break it like an afterthought.
Palo Alto has an extremely limited repertoire. All the stories are told in the first person by young narrators – middle school, high school, no older. An intriguing number are narrated from a girl’s point of view, but it’s only intriguing – Franco’s prose doesn’t distinguish between boy and girl voices in any meaningful way.
More accurately, Franco’s fictional world doesn’t distinguish much between them. His boys and girls alike (we follow pretty much the same crew – Howard, Teddy, April, Ivan, A. J. – from story to story) are equally dreary, aimless, self-destructive, and fragilely hopeful. Everybody smokes and drinks and gets high, and they do it endlessly, and they talk about it endlessly. Franco has set his stories in the same city as one of the greatest universities in the world, but his kids are wasted losers, a lost generation going nowhere (one story ends “When we got older, I did things in my life and she did things in her life”).
These kids are completely undirected, and that gets wearying to read in story after story. “We were too old for the camp,” the easily-distracted narrator of “Camp” tells us, shortly before he and his loser friends get themselves kicked out of summer camp. Each paragraph of the story is a separate vignette, and just when you think, “Gee, this is kind of easy to write, even for a movie star,” you get to the final vignette, where the narrator and his friends are on a bus headed back home in the middle of the night (the bus is full of “real” people, we’re told, a perfect little word when it appears). The bus is at a station, and the narrator is wandering around:
We went around to the side of the depot where the drivers had their lounge. Through the small window in the door we could see them. They were all black guys, sitting around in there laughing and drinking coffee out of blue and white Styrofoam cups. They looked like they were having such a good time.
That’s a great little snapshot. You can like a moment like that without being ashamed of yourself. Franco wrote that – and all the other, similar moments like it in Palo Alto – and he should be a little proud that he did.
Same thing with a moment from “Killing Animals,” about a group of kids who develop a liking for high-powered BB guns:
After Alice’s we wanted more so we shot some other houses. We shot Jerry’s house because he had ditched me as a friend, and Eli Fox’s house because he was an annoying kid Howard knew from Hebrew school, and Anna Zimmerman’s house because she had a big crush on me and had no chin.
Eleven syllables, eleven words in that closing line. Dat-dat-dat, and a punch line. That takes re-writing to do, whether you know Kirsten Dunst or not.
At one point in the story “Tar Baby” (one of the book’s more surreal stories, and one of its best), Teddy thinks:
I was warm and drunk. Inside, I felt things flow through me and I thought about cartoon rabbits and about William Faulkner and how he drank all the time. I thought that someday I would be him.
You read something like that, and you wonder: what is the deal with James Franco’s short story collection Palo Alto? The whole time I was reading it, I kept almost irritatedly wondering: is this just a vanity exercise? Some kind of personal dare? A celebrity project over-encouraged by published writers who should know better? Except Franco also has a blurb by Ron Carlson, who’s really good and only blurbs good books! And there’s some genuine talent underneath the slurry excess of these stories, but so what? You could find comparable amounts of that kind of talent in any publisher’s slush pile. Franco’s looks and star status have catapulted him to the end of a publishing process most first-time writers aren’t lucky enough even to begin. Does he even care? Will he even bother to do anything with that talent, or will he be off to four different projects – “green” architecture, maybe – in a week, leaving this one slim volume behind as an oddity, like the Ethel Merman disco album?
There are almost no speaking parts for adults in Palo Alto, and the few it has don’t go to princes: for instance, there’s a forty-year-old soccer coach who sleeps with his 14-year-old star player (the story’s narrated by her, and she’s about as moved by the affair as she would be stepping over a mud puddle; a precocious ennui takes the place of passion in all these stories). But in the heartbreaking story “Wasting,” when the clueless narrator’s art teacher seems to speak with authority, we listen:
“Technical skill is never enough. He [Picasso] needed to find his voice. We all have a voice or a style, but it takes practice, practice to find it. The technical stuff needs to become second nature.”
Of course this sensible advice is lost on our narrator, who screws up every good deal and second chance he’s handed, until you just want to shake him. But you do want to shake him – you don’t just want to stop reading about him, and that means James Franco has mastered at least some of the technical stuff. I don’t know if he’s found his voice in Palo Alto, but he’s definitely found a voice – something as bleak and minimal as a John Cage sonata. I wonder what it cost him to find that voice, and what it means to him. A debut collection of short stories doesn’t have to explain that or even hint at it, but this collection is by a handsome young movie star, so I wonder.
I believe it was Walter Ralegh’s friend John Ruskin who said, “… all these books of the hour, multiplying among us as education becomes more general, are a peculiar characteristic and possession of the present age: we ought to be entirely thankful for them, and entirely ashamed of ourselves if we make no good use of them. But we make the worst possible use, if we allow them to usurp the place of true books…”
So what will it be for James Franco? The stones of Venice, or stoned at Venice Beach? True books, or a mouthful of gravel? Myself, I couldn’t even guess. Let’s see what the book reviewers say.
Elspeth Prothero is a graduate student living in New York. She’s never done anything illicit with James Franco, but she knows somebody who knows somebody who has.