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Book Review: A California Childhood

By (April 28, 2013) No Comment

A California Childhoodcalifornia childhood

by James Franco

Insight Editions, 2013

 

Despite being a handsome Hollywood movie star, James Franco wants to be a writer. In addition to being a handsome Hollywood movie star, James Franco wants to be a writer. And because he’s a handsome Hollywood movie star, James Franco can be a published writer without enduring the intermediary steps that most aspiring writers need to endure before they see their work in print. He’ll never get one of those ‘this story doesn’t suit our needs at the present moment’ emails. He’ll never get a manuscript back in the mail months later with a form-letter rejection (sometimes – and this only makes it worse – with a secretly-scrawled note from an intern, “I thought it was really good!“). Editors are weak, invertebrate creatures, and there’s not one of them who isn’t nursing a hidden screenplay; they can no more resist the allure of Hollywood than a puppy can resist the allure of fresh paint. They’ll take anything Franco gives them, and they’ll grumble to themselves, “It’ll bring lots of attention to our GOOD stuff.”

Simple charity would force us to assume Franco himself doesn’t want that kind of noblesse oblige attention. After all, he didn’t need to go back to college, didn’t need to apprentice himself to some serious teachers and writers, didn’t need to make the time to shape the stories that later became his debut fiction collection, 2010’s Palo Alto. Most handsome young Hollywood stars don’t do such things. Most handsome young Hollywood stars could no more write a short story than they could write a bel canto opera. Franco did it, and there’s evidence that he worked at it, and the critical response wasn’t entirely damning. The New York Times Book Review said the collection perfectly mirrored the undulations of the adolescent mind; The Economist called the collection “startling and original”; the critic for The Wall Street Journal, who’s as prone to dudgeon as a cat in a carwash, at least allowed that Franco was a “serious writer,” albeit with an undeveloped talent. Open Letters‘ own Elspeth Prothero found some “genuine talent underneath the slurry excess of these stories.” These people can’t all be hoping for a late night drunken phone call from the Great and Powerful Oz; there’s something like a very tenuous critical consensus trying to take shape here. And that consensus seems to be saying that Palo Alto was not just some celebrity vanity project.

A California Childhood, Franco’s latest production, is a celebrity vanity project. It consists of a very brief (5-paragraph) Introduction by Franco, a Part I consisting of excerpts from his mother’s diary, childhood scribbles, gaudy high school drawings, and lots of personal photos, and a Part II, consisting of six short stories, four of which have never been collected before, two of which, “Camp” and “Yosemite,” appeared in Palo Alto, and all of which are interspersed with more personal photos, including several with Franco topless and tousled. The book is very attractively produced by Insight Editions, but the whole thing could easily have been slapped together without the participation or even awareness of its author.

franco 1The previously-uncollected stories are very much cut from the same cloth as the ones in Palo Alto, and as that fragile consensus indicated, this is not entirely a bad thing. Franco might be a young author, but he already has a shtick (and to be fair, he’s in crowded company; Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, David Foster Wallace – all these and many others had shticks firmly in place by the time they were Franco’s age): he works teenage anomie like a pro, narrating the lives of his listless little losers with a fish eye for detail, as in “Friend of the Devil”:

There had been three arrests. Stealing at Macy’s, cologne. Graffiti in the park. And a fight with a knife. He had been drunk, on a front lawn. A football player came at him. Teddy had a knife he always kept. Stuck it in the guy’s arm. In his bicep. It stuck there, and blood poured out, more blood than an arm could possibly hold. After that Teddy was on probation.

One more arrest and it was jail, they said.

But the two halves of A California Childhood don’t talk to each other – if it weren’t for all those photos of adorable children and smoldering beefcake, there’d be nothing holding the book together at all, and that betrays its marketing strategy: this is a barbaric gawk, a dust-jacketed peep show masquerading as an intimate photo album. In short, it’s just the sort of thing you’d expect from a handsome young Hollywood celebrity lost in admiration of himself.

But hope against stereotypes is a tough weed in the dirt. Franco’s Actors Anonymous comes out in the autumn, and maybe it’ll be really good.