Palo Alto

What can’t James Franco do?  He’s a brilliant actor, he does performance art, he does regular art, he’s taking like seven different graduate programs in New York, he was on a freaking soap opera as part of some crazy scheme he has about someone being on a soap opera…. and he’s written a collection of short stories.

I found it interesting to see the authors (“teachers”) he acknowledges in the back of the book.  His current professor-friends like Michael Cunningham and Gary Shtyengart are mentioned… but Franco doesn’t really write like either of them.  He doesn’t write like any of those “teachers” – though, granted, I haven’t read a lot of those teachers.  I saw strains of Cunningham in some of the second half (Palo Alto II) but – as a review on the back notes – Bret Easton Ellis might be the best comparison (albeit an incomplete one).  To say this book reminded me strongly of The Informers is commentary both complementary and critical.

The southern California teens are the immediate and most apt similarity.  They’re a bit younger than Ellis’ protagonists, but they’re kids who probably grew up reading Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction and it has affected them (as it does).  They’re drinking, fucking, hating, feeling vacant… because that’s what, it seems, they’re meant to do.  The numbness, the boredom, the lack of any real feeling in most of these characters is what screams Ellis.  It’s also what sort of kills the collection a bit.  Franco’s real voice doesn’t seem to come out clear until nearly the end of the book, at which point the overwhelming numbness of the first 2/3s or so… well, it deadens the potential impact.

Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a really promising collection of stories from an incredibly (like, seriously ridiculously) overwhelmingly talented guy.  The longer pieces – “Chinatown” and “April” especially but even “American History” – show some interesting quirks and there’s a couple of simplistically beautiful passages… but the whole thing doesn’t capture that possibility of greatness or even goodness.

Rating: 3 out of 5.  There’s nothing wrong, per se, with this collection.  They are simplistic and sometimes-really-good stories written in that Ellis-ian vein… but one expects more when it’s James Franco.  I never would’ve picked up this collection if it wasn’t for his name on the title page – and I’m not sure I can recommend it as anything other than a curiosity.  That said, it is a somewhat engaging curiosity and as a result, it falls squarely in the middle of things.

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