Eschewing Hollywood, Franco Writes the Real California

Here’s a recent review I wrote for the Irish Examiner which some of you might find interesting…

Jame's Franco's Palo Alto

Palo Alto

James Franco

Faber; £7.99

Review: Val Nolan

An actor who fancies himself a writer? Critical knives would surely be out in force if it were it anybody but the hard-to-dislike James Franco, 33 year old star of everything from Spiderman to Milk to the recent 127 Hours and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Moreover, Franco is a life-long student, one currently enrolled in the Ph.D programme at Yale’s Department of English. If any contemporary actor was going to turn to literary fiction, it was always going to him.

Palo Alto, his first collection of short stories, presents pieces set in and around where Franco grew up, the titular Silicon Valley capital just south of San Francisco. Intensely autobiographical, the stories all take place during what would have been the author’s own teenage years, a period in the early 1990s demarked by the Gulf War and the suicide of actor River Phoenix.

To Franco’s credit, this feels like the real California, a warped fairytale of bright red coca-cola cans and crippling suburban alienation, a city defined by the ubiquity of self-loathing and easy money. The physical and emotional detritus of drunken car crashes litter every empty street while a soundtrack of Gangster Rap plays over the posturing of rich, bored white kids.

Maintaining a sparse prose throughout, Franco allows us to experience the shallowness of these lives without the characters themselves ever acknowledging their own plight. In ‘I Want to Kill Someone’ a teenage boy buys a gun (it’s ‘like ordering anything’) and plans to murder a bully; in ‘Jack-O’, philosophy is nothing more elaborate than asking ‘Would you rather be the Pope or Pablo Escobar?’; in every story the protagonists are high or drunk and no one ever changes. It may sound bleak but it’s terrifically honest. ‘When I was young, I was really angry and shy,’ says one character. ‘I’d do stupid stuff like steal and set fires. I never got caught. Now I’m old and I feel the same way.’

The collection’s recurring characters and overlapping narratives contribute to a patchwork quilt effect, loosely connected stories of overgrown children playing at being adults, indulging in petty cruelties, casual sex, and a shopping list of whiskies pilfered from parental liquor cabinets. With the exception of ‘Chinatown’, all feel like stories that actually happened… and perhaps they are.

In ‘Lockheed’, for instance, Franco disguises real life events by telling the story from the perspective a girl, a maths prodigy awarded an internship at defence contractor Lockheed Martin. It is the same scholarship which the Mensa-level Franco himself secured in his youth and, again like Franco, the ‘Lockheed’ heroine soon discovers that a life of science is not for her.

‘All that was inside me was a bunch of toys, and TV shows, and my family,’ she says, the lost opportunities of her ex-artist supervisor dovetailing with those of the teenagers around her, kids who drink and fight their lives away in a microcosm of America’s racial tensions. Indeed, the neighbouring city of East Palo Alto – populated at the time mostly by poor African-American and Pacific Islander families – is a constant reminder of the inequalities underpinning the American dream.

While the alcoholism and promiscuity of Franco’s teens won’t shock any reader, the matter-of-factness by which it is all presented might. ‘This was the way the night had cashed in,’ we are told. ‘Choices had been made and things happened, and here we were. It was sad and funny. My life was made of this. Stuff like this.’ A terrific debut.

This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner on October 15th 2011 (though for some reason it doesn’t seem to have been archived on their site; these things happen, I guess).

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