Most people who write fiction have day jobs mainly because writing fiction tends to pay poorly and sporadically. But James Franco, who has written a collection of short stories entitled “Palo Alto” (Scribners) is a movie star. So when he landed one of those stories in Esquire this spring, it was part of a package that included a dapper cover-shot. Obviously, this doesn’t happen to most newbie fiction writers, or even award-winning fiction writers unless you are Jonathan Franzen. And perhaps Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult can stop being so mad at Franzen and start being mad at Franco — “Palo Alto” will no doubt get more ink than most first-time short-story collections, including, you know, this review. It isn’t Franco’s fault, of course — just because he’s a handsome young actor doesn’t mean he can’t write a book if he wants to
FOR THE RECORD:
“Palo Alto”: A review in the Oct. 17 Arts & Books section of James Franco’s book of stories “Palo Alto” referred to Franco’s appearing on the cover of the April issue of Esquire magazine. Tina Fey appeared on that cover; Franco appears on the September cover. —
And that book will no doubt be viewed by many in a different way than if it had been written by a dentist.. Which is to say, some may buy it out of fan-based curiosity while others may refuse out of the bitter assumption that it would not have been published if Franco had not co-starred in all those " Spiderman” movies.
None of which has anything to do with the quality of the actual stories of “Palo Alto,” which read, separately and together, like precisely what they are: the work of an ambitious young man who clearly loves to read, who has a good eye for detain but who has spent way too much time on style and virtually none on substance.
If that sounds like it’s coming from a disappointed and possibly s mummified AP English teacher, well, after finishing “Palo Alto’ one feels the urge to not so much review it as grade it. And not highly.
The stories of “Palo Alto” are all told in first-person by an inter-connected group of teenagers who share a zip code, a more than slightly self-congratulatory sense of ennui, and an identical, and increasingly trying, monotone.
“I took another puff on the cigarette. It was a Camel. Some of the Mexicans called to me. They were carrying their soccer bags and water bottles to the end of the field. They were waving. I waved.”
“We were playing on the island in the kitchen. I’m very good at quarters. They were very bad, and we killed them. After a while they all looked sick.”
“All the cops stood around me in their tight blue uniforms and the sky was golden abouve them. First RFK got my name and looked at my license. Then I had to hold my hand out and touch my nose while my neighbors watched. Another police cruiser slowed until it was in front of my driveway.”
Three separate stories, three separate narrators, one of them a female and yet they all sound the same. Monotone can be an effective literary device, but it requires a deftness, a judiciousness and, if the gods are smiling, some gradation of humor to pull off at great length. Without such things it becomes simply… monotonous.
For a reader, trying to keep track of the various Teddys and Aprils, the Alices and Barrys whose lives criss-cross in a variety of ways in “Palo Alto” this is an insurmountable problem. Franco seems to grasp the literal meaning of “God is in the details"—virtually every character has his or her gene pool racially dissected and locations are rendered with GPS precision—but not the spirit. None of the characters come to life because none of them are allowed to be more than a sum of what they see and do.
Which appears to be Franco’s point—that life has somehow crushed the essence out of these children. He doesn’t seem interested in what particular bit of life has done the crushing. No helicopter parents here, no parents or teachers of any kind, really. Neither are there cellphones or even very many video games; these kids don’t even watch much TV. Instead Franco is content to watch them watch themselves doing things, though he does throw in an occasional acknowledgment of family life--"My mother was holding half a green pepper. She looked so sad. The water ran in the sink"—for those of us imagining packs of orphans roaming the streets of Palo Alto.
Some of what they do is quite disturbing. A girl sees the boy she was just flirting with at a party murdered; another is seduced, at 14, by her soccer coach. One young man, driving drunk, hits and kills a pedestrian, another pimps his girlfriend and rapes her with a variety of vegetables. If there are occasional flashes of fear or vague regret they are quickly stifled by vodka, obscenity and narrative numbness. The young pimp is arrested but not charged. “After that I left Pam alone. I’d see her in the halls but she was someone different. It was like I didn’t know her.
When we got older, she did things in her life and I did things in my life.”
(It was at this moment the I was reminded of the great Dorothy Parker line: This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly, but to be thrown with great force.
Clearly, Franco is trying to show us that young people often feel alienated and uncomfortable with themselves, often fear their own raw impulses and try to cover up that fear with sex and booze and a sullen refusal to acknowledge real emotions.
But having read “Catcher in the Rye” or the Beats, Margaret Atwood or Sylvia Plath or S.E. Hinton just as he so clearly has, we knew that already.
McNamara is the Times Television Critic. Her most recent novel is “The Starlet.”