Friday, December 10, 2010
Get off my lawn! But stay for tea, James Franco!
Oh, James Franco, it's great when you just sit there and look pretty. In the meantime, I'll laugh at this imaginary phone interview with you and add to the mixed reviews of your book. (Image credit: Jezebel)
James Franco's debut anthology of short stories, Palo Alto, fell short of the high expectations I had set for this multi-faceted, well-read, and talented actor.
Palo Alto is a collection of interconnected stories of bored, privileged, suburban teenage punks who get into all sorts of trouble and shenanigans because they're bored, privileged teenagers in the suburbs in the early-to-mid-90s. Parties, drinking, drugs, sex, violence. *yawn* So this is what my high school classmates did when I was at home doing my homework, right? Yeah, lovely. That might not be so bad, except that each story has a mere hint of a plot arc with no resolution. The static characters don't develop over the course of these story arcs to nowhere. For example, Franco wraps up the three-part story "Chinatown" with the line, "When we got older, I did things with my life and she did things with her life." Really, James Franco? Really?
Potential for thematic significance
Only a couple of stories contain just a pinch of thematic significance. The rarely present adults in the stories encourage the kids' bad behavior. In "Killing Animals," for example, the narrator reminisces about his younger days of wielding a slingshot and terrorizing the neighborhood fauna. The narrator gets nervous when his cat, Toby, comes within the sights of his friend's slingshot. The narrator juxtaposes this with a memory of animal control services shooting a mountain lion that wanders towards the neighborhood. In a rare moment of dramatic irony, the narrator claims the moral high ground that he has never actually killed any animals, although his near-misses damage public and private property. Furthermore, there are a couple less subtle instances of pedophile adults. The thematically significant moments don't happen often, but I see the potential for skillful use of dramatic irony with naive persona narrators.
Non-distinct narrative voices
James Franco's first-person narrators all have the same voice. They all speak with short sentences that simply list events and facts, with little reflection or emotional input. Between stories, there's no way to tell who is speaking until some other character addresses the narrator in dialogue. The three-part story "April" changes narrators, and I didn't even realize that until two to three pages into the third part. Have you heard teenagers speak? When they recount stories to each other, there's more melodrama and variety. I can say that because I, too, was a suburban teenager in the Bay Area the early-to-mid-90s.
Lack of authenticity
Besides the lack of plot, lack of theme, and lack of developed characters, the book suffers from the lack of authenticity in the narrators' homogenous voices. NO ONE around here says "the 101 freeway" or "the 280 freeway." We say "one-oh-one" and "two-eighty" as nouns with no definite article preceding them. Duh, James Franco. And there is not a single instance of the word "hella"! How does that happen? We hella say "hella" around here. That's hella inauthentic. James Franco, I hereby revoke your NorCal Card.
In summary, this isn't all that good, which is disappointing because James Franco is hot and cute and smart and all. This might be one to queue up at the library, so you don't shell out any money, of course. I don't think Palo Alto deserves the glowing praise splattered all over the back cover. However, I think James Franco has the potential to write much richer stories. After all, he can't get much worse, right?
And, um, if you're reading this, James Franco, naturally, I'd be thrilled to discuss all of this with you over coffee/tea/beer/wine/whiskey. You know, because I'm literary and mathy and artsy, too. Reinstating the NorCal Card will not be easy, after all. And my husband has already decided that you'd play him in a movie of his life, so it would be neat/creepy if you had a chance to get his character down.