Michael Amherst

More than just a pretty boy

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There seems to be something of a fashion at the moment in panning James Franco’s literary debut, Palo Alto. If you are looking for motives they are not hard to find: Franco is nauseatingly prolific – not only did he host this year’s Oscar ceremony but he was also nominated for his performance in 127 Hours; he recently took four Masters programmes and is now doing a PhD at Yale; he’s a keen artist and has presented his work at the Clocktower Gallery in New York. Oh, and he’s all right to look at too. Gucci agree, having made him the face of their men’s fragrance. So no, there’s no shortage of motive in dismissing his short story collection as the unoriginal work of a vain Hollywood pretty boy. Yet to do so would be a mistake.

Franco’s collection is made up of a series of interlinked narratives of pared down prose, told by a series of apathetic and despondent teens. Think Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero without the wealth and therefore without the glamour. The Guardian’s Catherine Taylor says they have all ‘the ennui – if none of the elan’ of the eighties novel, yet this is to miss the point. Many writers owe a debt to Ellis’s literary debut but the genre has been taken further since then and for many writers and many of their subjects the wealth and excess of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills are both unrealistic and unobtainable. In depicting adolescent sex, violence and deprivation Franco might not be doing anything new – Beth Nugent’s superb collection City of Boys does a better job – but he still does it well.

The London Review of Books says of Franco that ‘for all his obvious playfulness, [he] is, at bottom, achingly sincere’ as though this were somehow a bad thing. Yet in a world in which Bret Easton Ellis has written the same novel six times to the point at which Imperial Bedrooms was merely ridiculous and wasteful, Franco’s sincerity is oddly refreshing. While Ellis’s characters are amoral and ethically bereft, Franco’s have a warped moral code that they stick to in spite of its glaring inconsistencies. Nearly all of the characters are looking for a constant and none is more important than the loyalty of friends. Yet each of them is prey to the shifting alliances and the fickle friendships of those with a developing sense of themselves. Similarly racism is stigmatised throughout, most obviously in ‘American History’ where a boy is beaten up for merely playing devil’s advocate in a class discussion, and yet all of the characters define themselves and one another in terms of race and usually with inherently racist stereotypes.

Another such glaring inconsistency is the strength of homosocial desire and language in a strongly homophobic society. Here Franco’s own critical interest in gender seeps through: his PhD is reportedly on the subject. Guys repeatedly describe other guys as handsome or comment on the fact that one of them has ‘a big dick’ or is circumcised. The closest relationships throughout are between boys – some even daring to question why heterosexuality should be seen as better, ‘“Why does going inside make you better? Aren’t you, like, on her turf inside her?”’ On some occasions it feels like Franco’s putting the casual post-seminar discussions into the mouths of his characters, like above, but on other occasions it feels wonderfully authentic. In the three part ‘April’, one of the strongest aspects of the collection, two characters end up discussing their favourite children’s books only for the discussion to slide into petty name calling in which all children’s characters are ‘outed’ in a manner that is genuinely interesting and amusing: ‘“Cat in the Hat?” I said. “Gay. The Grinch? Gay. Hungry Caterpillar? He turns into a butterfly, gay!”

There are moments of verbosity, as though the author has called on Word’s thesaurus, coupled with unnecessary literary references – various characters dropping in Crime and Punishment, Aristotle or Stephen Dedalus: they can’t all be expected to have taken four Masters courses and this does just feel like literary posturing. Similarly there are dead phrases, often ending a piece, which may sound wonderfully bleak at the time but in truth are merely vacuous: ‘I did things in my life and she did things in her life.’ Yet this is still a penetrating and felt collection in which all the characters want more and despair that things aren’t better. When Teddy looks after the elderly as part of his community service we sense a parallel between him and those he’s looking after: forgotten, left to find purpose in a seemingly futile existence, desperate for more than the world in which they appear trapped has to offer.

Franco doesn’t have the luxury of being a literary unknown who can be reviewed quietly by one of his agent’s or editor’s stablemates; he can’t be surreptitiously reviewed by one of his old MFA teachers – the volume is dedicated to them and they’re first in his acknowledgements; were Gus van Sandt or another Hollywood director or star to comment on them everyone would see the join. No, James Franco must be reviewed as though this were his third volume and the early generosity of reviewers and fellow writers spent. Obviously he may well not have been published were he not James Franco. Certainly given the UK market’s reservations about short story collections it is almost unthinkable that a first time collection would have been published in this country. But then name recognition is nothing new. Arguably Imperial Bedrooms and Solar would not have seen the light of day, at least in their current guises, were their authors not Bret Easton Ellis and Ian McEwan respectively. And Franco can’t call upon decades of fawning reviewers to blunt the criticism either. Yet, Palo Alto is an interesting and often accomplished debut. Its sincerity is a strength and suggests he has more to say as opposed to getting stuck down a literary dead end, dried up in self-parody. If he does write more it’s likely to be worth reading. Damn him.

Michael Amherst is an author. He has written essays and short stories for a variety of publications and his debut novel is due to published. More information can be found at his website, www.michaelamherst.com.