James Franco’s Literary Debut Proves Shallow, Adolescent

'Palo Alto' by James Franco (Scribner)

“Some people when they were young shot deer, and foxes. Faulkner shot a bear, Hemingway shot lions and a lot of things,” writes James E. Franco in his new collection of short stories on teenage vice entitled “Palo Alto.” “We shot animals, and people. But they were all small animals, and we didn’t kill anyone.” This type of grasping rationalization is typical of the narrator of “Killing Animals,” a high school student with a penchant for BB guns. He stumbles through episodes of violence and petty crime—most of which involve a BB gun—with numb defeatism. He typecasts his companions and racially brands his victims. He grasps at comparisons with literary greats to leech a modicum of meaningful self-expression from their fame. This portrait of the lost teenager would be a stark and tragic one—that is, if Franco himself managed to avoid the same simplistic and unreflective mistakes.

The compilation is Franco’s first literary attempt in an artistic career otherwise dominated by his work on screen. The actor is best known for his role as Harry Osborn in the “Spider-Man” series and his recent portrayal of poet Allen Ginsberg in the 2010 movie adaptation of “Howl.” The 11 short stories in “Palo Alto” follow a group of dissolute teenagers in the namesake Silicon Valley community, through fatal drunk driving accidents, illicit relations, and dreams of murder. For Franco, though, such torrents of physical, emotional, and sexual trauma are not symbols of vicious prejudice and selfishness; they appear to him as tragic symptoms of bleak nihilism, a sense of psychic homelessness in the complacency of suburbia.

The theme, however, is a tired one, and Franco does not manage to treat it with any originality. His formulaic plotlines almost universally involve outbursts of testosterone and pangs of regret; his characters suffer from a lack of motivation and differentiation; and his direct, terse style seems more empty than poignant. Franco’s failure to extract meaning from the chaos he depicts seems not so much a natural reaction to the teenage condition, but rather a trivial consequence of the poverty of his insight.

One of the more provocative of the “Palo Alto” pieces, entitled “Chinatown in Three Parts,” chronicles the decline of a young half-Vietnamese woman called Pam into a state of quasi-prostitution. In the space of one day, the ninth-grade narrator introduces himself to the “pretty ugly” Pam, invites her back to a friend’s house to smoke pot, and seduces her into losing her virginity by claiming, “‘I heard that Chinese people have sideways vaginas.’” Before long, and with little reflection, the narrator finds himself and his friends taking turns receiving blow jobs from the girl in an abandoned park. He sodomizes Pam with root vegetables during an orgy and offers her to the bartender of an Italian restaurant for a free meal.

Throughout each of the three sections of the story, Pam remains relatively quiet. The narrator himself presents the story as fact, with little reflection other than the occasional observation that “she got really messy.” Instead of adding to the power of the piece, though, such extreme detachment deprives the narrator—and Pam—of credible motivation. The characterizations become thin, and the reader’s investment wanes; by the time the narrator finishes, our indifference rivals his own.

It could be argued, of course, that such unreflective detachment is entirely Franco’s intention. Perhaps we should count this chronic numbness among the other, more obvious vices of the teenagers depicted. After all, the blunt, staccato tones of “Chinatown” resonate through most of the stories; to Franco, it seems almost universal. But it is precisely the refrain of this tone that weakens it; with little variation in style, Franco’s narrators bleed into one another until they are almost indistinguishable. It becomes hard to remember, at any one given point, whose perspective is currently being voiced—and thus difficult to empathize with the particularities of their problems.

One particular flaw that each of Franco’s narrators shares is a tendency for reductive description that borders on the offensive. “I’m really good in math class,” one Marissa asserts, “but I don’t announce it because I’m a girl.” “Farmers, Italians, and sociopaths kill cats,” another claims. By way of introducing the African-American population at his school, yet another says, “They got bad grades and wore parkas.” In a singular case, a blanket statement might contribute constructively to a narrator’s characterization. In such volume, however, they seem to belong more to the author than to any given character. As such, they retain only shock value.

Franco falls prey to the same kind of over-simplification in writing his characters. Their concerns are stereotypical, their quandaries textbook. Insecurity, jealousy, needless aggression, and thrill seeking are recurrent themes; perhaps unsurprisingly, teenagers wind up endangering themselves and others while under the influence of various mind-altering substances. One inebriated teen, speeding to catch his girlfriend in the clutches of a rival, kills a lonely librarian in the road; another is killed in a drunken fight over an insult. In one representative moment, a teenager bemoans his station in life: “I was weak,” he claims, “and stupid, and wimpy, and I had no opinions, and I was a bad talker, and I didn’t know how to make friends, and I had big ears, and an ugly nose, and my hair was ’fro-y, and my dick, and my stomach, and my mind were all bad.”

At certain points, however, Franco appears to turn such simplifications to his own comic advantage. “I thought I had no hair because I masturbated so much,” one narrator admits. “Picasso was a master at age sixteen and I was a perfect shit,” another observes. Still, in the context of these dark musings on the teenage condition, it is worth wondering whether these moments are properly intended as satire. At best, they are gems among the debris, moments of inspiration in an otherwise confused and shallow treatment of likewise confused and shallow teenage chaos.

—Staff writer Antonia M.R. Peacocke can be reached at peacocke@fas.harvard.edu.

Tags