Saturday, December 22, 2012

Palo Alto - James Franco

I sat on his couch and he went over to his writing desk.  He opened a drawer and pulled out a few pieces of paper. 
                “This is the first story I want to publish,” he said to me, “Think it will be easy?”
                “Because you’re already famous?”
                “Read it.  Give me your honest opinion.”
                I read it, and I liked it.  It reminded me of a few stories I had read by Richard Lange.  The protagonist was suicidal, so that was one point in its favor.  There were hints of aberrant sexuality, so that was two points.  There was a fair amount of drug use in it, so three points.  I finished it, and looked over at him, who was hunched over his coffee table, breaking up weed to put into a bong. 
                “What’s your diagnosis?”
                “I think you’ll be able to publish it.  Everyone is going to think you’re a doofus, but if they read the story it will shut them up.  I think you have the potential to be one of the most singular artists of our generation.”
                “I’m not trying to monopolize all of the entertainment mediums; I just want to improve my writing skills.  I also want more people to read literary fiction.  I think my fans already are readers—but if I can get just a few more people reading—maybe my books could snowball into others—and I could help to end this massive ignorance threatening to destroy our world.”   
                “I just want to write because it’s fun,” I said.  “I don’t expect to change the world.”
                “Bono wants to change the world,” he said.
                “Are you like Bono?”
                “I’m not bigger than Bono, but I do aspire to raise my cultural cache to his level.”
                “And that involves ending hunger, war, poverty, environmental destruction?”
                “If you have the ability to make good things like that happen, why wouldn’t you?”
                “He doesn’t have the ability,” I said, “And neither will you, and neither will I.  Obama doesn’t even have it.  Nobody can save the world now.  Apple owns the world.  Digital cable companies own the world.  Maybe Verizon owns part of the world.  The only way the world could be saved would be the disappearance of these products.”
                “I think you’re going a little overboard,” he said as he handed me the bong.  I hit it.  He did the same and then he asked me:
                “What was your favorite part of the story?”
                Random question.
                “When the guy says, ‘don’t you ever get jealous of those girls in pornos in the middle of all those dicks?’  So hilarious.” 
                He laughed, and after a beat promulgated, “That was kind of when I realized how much more freedom there is in literature.  I mean, this could be adapted into a short film, it could, but most movies don’t have dialogue like that.  I don’t like how movies make everything seem cooler and easier—I want to represent reality in its fullness.”
                “You know, I have the exact same goal.”
                “Can we stop talking about work for a second?  It’s making me nervous.” 
-"Storyteller," Part II, Chapter 5 

This is an excerpt from my third novel, which I could not complete before starting law school.  I am looking forward to returning to it in about 9 months but I am afraid it will no longer be so topical.  I felt it was useful to include this in my review of Palo Alto because it pretty much sums up the way I felt about it--that is, the way I thought I would feel about it back in April of 2010, and it was published in October 2010.

The story referenced above is "Jack-O,'" which is the final story in the collection.  This was published in Esquire in March of 2010 and it was titled "Just Before the Black" back then.  It may serve as a barometer of the general quality of all of the stories in Palo Alto: it is "pretty good."  

I stop short of calling it "excellent" for several reasons.  My primary complaint with the collection is that the narrator in (almost) every single story is affirmatively dumb.  Or, if not dumb, at least stupid or irrational in some really obvious way.  Now this is to be expected, as Franco's subject matter is, generally, adolescence. Perhaps the narrator in "Lockheed," a girl who does not like math but who is very good at math because her father tells her to be, is the most intelligent.  She works at Lockheed Martin for a summer internship and her job sounds exactly like the type of thing that high school interns would do:

"My job was to watch old film reels of the moon.  There were hundreds.  I worked in a cold, windowless basement.  The reels would run from one spool to another on this old machine that looked like a tank.  I was supposed to record blemishes and splices in the film.  Sometimes the moon was full; sometimes it would get a little more full as I watched.  Sometimes the film was scratched so badly it skipped, or it broke.  I was in the basement forty hours a week.  I watched so many moons."  (15)

She starts to get bored and starts drawing while she does her moon studies at Lockheed.  She works for a man named Jan, and he notices that she has been making some drawings, but does not seem to care.  Later, he offers her an anecdote that is probably one of the better pieces of "advice" in the book:

"'I did these when I was at school,' he said.  'I wanted to be artist.  But it was no good.  It is no good to be artist.  I practiced every day, eight hours a day.  Then I could draw like Michelangelo.  Then what?  There is already Michelangelo.  I realized there was nothing more to do.  In science, there is always more to learn.  Always more.'
I didn't look at him; I looked at his pictures.  I felt very lonely.  I pictured him and his wife, alone at a long table, eating some bland Swedish food, not talking.  The only sounds were from the utensils hitting the plates, and the squish of their gentle chewing.
'So, he said, 'You see.'  He reached over and shut the portfolio to punctuate the 'You see,' but I didn't know what to see.  Then I looked at him.  He stood there and looked at me.  We were so awkward."  (16-17)

Later she witnesses some kind of fight at a party at a kid's house in Menlo Park.  The fight is the "climax" of the story, and is fairly well-done.  "Lockheed" is thus one of the better stories in the collection.

But if forced to pick the absolute best, I would have to say that "April" a 3-part story that is 33 pages long, is the best in the collection.  "I Could Kill Someone," while suffering from perhaps the worst title in the book, comes next in terms of quality (I know it can be hard to give good titles to things and so I am forgiving when it comes to that aspect of creative writing).  Finally, "Chinatown," another 3-part story, though only 16 pages long, fills out the top three in the collection (a mon avis, bien sur).

If you add up the content of those stories (and include "Lockheed") then it is about 85 pages and the book is 195 pages long.  So that is another reason I say the book is "pretty good" (if 170 pages were of this quality it would be "excellent").  But it is very important to point out that I read this entire book in one day.  And it is also striking that I took it out from the Brooklyn Public Library (the day I got my card) along with The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis, another book I similarly read quickly on an airplane trip (that one from NYC to Paris; this one from NYC to Denver).  

There is a very strong connection between these two books, and it is almost as if Franco's characters are the same as in The Rules of Attraction--just a few years younger, a little bit dumber, and generally from poorer families (Palo Alto does not equal Beverly Hills, or the other rich suburban L.A. upbringings of Easton's characters).  

In fact, one of the "praise" quotes on the back spells this out further--Ben Marcus wrote, "Think Bret Easton Ellis, Dennis Cooper, Kathy Acker.  Or better yet, just think James Franco."

I will admit that I once purchased Ash Wednesday by Ethan Hawke (at the Printer's Row Book Fair in Chicago at a discount) and would like to use a line that my younger brother suggested, but I cannot.  Without having read that book, though I would say Ethan Hawke is, myyyyyyyyyyyyyyy second favorite fiction writer-cum-actor.

A couple quotes before ending this review seem fitting, or else people may still continue to write off this "second career" as an exercise in pure dilettantism.  It is important to note at this time, when the debate on "school violence" is peaking, that Franco seems to hit at the very core of the problem in more than one story.  While I have previously suggested that the Internet is to blame for every ill that has felled our society over the past dozen or so years, Franco's story takes place in the pre-Internet era.  And while I certainly appreciate the references to Street Fighter II, The Legend of Zelda, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, "gangster rap," Menace 2 Society and Boys in the Hood, and other influential artifacts of the 80s-90s, Franco shows that my explanation is far too simple-minded to be taken seriously:

"This is Brent's joke: 'What's the difference between a faggot and shit?' I didn't know the answer.  'Nothing, you fucking faggot.'  He told that joke one time, and then kicked my foot to trip me into dog shit on the quad lawn.  I didn't fall, but everyone thought it was funny.  
Brent says I'm a faggot because I quit the football team freshman year.  I asked him about it and that's when we had our first little scene.  
'You think I'm a fag because I quit the team?' I said.
He stopped.  He had his usual black San Diego Chargers hat on backward.  His long face looked suprised, and the one stoned-looking eye opened a little bit more.
'You are a fucking fag,' he said.  He looked like he was getting a little emotional about it.  I could see it in his retarded eyes.
'Why do you think that?' I said, and my voice trembled.
'I don't think it, you are!'  Then he walked off.  It's weird, but I think it's because he was going to cry.  After that he always called me a faggot."

"After the locker room I decided that Brent needed to die.  He was never going to get smarter, and he was a bigot.  And I couldn't stop thinking about his acne-corroded flesh being opened, and his thin racist blood matting the hair of his beastly body.
I was standing over near the underpass next to the school where people smoked.  Some people called it the Bat Cave.  
'You really want one?' said Barry.  Barry was my friend.  He was chubby and lovable, and Mormon, and smoked pot and loved John Bonham.
'Yes,' I said.  'I want one.'
I wanted a gun.
Barry couldn't get me one, but he knew a guy who could." (170-171)

The story does not have a happy ending or a sad one, and fails to provide any easy answers.  But it is clear that the stupidity of teenagers--going both ways in terms of typical bigotry and the other in terms of intellectual snobbery--is a serious problem that is not easily solved, though the increased awareness of the devastating effects of bullying and the passage of criminal laws on the matter have been steps in the right direction.  

There is still, however, the problem of simply "giving up" and taking others down with you:

"'What do you think about that suicide?' I said.
'I think the parents made him do it,' said Teddy.
'He was Asian,' said Ivan.  He was on the other side of Teddy and I couldn't see him.
'What does that mean?' I said.
'That they worked his ass like crazy and pressured the shit out of him.'
'Do you think it hurt?' I said.
'For a second,' said Teddy.  'But if it's all going to be over anyway, then why does it matter?  Pain only matters if it's prolonged.'  Ivan was sucking long on the joint, then he said, 'If I was going to kill myself, I wouldn't waste it.  I would do a bunch of crazy shit first.  Maybe kill some people I didn't like and take 'em with me.' 
We all thought about that.  Then I said, 'Wouldn't it be better to do a bunch of crazy good things before you died instead of killing people?'
'Like what?' said Teddy.
'I don't know.  Give your life to save a bunch of kids or something.'
'But that's what you're supposed to do every day, not if you're suicidal,' he said.  'If you're suicidal you're probably only thinking of yourself.'
I drank the syrupy alcohol.  
'I try to be good,' I said.
'Me too,' said Teddy.
'Fuck good people,' said Ivan, and we laughed.  
We finished the joint and I gave them both cigarettes.  The stars were dots between the branches.  On the other side of Teddy, Ivan started carving in the tree with a knife.  He carved SUICIDE RULZ.  Teddy was next and wrote FUCK GUNN.  They told me I had to write something.  
'I feel bad, the tree is so old.'
'Fuck you, said Ivan. 'Do it.'
I drew a heart.  It was hard to make it round because of the bark, so it was jagged on one side." (137-138)

In summary, I have to say that this book is "pretty good"--but maybe even a little better than that.  Though it was not "excellent" and I am not going to run around telling everybody that Franco is the greatest living American artist in his prime, I do have to say that he is certainly one of the most interesting.  And I am very happy that our works seems to coalesce.  The quotation above from my incomplete third novel, and the tangent that the novel goes on, were not made without considered judgment.  Palo Alto is a collection of "linked" short stories that could be a novel if it wanted to be--not unlike my first novel.  It has taught me that my first novel is not a total failure, but could be much more "digestible" if converted into something of a similar product.  My second novel basically deals with the same themes as Palo Alto and attempts to portray the same "period" of psychological development.  Moreover this book is a paean to the community in which he was raised, as is S/M.  And the third novel posits the life I might have led if I had gotten into the MFA program at Columbia and entered in the Fall of 2007, when it was certainly possible that Franco could have been my classmate (or friend).  

I hope that he continues to write because it is important for people to realize that subjective human experiences are not always best told through the objective lens of a camera.  It is also clear that Franco has a  very good sense of humor about himself, which is important in an undertaking such as this:

"'Picasso started off painting in a classical style, but it was only after he had mastered the masters that he broke tradition and became Picasso.  He knew he had all the skill of Raphael at age sixteen, but that wasn't enough.  Technical skill is never enough.  He needed to find his voice.  We all have a voice or a style, but it takes practice, practice to find it.  The technical stuff needs to become second nature.'  Everyone agreed with this part too.  Wilson said quietly to me, 'You remind me of Sylvester Stallone.'  I stopped drawing.  Wilson went on: 'I used to go to art classes with him.  He was always trying to break away from classical form.' 
One of the ladies spoke up.  'Sylvester Stallone, the actor?'
'That's right.  He's a huge art enthusiast and not a bad artist either.'  Everyone was surprised and talked about it for a bit.  Someone said that underneath all that muscle he was actually a really intelligent guy.  'He did write Rocky, after all.'" (122-123)

Stallone did receive his BFA from the University of Miami in 1999, but this excerpt may be apocryphal.  Regardless, Franco's enthusiasm for literature is not likely to be questioned by anyone.  Though I would not be surprised if I am in the minority in my praise of this work.  I judge it according to the standards of my former classmates in creative writing classes.  If one of them had submitted such materials, I would have put them in the class of the top three or four (among the 70 or 80 total) that deserved to have their work published.  Unfortunately, not all of us have the advantage of taking classes taught by Amy Hempel, Michael Cunningham, Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Lethem, or Dave Eggers.  Or Joyce Carol Oates for that matter....   

No comments: