In one of several recent cover stories — this one in The Advocate — James Franco complained about the early reactions to Palo Alto, his new collection of short stories:
If websites like Gawker.com or PerezHilton.com don’t like my writing, I can live with that. There is this crazy phenomenon in the blogosphere that is so hostile to anyone being creative, and if I incur that hostility from people who’ve probably read five short stories in the last 10 years, it doesn’t really bother me.
Fair enough. Gawker commenters dismiss Franco reflexively, while commenters on pure entertainment sites endorse him in the same way (sexy AND smart!). His new book does deserves a serious review, and that’s what I tried to give it in the New York Press.
The result, in short, is not pretty — better than Rivers Cuomo, but not nearly as good as Ethan Hawke. I have yet to run into Franco, here in New Haven, but I’ve got nothing against him personally and enjoy more than a few of his movies. As I mention in the review, I think it’s great that he’s going to grad school. But I also think that publishing a book is different. And that’s the main point I wanted to make: his book has siphoned editorial attention, effusive blurbs, media buzz, and literary shelf space from other, better books.
Let me give a positive example. Sam Munson’s The November Criminals, a debut novel I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal, is a wonderful read with all kinds of interesting and important things to say. Munson sets one great scene in a high school classroom, which happens to be the setting for one of Franco’s better short stories, too. It’s worthwhile to parallel them.
The November Criminals stars Addison Schacht, a nihilistic teenager who would fit right in with Franco’s cast. (Addison actually sells pot, so this would solve one of Palo Alto’s mysteries: where the characters get all their illicit substances.) Anyway, Addison is sitting in his English class, enduring a facile discussion of The Aeneid, his favorite book. When one of his pretty, smarmy classmates starts talking about how Virgil “glorified violence” and “prevented dialogue,” Addison loses it:
I launched into a speech, in a choked voice. ‘No, man, you’re missing the whole point. You can’t apply our virtues here. You can’t! They were operating under a whole different set of ideas. You can’t judge them. . . .
The scene goes on for another page or two (you can read it here), and there’s plenty of funny details and snappy writing. What makes it so good, though, is its relationship to everything that comes before and after. The whole novel is about judging — and about Addison’s attempt to make it through life with both evaluative standards and a measure of empathy. Munson manifests this in some interesting political ways, which I talked about in my Journal review. But it colors every interaction in the novel, including this one. It’s smartly done and terrifically open-ended.
Now, back to Franco. In “American History,” a history teacher has his class “act out a mock debate between the slave states and the free states.” Jeremy, the narrator, takes this assignment a little too seriously, offending several other characters, getting beat up, and creating a couple of genuinely and uncomfortably funny exchanges (“‘Hitler is timeless!’ screeched Stephen”). But this is marred by the writing — the “rocky stream” example I singled out in my review comes from this story — and, even more, by the motivations. Jeremy, it turns out, did it all for a girl. And the girl didn’t even notice.
This doesn’t ruin Franco’s story, by any means. But it does prevent it from achieving the insights and inventive appeal of something like The November Criminals. One of the more interesting things about adolescence is that, as in every stage of human development, each person remains very different. But in adolescence, we all try so hard to fit in. That’s a great dynamic for fiction to explore. Munson’s does. Franco’s, not so much.