James Franco's debut short story collection, 'Palo Alto'

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By Michael Lindgren
Wednesday, October 20, 2010

James Franco's debut story collection, "Palo Alto," is a thin, hackneyed affair, not downright disastrous, but too amateurish and undercooked to carry any real force. Franco, of course, is a popular and well-regarded screen actor; the fact of his authorship is nominally irrelevant but nonetheless sits there, mute and surly, daring you to ignore it. There is no rule that says handsome young movie stars cannot also be gifted writers, but Franco's celebrity hangs like an unspoken rebuke over every word of "Palo Alto."

Franco himself has been at earnest pains to establish his writerly bona fides, as if he might through force of will forestall any accusations of line-jumping. His faith in the idea that he could be considered just another aspiring wordsmith is touching, if ingenuous; even if his prose somehow turned out to be staggeringly brilliant, the critics and bloggers and readers who make up the literary establishment would rather die than admit it.

Fortunately for them, "Palo Alto" spares them any such dilemma. The book is a yawn: 11 sketches of youth-gone-awry in suburban California, undone by boredom and indifference, all narrated in a flat, affectless tone that reads like a parody of early Bret Easton Ellis, except not funny. "One night in ninth grade we were drunk and wandering around the neighborhoods in a pack. There were some girls with us too. There was nowhere to go and no more alcohol," begins a typical sequence. The rote, staccato rhythm and colorless language reflect a precocious kid's idea of ruthless nihilism: "When are things supposed to start mattering?" asks the narrator of "Killing Animals." Likewise, the homophobia, drug use, casual violence and lifeless sex, meant to be shocking, come across as calculated and finally laughable: We've been down this road many, many times. The rap music, the graffiti, the video games and profane slang -- all the defining emblems of early-'90s suburban emptiness are dutifully displayed.

To be fair, Franco does manage a couple of neat tricks: The book has a well-balanced symmetry, with some of the characters recurring from story to story, adding a sense of continuity. And 2 1/2 stories ("Lockheed," "Emily" and part of "April") are inhabited by female narrators, which works surprisingly well and betrays at least a hint of imaginative candlepower. These mitigating factors are not enough, however, to rescue "Palo Alto" from being essentially undergraduate-level mulch. It takes most writers years of hard work to find their voice; many never get there. Franco has made a start on it, but that's the best that can be said.

Lindgren is a writer and musician who lives in Manhattan.

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