Book Review: Palo Alto

Palo Alto
by James Franco

Amy Hempel lied to me. Also: so did Susan Minot, Darcey Steinke, Ben Marcus, and Gary Shteyngart. It was in the back of James Franco's debut collection, Palo Alto, where Hempel said Franco wrote "quotable, unsettling stories," Susan Minot said "Franco is a writer of skill and sensitivity," and Gary Shteyngart said "As a writer, he's here to stay."

I got the book, eagerly anticipating an author who knows the rhytmn of words, the way to really write a short story. I opened it pen in hand to underline passages. What I found was an utter disappointment.

Palo Alto is a collection of semi-interconnected stories set in Franco's hometown of Palo Alto. For those of you who don't know, Palo Alto is in California. The majority of people there are white, if not Asian. The median income is $119,046. Just background information. Palo Alto the book, follows the teenage lives of a group of friends as they try to navigate their middle class ennui through sex and drugs.

Some of the stories are excessively explicit, easily comparable (based on content alone) to the likes of Dennis Cooper (Ben Marcus calls him that). For example, "Chinatown" tells the story how the narrator turns a half-Vietnamese girl into the town's slut:

"Pam came over. I got her into Jason's parents' bed. I got her naked. She wasn't even drinking. The guys line up outside the bedroom. We went in, two and three at a time. Everyone fucked her. She got really messy. Some of the guys were so smelly. The room smelled like oysters."

The events are semi-ridiculous and told in a quiet distanced voice. Other stories have the same dead-pan tone while describing these kids' search for something to do. In "Killing Animals," the boys go on a hunting spree in the city. In "Lockheed," the narrator becomes fascinated with the killing of a boy at a party. Violence, death, and sex is everywhere and Franco seems to be trying to make a statement: in an age of ennui, we look to express ourselves in extremes. Or perhaps, in the age of ennui, even shock does not shock us: "In ninth grade we watched a lot of Holocaust stuff. We saw pictures and then a film of the naked bodies being bulldozed. Penises on the men and vaginas and breasts on women. They didn't seem like real penises. I looked close. Some were big."

Yet Dennis Cooper he is not. Kathy Acker he is not. Bret Easton Ellis he is not.

The difference between Cooper et al and Franco is that the formers not only shocked, they experimented with style, they knew prose was something powerful and that sex and violence needed to be explored further. Franco, on the other hand, lacks skills. Beyond the sex and violence is simple shock factor. Educated with multiple MFAs, hobnobbing with minimalists such as Mona Simpson and Amy Hempel (his acknowledgement page is name dropping vomit), Franco's work tries desperately to pay tribute to Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson, but instead fails. Franco's prose is off-rhytmn, they're mouthfulls that rubs in your head the wrong way.

From "Killing Animals": "He got cherry flavor. It came in a red wrapper....We walked back eating our pies. They were crescent shaped and glazed."

From "Emily": "He jumped in the pool and he was in the pool, swimming around naked."

From "Chinatown": "When we got older, I did things in my life and she did things in her life."

Franco's prose is vague, yet not the same vague as say Justin Taylor's debut (also this year), whose title is Everything Here Is The Best Thing Ever. The vague prose in Palo Alto is unearned.

Arguably, Tao Lin explores the same and his writing has the same types of grammatical loops. Yet Tao Lin (despite being annoying), has humor. Tao Lin is his own thing. He stands on the shoulders of Ann Beattie and Lydia Davis. Tao Lin's work is a painful statement about culture. Franco is plain painful.

Maybe one or two of the stories here are something almost remarkable (for example, the opening story "Halloween"). Yet when read together, it's mundane. The effect pierces the brain. You grow bored.

Franco stories can be summed up like this:

"I had my first drink when I was thirteen, and in the three years since then we had been taking from his cupboard and putting water back into the bottles."
"He has a big dick."
"Jewish, Russian, Jewish, Italian, half Korean/half white."

These phrases are not from one story, but are re-used throughout the book. While this might work in some collections, using key phrases to emphasis themes, Franco doesn't have enough skill to pull it off. His stories are too similar to each other. His narrators (they're voices, not characters--characters imply personality) sound the same despite being different people. His description skill obviously go as far as race (and it does get to the point of racism [I'm not talking about the "N" word in "American History"]; even minimalists had a way of describing things), or else they try to uplift the usual (for example a red wrapper) into a symbol but fail completely: his observations are bland. (Can someone with a good-upbringing and money truly write anything that is not bland? I've always believed that you really need to be truly fucked up in the head to write anything worth reading...)

Fact is, Franco got this book published because of his fame. Unfortunately, Franco wasn't smart enough to hire a ghost writer (who would probably have more skill). Also, Amy Hempel has bad taste.

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