Palo Alto
 by James Franco

Faber & Faber, 2011
Paperback
First Collection







"We’re stopped for no reason except that the night is still going and we’re drunk, and who wants to go home, ever, and this spot is as good as any to just sit in the shadows and let life slow."

Reviewed by Alex Thornber


There is always an audible sigh when news circulates that a famous person is building a new wing onto their wheelhouse that stretches beyond the boundaries of what they are known for. James Franco has been working hard on his extensions recently and has forced us to ask "Where does he find the time?" Franco is a well known actor, Gucci model, director, screenwriter and had recently taken three graduate courses at the same time and is now doing a PhD at Yale along side his acting career. With master's degrees in creative writing it is no surprise that he would bring out a collection of short stories, what is surprising however, is how good that collection is.

Palo Alto is a collection of stories about young kids and teenagers essentially being kids and teenagers. This is by no means a new idea in story telling but it is definitely fresh, and slightly haunting, how true these stories are. With reoccurring characters, themes and to some extent story lines, Franco depicts a bitterly violent and nihilistic view of modern childhood that this reader could unfortunately identify with.

The writing in Palo Alto is never going to please everyone; it is naturalistic in style and makes use of both short, snappy and long-winded sentences. The stories read like Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, with a less irritating narrator, crossed with the self-destructive nature of characters that frequent some of Carver's best stories. Palo Alto is far from merely cut and paste replication however and it is in the format of the whole book that shows Franco's fascinating creativity. Each of the stories centres on characters living in Palo Alto and track back and forth in time, mostly anchored in some stage of grade school. When reading the book as a whole you get the feeling of having grown up with these kids as they change friends, pop up in other stories or re-tell something we have already heard from someone else, just like real teenagers.

The first two stories in this collection Halloween and Lockheed have hit-and-run accidents as the main drive behind them. Some may see this as laziness on the writer's part but both of the stories are completely different in their own right and both evoke wildly different emotions. I would argue however that this is where Franco is deliberately playing with his readers.

If there is one thing that can help us understand these stories and their author, it is Franco's celebrity. Franco seems to reside somewhere outside of tradition, bear in mind that this is the man who played a character in "General Hospital" named Franco who was a multi-media artist and claimed it all as performance art. Franco is never going to let us have it easy and it is everything you don't see right away that makes this collection something entirely outside of what we are used to. There is no rule saying that a writer cannot have two similar stories in one collection, there is even another car accident later on in the book. I'm sure almost everyone has a story about when they missed the last bus for example, but no two are the same. Why, in college I knew three people who had crashed their cars into lampposts and two boys who got escorted home for shooting birds with BB guns, and countless people who got drunk in class; people aren't all individual, stuff happens to everyone and Franco highlights this magnificently in his fiction.

All of the stories in this collection are told in the first person, which Franco is really strong at. Even if you were a good kid in school you get filled with adrenaline as you are fleeing from a man who is chasing you after you shot a rock through his window. There is not much difference between the characters' voices however, which some may find irritating to read, but it all seams to work within the themes and overall tone of the book and the characters which inhabit it. Franco is clearly in control of what he wants his characters to say and how they portray their emotions and manages to capture the fleeting attention span, and often-brutal bluntness, of an adolescent's thoughts and actions without making them read like sociopaths.

One story, called Chinatown, could however convince you otherwise. This story, told in three parts, follows a teenage boy's relationship with a "half Vietnamese" girl, though relationship is perhaps too polite a word. Roberto, the boy, clumsily woos the girl, takes her virginity and then somehow ends up essentially pimping her out for as little as a "the best dinners".

People may ask the immortal question when dealing with these kind of works, or what seem like side projects, "Would this have been released if it wasn't a famous person?" In response to that I would have to say, yes.

Palo Alto is certainly not for everyone, and people who grew up in a different generation may find a lot of the characters' actions over the top, but there is a lot of warmth here, difficult emotions and the struggles of teenage years; but maybe more police than most of us are used to. This collection could maybe have done with a little editing, and there are a few random words which sneak in like a rogue automatic thesaurus which can be a little strange when uttered by a violent teenager, but aside from that this is an excellent debut collection of stories, presented in a new way, from a promising writer. Literature about adolescence, but certainly not adolescent literature.

Read a story from this collection in Esquire


Alex Thornber writes short stories which have been published in places like Metazen, Full of Crow and The Pygmy Giant.
Alex's other Short Reviews: "The Collected Stories of John Cheever"

A J Kirby "Mix Tape"

Susan Tepper "Deer and Other Stories"

Darlin' Neal "Rattlesnakes & The Moon"

Tantra Bensko "Watching the Windows Sleep"
                     
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James Franco is a modern-day Renaissance man: as an actor he has appeared in such diverse films as Pineapple Express and Milk. Over the course of the last two years he has been awarded degrees in English Literature from UCLA, in Creative Writing from Columbia, in Film-making from NYU and has been accepted in the English PHD programme at Yale.