Cornelia's Reviews > Palo Alto

Palo Alto by James Franco
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May 03, 11

bookshelves: 2011, short-stories
Read in May, 2011

I picked this up at the library, after puttering around and not settling on anything because, like always, there were too many good options. This was in the new fiction section, closest to the counter, so really it was an impulse borrow. I wanted to see if James Franco, he of the half dozen simultaneous graduate programs and work-til-you-drop ethic was actually as talented a writer as he seems an actor.

Two things: 1. I didn't like most of this collection, and found it very flawed. 2. I don't think Franco is a bad writer.

All the stories are interconnected, but loosely. They involve most of the same recurring characters, including three or four recurring narrators, but no two stories ever mention/rehash the same events. They're all in first person. The problem is that most of the narrators sound exactly the same. And you don't know whose story you're reading until several pages in and they start to give some details about themselves, some of which aren't even all that telling. Maybe Franco meant to have them all blend and be interchangeable. But it doesn't feel very much like having them all sound alike was purposeful, it feels more like it was due to a lack of skill. That was a huge hurdle for me. There's no way, even in a group of close-knit friends, even in a vacuum, that every character would speak/think/write identically.

For the first four or five stories, I found myself laughing at bits that weren't meant to be funny because the prose was so lazy and repetitive I thought they must all be writing exercises for a prompt like: "Write about something violent/sick/idiotic/sexual and use no more than 200 unique words to do so. The more curse words, the better." I realize they're from the perspectives of teenagers, who sometimes don't have the most developed vocabularies, whose brains are still gelling so that their reasoning isn't always so sharp, who live in bubbles of their own maudlin existences. But, honestly, did it have to be so bleak?

The most disturbing story of all comes almost halfway through. In the most positive light, you can say it describes how a dumb, horny teenage boy makes his girlfriend into a prostitute for his friends. In the harshest light, it's about how a future Law & Order SVU perp orchestrates numerous gang rapes.

That said, I did like a couple of the stories. "April in Three Parts" was good. It actually had something to grab onto and go with, it had narrators who were reflective, who did things and had lives inside them. It was compelling and thoughtful. It's the main reason I'm giving the collection 2 stars, instead of 1.
"Camp" was decent. There were messed up things going on, like in all the stories, but it gave off the vibe that the most messed up things were under the surface of the stories, in the things that were only being hinted at and mentioned in passing. I thought that was well-done.

Franco may become a good writer, even a great one, someday. But, he wasn't one when he wrote the majority of the stories in Palo Alto. I feel like this collection is the thesis for his first MFA (maybe even his undergrad thesis). I feel like he throws some early, really amateur, flat stuff in there, and then some more polished stuff from later in the game. At least I hope that's what happened. I hope some of the crappier stories were written earlier, and ones like "April in Three Parts" were some sort of culmination to his "Palo Alto teen nihilism and debauchery" phase.
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