The striking cover caught my eye. Then the author's name. Could it be? Really? But then the photo and the bio at the back flap confirmed it. Yet it was only the fact that Faber and Faber published it that made me want to buy the book.
James Franco - yes, the actor - has written a collection of short stories entitled Palo Alto. It's neither the first nor the last time that a Hollywood star reaches for the pen: Carrie Fisher's Postcards from the Edge, or Ethan Hawks's Ash Wednesday immediately come to mind. Judging from the reception they usually encounter, multitalented artists whose creativity knows no boundaries - whether of genres or mediums - have it tough. Franco is no exception. Most critics of his book, it seems, follow the same track of thought and roll out the same question, unsure of how to respond to it themselves: Yes, we've seen him act. Yes, his visual art attracts attention. But can the man write as well?
The simple answer is, yes. The fact that Faber and Faber published Palo Alto this side of the Atlantic is already a pretty good indication. The imprint hardly ever disappoints, although they might have given Franco an even tighter edit. But in spite of a few tiny glitches, this is a remarkable debut.
Set in Palo Alto, the town Franco grew up in, these stories centre around a group of teenagers, trying to survive the more excessive trials and tribulations of youth: drugs, sex, prejudice and violence. The collection opens with "Ten years ago, my sophomore year in high school, I killed a woman on Halloween." The sentence sets the tone for the entire book. The obviousness and carelessness of the confession, the reference to Halloween (as later in other stories to 4th of July) and to the sophomore year point to a very specific context and attitude. But even if these are clearly American stories, in their setting and in-your-face approach, the atmosphere Franco captures is universal.
The narrators of Palo Alto are teenagers who form an extended network of friends or acquaintances - all uncannily authentic first-person (male and female), drawing you in from the word 'Go!' There is an almost pitiless and unsettling honesty about their narratives and the things they reveal about themselves. Although grappling with the most common afflictions of adolescence such as alienation, aimlessness, loneliness, identity, or loss of innocence, all stories are either refreshingly - or scarily - unpredictable.
These kids are on the threshold of adulthood. This is the time when 'big stuff' happens. The sheer intensity of every experience is never as poignant before or after growing up. This is when we are at our boldest and daring, angry and unforgiving, desperate and lost - all at the same time.
Franco captures all of these tensions and their energy in a prose that is very economical: "There was a moon and it was on the water. A miniature moon rocking on the little waves. I always see nice images like that but I don't know what to do with them. I guess you share them with someone. Or you write them down in a poem. I had so many of those little images, but never shared them or wrote any of them down."
In many such measured passages he not only presents the harsh brutality his characters face, but also its other, more hidden, side: moments of almost unbearable tenderness. As one of the narrators confesses: "I do care...I care too much, but it never works. Like now - I'm trying to be here, I'm trying to do things. But it doesn't work, I can't find anything, so maybe that's what makes me crazy."
One wonders how any of us ever survive the madness. Palo Alto stirs up all the memories.
archive - issue 14