SALON: Envy, then, is a prime consideration in confronting Franco the Writer. It’s not enough that he should be Salon’s Sexiest Man Living of 2009. Or an artist with a solo exhibition in Tribeca. Or an extremely well-compensated and (when occasion demands) competent movie actor. Nooo, James Franco is now making a play for the New York Times Book Review and the monthly Book Sense list and the Barnes & Noble 100 and all those places where homely, unsocialized men and women once held sway.
Snark is the default response but not, I am sad to say, the honest one. Because to the question of “Can James Franco write?”, the short answer is yes. And so is the long answer, but with the qualification that a writer’s subject is as important as his method and that, having dwelt so lovingly and hatefully on his boyhood, James Franco may now be advised to leave it behind.
“Palo Alto” is a suite of interconnected stories built around the tumult of coming of age, as Franco did, in Palo Alto, Calif., in the early 1990s. (We know how far we’ve gone back because of the strategically inserted signifiers: Guns N’ Roses, “Schindler’s List,” Gulf War.) These aren’t the dead-end working-class kids of Springsteen’s discography but kids of privilege, living in the precincts of Stanford and Lockheed Martin, smart enough to drop literary allusions but shooting blanks when it comes to ambition. White or Hispanic or mixed-race, they shun black company but worship black music, and they smoke and get stoned and drink their parents’ whiskey and vodka, and the boys call each other “bitch” and “faggot” and compete to see who can have sex with the most girls. They’re lonely kids, bored and angry — “I hate everything,” declares one — and their feelings get “computed in strange ways,” with the end product usually being cruelty. MORE
THE ECONOMIST: Proper nouns aside, some of Mr Franco’s stories are quite good. One, “Camp”, is a slide show of memories, most of them obliquely invoking a sexual experience of the narrator’s. It’s an unusual piece, neither tender nor prurient, and the closer a reader looks, the more interesting the story becomes. Memories pass through the minds of Mr Franco’s characters like images on a television screen. The procession of images is interesting—evocative, even—though occasionally one is left wishing for a bit of analysis, lyricism or insight. Most intriguing is a streak of perversity that runs through the stories, with Mr Franco especially potent on the subject of sexuality and human anatomy. MORE
USA TODAY: Franco, 32, is no mere literary interloper, a celeb taking advantage of a publishing industry hungry for star power. What his master’s degree in fine arts from Columbia translates to is a keen ability to wear the sneakers of everyone from an eighth-grade girl seduced by her soccer coach to a middle-school boy who pimps his girlfriend. Franco writes with such deep empathy and affinity that one has to wonder if he lived this life, or merely ingested his surroundings. MORE
CHICAGO TRIBUNE: For a reader, trying to keep track of the various Teddys and Aprils, the Alices and Barrys whose lives criss-cross in a variety of ways in “Palo Alto” this is an insurmountable problem. Franco seems to grasp the literal meaning of “God is in the details”—virtually every character has his or her gene pool racially dissected and locations are rendered with GPS precision—but not the spirit. None of the characters come to life because none of them are allowed to be more than a sum of what they see and do.
Which appears to be Franco’s point—that life has somehow crushed the essence out of these children. He doesn’t seem interested in what particular bit of life has done the crushing. No helicopter parents here, no parents or teachers of any kind, really. Neither are there cellphones or even very many video games; these kids don’t even watch much TV. Instead Franco is content to watch them watch themselves doing things, though he does throw in an occasional acknowledgment of family life–“My mother was holding half a green pepper. She looked so sad. The water ran in the sink”—for those of us imagining packs of orphans roaming the streets of Palo Alto.
Some of what they do is quite disturbing. A girl sees the boy she was just flirting with at a party murdered; another is seduced, at 14, by her soccer coach. One young man, driving drunk, hits and kills a pedestrian, another pimps his girlfriend and rapes her with a variety of vegetables. If there are occasional flashes of fear or vague regret they are quickly stifled by vodka, obscenity and narrative numbness. The young pimp is arrested but not charged. “After that I left Pam alone. I’d see her in the halls but she was someone different. It was like I didn’t know her. When we got older, she did things in her life and I did things in my life.” MORE
RELATED: Book Excerpt