If you think twelve year olds going out at two a.m. and shooting anything and everything with paintball and bb guns, affairs between soccer coach/teachers and 14 year olds (consensual), acting violently and irresponsibly after hearing a girl you like is with someone else (as in driving twenty miles over the speed limit drunk), occasionally running people over, or pimping out a new friend to everyone in town, all within one community, actually within the same group of friends, then you will probably love Palo Alto, the first short story collection published by James Franco.
I was interested in this book because of a blog I read somewhere of someone who went to one of his first readings from it, but I really bought it because, frankly, who doesn’t want to see if a celebrity is actually good at more than one thing (instead of just doing the things anyway because they have nothing better to do with their money). Turns out, James Franco IS good at more than one thing, but perhaps not what you’d think. Could it be juggling? Dog breeding? A musical instrument of some kind? …Writing (seeing as this is a review of his recently released book)? Sadly, no, none of these, not yet.
Was that enough suspense? The two things are, acting (presumably), and being a student. Not only does Franco have a master’s degree of fine arts from an ivy league school, he’s also taken fine arts classes at OTHER ivy league schools, just to learn. I respect that. I can relate to the desire to constantly absorb new ideas and hone a craft. The gathering of knowledge is invaluable; this, also, is undisputed.
Now, I’ve never taken fine arts classes, or even known anyone who has, so maybe I’m just out of the loop. If you are a fine arts master/major and love this book, great (although you should probably stop reading this).
When I started this book, I immediately hated it. Not fair, you say? Let me explain. I thought, ‘alright, there are probably three to five stories here’ (based on other short story collections I’ve read of about the same length, specifically The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel, which I liked a lot, you can see my review on my old blog, here), and I already heard it had a dark tone, so that is what I was prepared for. What I didn’t expect were stories five pages long told in first person, short, choppy sentences. I forgave the first story, thinking it was an alright perspective for the material covered. I was thinking it was maybe the introductory story, to get the reader prepared for the rest of the book, by putting the worst stuff in the beginning. I thought perhaps the first story was some sort of ‘the incident’ scenario and the rest of the stories would branch off from there (think, Crash, which, if you haven’t seen already, do so immediately). Instead, it was a jumbled assortment of friends living in Palo Alto (which, if this book is based on any sort of fact, I recommend anyone who lives there with children or a will to live in peace, move from…immediately).
The stories were too similar. All of them were told in the same odd sentence style as the first story, and all of the characters were basically the same person, differing only in their motivations. I can see clearly what he was trying to do. The book is split into two parts, each section consisting of stories by different members of the same group of friends (one group in the first section, and a different, though similar, group in the second section, to be clear).
Some of the themes throughout: consequences, peer pressure, and recklessness. For being told in the first person, I don’t think we saw enough of what the characters were thinking, we saw virtually only what they did, and what they did was bad. The writing wasn’t bad, per se, it was obviously stylistic and done on purpose, I just wasn’t feeling it. Like I said, I don’t think it did much to distinguish the characters by making them all tell stories the same way. In a book of first person stories, I think the sentence structure and voice of each character should be differentiated, because people don’t think the same, no matter that they grew up together or how much time they spend together. In my opinion, that was the biggest fault.
I was thinking of reading another serious short story collection to review together with comparisons, specifically Full Dark, No Stars by the talented Stephen King, which I may still do when I read it (sittin’ on my shelf), but then I watched my friend Dean’s latest book review video (Here’s a link to his channel, prepare yourselves!). The review was of Dubliners by James Joyce, which I had honestly never heard of. Listening to him talk about it though, reminded me of what this book wanted to be. Take a listen.
I wouldn’t recommend anyone to read this book, because I didn’t enjoy it, and I don’t think it contained any universal truths about life that need to be heard. I think the thought behind the story wasn’t a terrible idea, just needed a little bit more thought and a bit more practice. Maybe I’ll read his second book, if it comes to that.