Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review: Palo Alto by James Franco

Palo Alto by James Franco
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: October 7, 2010
Page Count: 196
Keywords: short stories, misfit teenagers, delinquents, violence
Goodreads & Amazon

Set in the town of Palo Alto, James Franco's story collection of the same name follows a group of teenagers through the trials and pains of making it through high school. Each of them are struck by tragedy and face the injustice of life. Some of them are just bored, and some are trying to find out how their bodies work. All of them have different journeys, but they are all trying to navigate their adolescence the best way they know how.
Funny how new facts pop up and make you doubt that there's any goodness in life. Everyone pretends to be normal and be your friend, but underneath, everyone is living some other life you don't know about, and if only we had a camera on us at all times, we could go watch each other's tapes and find out what each of us was really like. But then you'd have to watch girls go poo and boys trying to go down on themselves.
When I was taking my first fiction writing class in college, a couple of my classmates and I started playing an unofficial game. We had learned that an older woman in the class was easily disturbed, and when some of our stories got too gruesome or bloody, she would quietly stand up and walk out of the classroom until it was over. It became a game to see who could get her to walk out, so each week we showed up with the most over-the-top, senselessly violent stories to see who could succeed. Looking back, it was kind of mean, but also an important exercise for us young writers. Self-censorship is something that plagues a ton of fresh writers, and pushing ourselves to write the grossest things we could kind of set the bar for our possibilities. I think of this first foray into fiction writing, because many of the stories in Palo Alto read the same way our trying stories did. There is a lot of shocking violence and disturbing actions, but little to no purpose. Also, I've never trigger warning'd a book before, but Palo Alto needs one, especially for the story Chinatown in Three Parts. As can be told by my anecdote up top, it does not take much to offend me. This story almost put Palo Alto on the DNF list for me. In it, a boy befriends Pam, a new student to his school who is half-Vietnamese. He decides he wants to have sex with her, and sly's his way into having sex with her. Then he brings her to his friends, and they all have their turn at her. Then she brings him to a restaurant, so his chef friend can have his turn at her, too, and he can get free food. Despite her correcting him that she is half Vietnamese, he and his friends take to calling her 'Chinatown' and when they have their way with her, they call it, "going down to Chinatown." The cherry on top of the cake comes when the boy and his friend Seth get arrested and questioned by the police. They are later released and laugh about their charges, and literally face zero consequence. Uh, what? I was actually nauseous while reading this story, told in three parts, and felt so terrible for Pam. If Franco wanted to write a story like that, there should have been some sort of consequence, some sort of lesson. But instead, he perpetuates the idea that because 'Chinatown never said she didn't want to' it was okay for him to pimp her out. And then he acts surprised when she doesn't want to hang out with him anymore. Okay, Franco, okay.
When A.J. came back, there was nothing to say. And nothing to do because he was holding the bottle. I was feeling okay; I'd had enough vodka. This was the way the night had cashed in. Choices had been made and things happened, and here we were. It was sad and funny. My life was made of this. Stuff like this.
Palo Alto follows the same group of characters, and some of them are mentioned several times. It was hard to remember if the Tom in one story was the Tom in the next story, because there is really no defining characteristics. All the boys are alcoholic racists. All the girls are fat sluts. All the adult men are pedophiles who touch little boys and rape little girls. It was honestly hard to tell the characters apart, and nothing unique distinguished them from one another. There are several car crashes in different stories. What this collection of stories lacked was distinguishing characteristics, and lessons. If you write about two instances of people being hit by cars, each story should tell me something different. Unfortunately, that just never happens. In the first story of the book, Halloween, a boy on probation is driving home drunk from a Halloween party. He is speeding, and runs over a woman. Of course, he keeps driving. He's never caught! And in fact, over time, whenever he drives past the spot, he starts to forget as the years past. He doesn't dwell on the woman he hits and kills, and there's no lesson to be learned. In the story right after Halloween, Lockheed, a girl falls in love with a boy at a party simply because he is giving her the time of day. Then he starts fighting with an older man outside, a car comes out of no where, hits him, kills him, and then speeds away. Again, no one is caught. The story ends shortly after, so I'm not sure how it affects the girl who was supposedly in love with him. Instead of creating a complex drama between two characters, an overly dramatic occurrence happens and cuts the time short, and for what? These characters lacked distinction, and the drama of the stories relied too heavily on shock value to make an impact.
Barry had done it with her, the girl I loved, and it had meant nothing to him; Tanya would die and no one would care; and there were billions of bodies alive on earth and they would all be buried and ground into dirt; and Picasso was a master at age sixteen and I was a perfect shit.
So why wasn't this book given one star? Even though the stories lacked real substance for me, and violence seemed purposeless and for shock value only, I think that writing these stories will be building blocks for Franco's writing career, much like trying to make an old lady leave my Fiction 1 class was for me. I also wonder if this book was organized chronologically from when they were written by Franco, because two of the stories, I Could Kill Someone and April In Three Parts are featured near the end of the book, and start to really get to the root of these characters lives. I think April appeared in earlier stories, but it wasn't until April In Three Parts that I really remembered who she was. The boys start to get put in their place. We start to learn more about what makes them tick, and what causes them to act in the ways that they do. I started to sympathize with them more. Franco was really peeling back the layers from the shocking actions, and getting to the core of why they were happening.

James Franco is obviously a well-read and well-educated individual, and maybe part of it is the fact that this is very well known information brought to us by his celebrity. Maybe knowing he has an Ivy League education and an MFA in Creative Writing and that he has adapted several well-known pieces of classic literature that I was expecting more than shock value as a crutch, and characters that were hard to remember. But the stories near the end give us a glimmer of the potential that Franco has to be a great writer like those he admires.
Have you read this one? Thoughts on shock value in stories & when it is appropriate? 

1 comment:

  1. Your approach to reading the book and realizing the stage of Franco's writing is an interesting and mature approach to the review! I really enjoy that!
    P.s. I love the story about getting the ladies to leave class, I would so do that!
    Missie @ A Flurry of Ponderings