Review: James Franco’s “Palo Alto”

James Franco, Renaissance Man

by Rio Liang

I must admit I am not all too familiar with James Franco (sorry folks, I never watched the “Spiderman” movies), only having a vague idea of his being quite a polymath. So I was rather excited at the prospect of being more properly introduced to such an already intriguing person via his short story collection, “Palo Alto.” Though initially offering some disappointments at the get-go, the book gains steam, impressively presenting a devastating look at teenage inquietude.

The collection unfortunately suffers from a poor first impression. The front end stories like “Halloween” and “Lockheed” particularly come across as rather anemic, which is a shame given how robust the later stories are. I actually wonder if the order of stories that comprise the first part of Mr. Franco’s collection mirror the chronological order in which he’d written them. The stories in Part I read as rather “lite,” simplistic and hollow, competent but not compelling. I didn’t get a sense of resonance in the writing, which comes across as just a rambling execution of sentences that don’t make one even assume a hidden meaning behind anything. Part of that is to do with the first-person narrative coupled with the age of the narrators, which only allows for a rather limited, juvenile, and often uninteresting recounting of events and details. The short length of the stories also don’t do the stories justice, preventing them from gaining focus, aka a point.

Franco further cements his connection to the literary world.

But I weary of citing these aspects (pov, voice, and story length), as Mr. Franco leverages these very things to bolster his later stories effectively. The writing started picking up for me with “Chinatown,” the last story of Part I. Frankly, Franco supplies the narrators of his later stories with more narratively interesting things to say. Whereas in the first part I was left glibly thinking “Well, yup, there are indeed lots of delinquents in Palo Alto,” the second part of the book allows for a qualification to that statement, an opening for rumination. The ending story, “Jack-O’,” goes to the very heart of the collection, fully realizing the theme of limbic paralysis overarching all the stories. In one of the book’s best passages, narrator Michael thinks:  “…even if you are high it only lets you escape a little bit, it lets you escape enough that you know there could be something better, but it won’t let you into that place; like standing on the cloudy threshold of heaven and seeing something so bright and tantalizing and warmy-womby feeling but not being able to enter, just feeling the heat a little on your face, and you want to cry and smile, but instead you just stare and you can’t do anything.” The ensuing (probable) car accident at the end of the story is a great bookend to the collection (the first story, “Halloween,” also had a car accident), adding a welcome (though albeit late) symmetry to the whole.

“Palo Alto” succeeds in large part because it progressively improves, comes to better leverage its best aspect, the interconnectedness of the stories, come the end. Franco, in this case, truly has saved the best for last. But of course this approach of backloading only acts to the collection’s detriment. As a whole, the book is somewhat unbalanced, uneven. I would have been more judicious in the editing and done away with several of the earlier, more mediocre stories, which do nothing but drag the collection down as a whole. The recycling of characters and repetition of elements and themes (car accidents, racism, etc.), though effective to a point, could have been pared down, limited more to make the collection more impactful as a whole.

Mr. Franco’s resume is doubtless already impressive as is, and “Palo Alto” might be counted as a mere extracurricular aside in his CV. But there is talent there, and I look forward to his future literary offerings.

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