What I’ve Been Reading: Palo Alto by James Franco

I’ve been lazy about posting reviews of the books I’ve been reading, so I need to catch up a little bit. This post and a few in the future will be about books I read in 2018.  Hopefully I’ll catch up to what I’m currently reading sometime this spring. Thanks for reading!

Palo Alto Review

Palo Alto is a collection of short stories by James Franco. Although not necessarily related to each other, they’re unified in that they all portray the lives of adolescents in Palo Alto. One can assume that the stories are at least partially based on Franco’s own life. The pieces are set roughly in the 90s when Franco would have been a teenager, Franco had his own run-ins with the law like nearly all of the characters in the book, and they are, of course, set in his hometown.

Unfortunately, it’s also evident that he’s likely pulling a lot from his own life because of the way he writes the stories. Less talented writers can often piece together a story by taking anecdotes from their own experiences and then filling in the blanks with fluff that just gets the reader from point A to point B without much description or substance. There’s nothing wrong with using your own experiences as inspiration for a story, or even using specific anecdotes, but you have to be able to adjust them to fit into the narrative that you’re creating. Or just be better at deciding if an anecdote is really appropriate for the story at all.

I’m the kind of reader that can appreciate a short story that doesn’t necessarily have a clear plot or obvious moral. I can very much enjoy a work for its style without an A-B-C plot. I can get into an intriguing character just to learn about the character without him “doing” something. I can absolutely appreciate detailed dialogue that is giving insight into the character but isn’t moving the plot. Franco just simply doesn’t do these things well. Also, he throws in random references to literary figures like Hemingway or Faulkner that just seem to come out of nowhere.

Most of the stories really feel like it’s just the same group of teenagers with different names. Most are just some form of “we drank, we smoked pot, somebody got violent, a weird blowjob happened, no parents were present or even thought about, cops may have been involved, so and so is ugly, so and so is fat, so and so has zits, and we all just do things without concern for anything but our teenage angst.” Plenty of adolescents experiment with substances and sex, but to have nearly every character imbibing constantly -with little thought or anybody to answer to-  is just silly. To paint almost every character as an angst-ridden piece of shit who is selfish all the time is just a dishonest portrayal of young adults.

Some of Franco’s dialogue does nicely capture the goofy way that teenagers talk to each other when no adults are around and they’re just trying to impress each other. This talk is filled with out-of-place cursing, racial and bigoted epithets, and false claims of bravado. Some of the dialogue was embarrassingly familiar to me.

If I had to pick stories I liked, I’d say Lockheed and Killing Animals were decent.

Franco gets a lot of flak because he is perceived as being a bit pretentious or full of himself. I happen to think this is mostly unwarranted and I respect him as an actor. This is partially based on my unbridled love for Freaks and Geeks. I would much rather see him involved in film than writing short stories or novels. Palo Alto will be boring for some, offensive to others, and forgettable for the rest.

Author: JobLeach

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