Let’s just say it: actor James Franco probably wasn’t the most talented writer in any of the fiction workshops he took at Columbia or Brooklyn College. Yet Palo Alto, the result of his dizzying and much-publicised stint on the Master of Fine Arts track, has hit bookstores with glowing blurbs. Discussing the unfairness of the book world is pointless, as the immediate publication of Franco’s short story collection has been a foregone conclusion for a while now. The real question is whether the stories are any good.
Answer: Yes and no. As any serious writing student should, Franco takes a lot of risks, resulting in both spectacular misfires and solid successes. Belonging in the ‘good’ column is ‘April’, a story told in three parts about a disaffected girl and the wild, dangerous boy who pines for her. ‘American History’ handles the tricky combination of adolescence and racial conflict capably, although without much grace. In the ‘bad’ column are the first two stories, both of which end with hit-and-runs but no material impact. ‘Chinatown’, a tale about an Asian girl who submits herself to repeated sexual violations, not only offends but also runs unforgivably long.
Still, the collection succeeds in that Franco establishes his voice as a writer. His characters are angry and not terribly articulate; their anger is shallow yet persistent, rooted in privilege and boredom. But Franco too often leans on empty pop culture references and shock value. Like any strong piece of student writing, Palo Alto shows promise but would benefit from a few thoughtful rewrites.