James Franco's “Palo Alto” is a cold, empty place — except for the weed

The first thing to say about James Franco's book of fiction — a collection of connected stories about hollowed-out youth in the Peninsula — is that he can indeed write. His publisher isn't merely trading off his fame as an actor to move copies of the book, though having an audience of millions who already know who you are couldn't have hurt. It's evident in Palo Alto that Franco has worked on his craft, and at times he displays surprising talent.

“Surprising” because, well, if you know who James Franco is, it's because of his acting in Milk or Pineapple Express, not because of anything he's written. And if you already knew that he was pursuing writing, it was because of a photo you saw of him asleep in one of his classes at Columbia. But his prose knocks away preconceptions that he's a dilettante. His sentences are spare but concise, honed in a way that suggests focused labor. And he has a way with arresting images. “He looks at me and blue shadow-smoke drifts over the gate of his teeth like fog over a graveyard,” he writes of a teenage boy smoking a cigarette, which “looks like the point of a golf tee in his fat, clenched paw.” And here's how he describes a fight about to start on the lawn during a house party: “A bunch of the guys took theirs shirts off. … Their bodies were pearly in the misty rain. Their chests were flexing and their stomachs were breathing.”

Having said that, Palo Alto is a failure, but an interesting one. You could read it and be engrossed by the dismayingly violent, drug-addled, and loveless lives of these mostly privileged white kids. But there's not much more going on here beyond Franco reconstructing the pessimistic world — and worldviews — of his wandering protagonists. Their universe doesn't expand beyond the schools they go to during the day and whose playgrounds and buildings they hang out at during the night. People are divided between attractive or not; kids are sluts, or they're not. Their parents might work at IBM, Stanford, and Lockheed, but even the smart teens see no future. For some, from the age of 12, their lives, in which their parents are conspicuously absent, are already deadening. Sex and weed seem to offer some unwarranted hope for transcendence.

Franco is working the same nihilistic territory as writers like Bret Easton Ellis or filmmakers like Larry Clark, and when it comes to conveying horrors — sadistic beatings, vehicular mayhem, sexual predation, gruesome deaths — he holds his own. The problem is that we don't get much more than a surface presentation (albeit one steeped in Franco's singularly hellish vision) of these awful lives. These stories, in the end, just don't add up to much, because there's no context for them. They might think the world is shit and revolves around the houses and parks (which they sometimes trash) near Highway 101, but of course that's not true. And, yes, these young, screwed-up lives are worth looking at, but their stories don't hold any weight. We're trapped in their numbed existences, and the most you can do is feel sorry for them, if you're not outright repulsed by a few of them, such as the young sociopath in “Chinatown.”

To Franco's credit, he seems only to want for us to react to these young people by depicting their lives as they see them. In “Emily,” a young woman sitting by the edge of a pool in her soaked clothes states his mission neatly: “There was a moon and it was on the water. A miniature moon rocking on the little waves. I always see nice images like that but I don't know what to do with them. I guess you share them with someone. Or write them down in a poem.” Franco wants to share those images with us: the “nice” ones and the harrowing ones, too. It shows his instincts as a writer are sound and that if he chose to dedicate himself to writing, he could produce a solid book. Palo Alto isn't that book, but it's a step in the right direction.

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