Former MFA student James Franco was every Columbia student’s favorite celebrity to stalk and stare at in Butler Library.
With his recently-published debut book, “Palo Alto,” now on shelves, students can now see Franco through his own literary lens as he writes about his native California.
“Palo Alto” is a collection of short stories about teenagers in northern California. The stories feature interrelated characters who all struggle with feelings of desire, and most of whom experience violence of some kind. Franco’s venture into book publishing is a different path from his past film roles, including parts in “Spider-Man,” “Pineapple Express,” and “Milk.”
Franco captures the darker side of the uncomfortable state of limbo called adolescence, but offers little, if any, new perspective to the well-worn subject. Many of the short stories feature groups of boys as they get drunk or high and vandalize elementary schools or take turns shooting things with a BB gun.
Underlying all the violence is the dominant feeling that the characters believe none of their actions carry consequences because they are not adults yet, and that these are not their real lives. In one particularly shocking story, “Chinatown,” the narrator Roberto develops a relationship with new girl Pam and treats her with disregard. By the end of the story, Pam has changed and wants nothing to do with Roberto, who doesn’t seem to think twice about the things he did with her, saying “When we got older, I did things in my life and she did things in her life.”
Written in first person, the stories are all told with the same deadpan tone: short sentences and nothing exuberant—just the facts. In the context of each story individually, the style functions perfectly and allows the reader to trust the characters and feel clearly what they feel. The starkness of the teenage violence expressed in these short stories lends to an overall sense of hopelessness and apathy.
Within the work as a whole, this style tends to get repetitive and, eventually, one story starts bleeding into the next. With 11 stories spread over about 200 pages, the fact that most of the stories have a different narrator of different gender, age, and background contributes to a certain monotony. The narrative voice becomes stale after the first half of the book.
In the end, it is almost impossible to distinguish one narrator from the next because they all share the same inner voice. In the first story, “Halloween,” the male narrator declares, “Well, I didn’t like that. Funny how new facts pop up and make you doubt that there’s any goodness in life.” In the second story, “Lockheed”—one of the calmer stories—the female narrator has the same tone: “I didn’t look at him; I looked at his pictures. I felt very lonely.”
Although the collection of short stories in “Palo Alto” is ridden with violence and teenage crises, it does represent the strong collective voice of turbulent teens growing up in northern California. The book shows a deeper, brooding side of Franco that may not be seen in his movies, and certainly not in a casual glance from across the room in Butler.