Friday, September 5, 2014
Book Review: Palo Alto
3 Stars - Recommended to people who just can't pass up celebrity lit and read it knowing not to expect too much
I have a confession to make. I am oddly drawn to the things James Franco does. I don't know why I am drawn to them because I don't particularly care for him (I don't know about you but I find him to be a little... sleazy) and 99.999% of the time, I am guaranteed to be underwhelmed. But if there is a James Franco movie added to Netflix, I will usually end up watching it. If there is an article on him floating around Twitter, I will usually end up reading it. If there is a book written by him, and the price is right, I'll probably end up buying it.
And in this case, that's exactly what happened. Palo Alto was on sale for $2.99 over at Amazon and I figured "well, we've got a 50 / 50 shot of this book being something amazing or something incredibly god-awful, and I'm ok with paying a few bucks to find out".
A total newb to all things literary by Franco, having so far only been exposed to him as actor and cologne model - and of course, Gary Shteyngart's boyfriend in that one book trailer - I really wasn't sure what to expect, so I went in with extremely low, and I mean LOW, expectations. I've read Steve Martin (loved everything he's written with the exception of An Object of Beauty) and Ethan Hawke (for the longest time his The Hottest State was a go-to read for me - keep in mind I was just leaving my teens and getting into my first really serious relationship and that book spoke volumes to me!) and I know my own tastes so I like to think I know how to pick 'em...
...so it's strange for me to admit that I neither loved nor hated this collection of interwoven stories. For starters, I got the strong impression that Franco's style wasn't really HIS style, almost as if he was trying to write like someone else. I know he idolizes Hemingway, but I haven't read enough Hemingway to know whether he's copycatting. He used a lot of analogies yet his writing seemed to be intentionally simplistic at the same time. Which is kind of contradictory, right? And he was incredibly repetitive throughout the entire collection. I can't tell you how many times I was re-introduced to the same group of characters by their nationalities or reminded of what their parents did for a living. Ugh. It'd be like the equivalent of going with your spouse to their work parties, and having to go through formal introductions with them every. single. time. you. went. I get it! Ok! Ed's father is a white mathematics professor and his mother is korean, so that makes him half korean half white, god, shuddup already! I think I'm starting to develop a twitch.
Another thing that made me twitchy - all of his stories are written in first person, which normally wouldn't bother me, except Franco kept switching narrators with each story and didn't introduce us to who it was until later on. So there was this extreme feeling of disconnect and confusion during those first few opening paragraphs when you asked yourself "ok, wait, is this written from a GIRL'S perspective? A guy wouldn't think like that, so there's no way this is still Teddy narrating, right?" And because the stories were all about this one particular group of teen aged kids, there was this unsettling feeling of familiarity as Franco bounced us back and forth in time and place from story to story. I knew the group, and was getting used to them as individuals but now I wasn't certain of the timeframe. "Oh, hang on, one of them is behind the wheel? Then this must be in High School, not Junior High. But in the last story they were all getting shit faced, and weren't they like, what, thirteen in that one? Shit. I'm so confused right now." There really seemed to be no sequence or reasoning behind how the stories were lined up within the collection. The result? I had all the pieces to the puzzle, I just couldn't figure out how they all fit together linearly. It was like trying to sort out a deck of cards, except all the cards had only the suits on them and no numbers.
His characters were always up to something - drugs, drinking, drunk driving, partying, sex, oh my god all of the sex these little kids were having, one on one, two and three on one, there were even vegetables at one point! They were portrayed as mostly shallow and devil-may-care, but then there were these moments where the kids would start waxing poetic and get all deep on each other. Those were some major eye-roll moments for me. Franco was pushing all of my buttons. I couldn't help it.
But for all of that, the stories, as individual stories, weren't all that bad. As a collection, they didn't stand up well together at all. But individually, there were pretty ok. Some of the shenanigans his characters got up to brought back memories of my own (granted, they were much tamer) - sneaking out of the bedroom window, or sneaking boys IN the window, while the parents were sleeping; hanging out under the pier at night, chugging SoCo and OJ around a campfire with a bunch of friends; driving around the main stretches with the windows down and the music up, looking for places to stir up some trouble...
Surprisingly not as bad as I had been prepared for, Palo Alto made for an interesting two day read. Definitely worth the few clams I dropped to sate my curiosity but also a pretty strong deterrent for any future curiosities I might start to develop.