“’What does it all mean?’ said Barry. ‘Nothing,’ I said, but it was something.” Unfortunately, that exchange only half-encapsulates Palo Alto, the debut short-story cycle by multi-hyphenate heartthrob James Franco. Bounded by the same zip code and the same destructive urges, Franco’s characters smoke too much weed, commit hit-and-runs, and are always in danger of falling prey to sexual aggressors in the form of their elders or each other. His world is a punishing place to spend 200 pages, borrowing its bleakest elements from Denis Johnson while foregoing the wit, and using those elements to construct nothing sturdier than cheap, nihilistic cool and a few transgressive thrills.
After raising eyebrows by taking a recurring role on General Hospital as a form of performance art and enrolling in Columbia University’s MFA program, Spider-Man and now 127 Hours star James Franco published a story in Esquire, “Jack-O’,” about a pair of losers—one suicidal, one simple—who cruise down a back road, engage in a would-you-rather discussion, then intentionally crash into a wall. “Jack-O’” is amateurish in places, well-observed in others, and Franco is right to put it at the very end of Palo Alto. Formally, it’s identical to everything that precedes it, with its first-person perspective, choppy sentences, and too-bored tone, but the characters are more recognizable, and the dialogue hopscotches between the banal and the disturbing in a way that Franco attempts earlier in the book, with limited success.
The stories fare slightly better when they’re focused on women, possibly because when Marissa or April is narrating, Franco is less likely to indulge in button-pushing rants or automatic, pointless evaluations of new characters’ attractiveness and/or genital size. In “Lockheed,” Franco draws on his own days as a mathematically inclined kid with a Lockheed Martin internship in order to tell the story of a girl who falls in love with the only boy who ever gave her the time of day, only to see him beaten and crushed to death moments later. “American History” mines a class presentation for racially charged drama that in reality would’ve been squelched in a heartbeat. And “Chinatown” recounts sexual exploitation on a steadily escalating scale.
The cast drifts into and out of each other’s narratives, playing dumb, getting into scrapes with the law, and ditching school, only to reference Ibsen and Aristotle two pages later. Low-culture allusions pile onto the high without ever revealing a sense of humor or a glimmer of characterization, and the one shrill note these stories sound is repeatedly, thoughtlessly struck. “Jack-O’” is trite, but it proves that Franco has talent as a writer. Still, in the thicket of lesser stories that make up Palo Alto, that talent can be difficult to make out.