Safety First, Then Teamwork
(book assigned by Peartree)
Editor’s note: Little known fact, James Edward Franco is an anagram for ‘Majored Dwarf’s Acne’.
I like James Franco. I honestly do. Pineapple Express is one of my favourite movies, if only for the line when Franco’s drug-dealer character Saul tells his friend, “Safety first… then teamwork.” This is literally my favourite line in anything ever. I even quoted that when I was on a Tinder date the other day. I mentioned how I had done something in a safe manner, and delivered that line. The woman looked confused since, firstly she was attractive and somehow ended up on a date with me, but also because like most people, she didn’t get this reference to a small part of a stoner movie from eight years ago. She asked, “What comes next?” I thought for a moment, before simply replying, “Freedom.” I laughed. She didn’t. The date ended a short time later.
But make no mistake, Franco is a legitimate actor and not just a comedic one. Oh sure, he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as Saul in Pineapple Express but he also kicked the shit out of acting in 127 Hours and Milk. Franco is famous for being educated, a rarity in the movie industry in which most people get ahead by having nice tits or a winning smile. Well Franco has all of that, and more. Except the tits. He doesn’t have those, now that I think about it. He has a Masters and is doing a PhD in English at Yale. And the only other person in the entertainment industry well known to have a PhD is Bill Cosby. Everyone laughed when Bill Cosby the comedian said he was going to get a PhD. Well who’s laughing at Bill Cosby now? No one.
Franco acting the shit out of 127 Hours.
On top of all that, Franco also writes books, and I have been assigned to read his first; Palo Alto. Whereas I know we are not supposed to judge a book by its cover, in this case, I’d actually recommend you do. The cover depicts what appears to be a teenage boy being pleasured in the back of a car. That’s basically what this book is about. It opens with a quote from Proust, which notes, in spite of all the silly things we did as young whipper-snappers, “adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.”
This is, frankly, a pretty silly quote to start this book, given that it’s written by a man who is still a student and is almost 40. The quote does let us know, though, that we are about to read about people making mistakes and learning lessons, just like Wheels and Joey Jeremiah from Degrassi Junior High. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the characters in Palo Alto are young, dumb and full of cum.
The boys from Degrassi: young, dumb and full of cum. And life lessons. So many life lessons.
Palo Alto has a dozen short stories all revolving around the same group of suburban white American teenagers living in 1990s Palo Alto, California (that’s in the USA). Each story has a narrator, who is the one learning IMPORTANT THINGS about being a grown-up. In the first, “Halloween”, our protagonist gets drunk after being snubbed by a girl at a party, and drives drunk, killing a bystander on the way. Today’s lesson? Don’t drink and drive, kids.
In “American History”, a teacher at school gets two kids to debate the issue of slavery, by getting the white kid to pretend to be a slave owner and the black kid to be a slave. The result? They end up fighting and having a race war again. I think the black kid wins. Lesson? Don’t get children to yell the N-word at each other in a class room. It won’t end well.
Most of the remaining stories involve sexual assault committed by teenagers with surprisingly large penises. Characters are introduced like this, “His dick was huge and disgusting.” Or like this, “His dick was seven inches. He showed us.” In the story “Chinatown”, the characters start to pick on a loner (an orphan of Vietnamese parentage) and they groom her to the point that they can habitually gang-rape her at parties. One of the characters asks her (before he rapes her) if it’s true that Vietnamese women have sideways vaginas. Today’s lesson? Well, obviously it’s that Vietnamese women do not have sideways vaginas. But more importantly, it’s that if you are writing about a compelling issue or disgusting crime, though your characters may treat it flippantly, you as the author should not. You don’t have to go all Crime and Punishment about it, but even Mario Puzo knew that it was important to engage with the reader’s abhorrent reactions to violence.
Today’s Lesson: Vietnam does not go sideways.
This is when the book starts to become uncomfortable to read. If you were going to give Franco more credit than this book deserves, you might say he was intentionally writing in a juvenile fashion, since his subject matter is adolescence. But that is an excuse for poor quality, not a vehicle for conveying deeper meaning.
If you did not grow up in Palo Alto in the 1990s, then it is not an inspiring place to set a novel. One would hope for intriguing and original characters, at least. Books like Camus’ The Stranger or even McCarthy’s The Road are examples of this. While reading such books, set in an only moderately interesting context (that we learn little about), we are intrigued by the characters’ histories and internal struggles. This is lacking in Palo Alto. The characters are all generic archetypes from American high school film and fiction; the brooding rebel, the slut with the heart of gold, the nice guy who finishes last. They’re all in here.
Clearly, Franco is trying to succeed simultaneously in many areas: acting, directing, literature, academia, etc. But that’s the thing about trying to be a Jack of all trades— you become a master of none. And that is clear in reading this book. I really like James Franco and think he is involved in a lot of really interesting projects, but frankly buddy, you gotta follow the “safety first” rule. This book doesn’t. Either in its subject matter, or even its medium, and I’m not sure if writing is the medium you should be going for. Palo Alto was so much better as a film, and Franco was great in it. I say put them mad skills into producing stuff that isn’t trying to tell the audience you’re intelligent and multi-talented, and the teamwork and public support will follow.
At least I think it will. But then again, I’m in my thirties and I still get baked and watch Pineapple Express so what the fuck do I know.