A Brief, Unprofessional Study of James Franco’s stories, Palo Alto

The passage from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (Within a Budding Grove) that James Franco includes at the beginning of the book addresses the spirit of being young. What we lose as adults. When we reach adulthood, we become afraid of life. We are scared of the consequences of not conforming. We defer all logic in the name of logic. We agree to what is right based on what the masses think is right, repeating in a nonsensical loop. To which we lose ourselves furthermore. 

Whereas adolescents follow their own loop and invite the loops of others to join. They beat their drum loud. They love harder. Fail grander. Create more. And the young are spontaneous as hell. 

Morrison lived more years than his ex-hippy counterparts who made it to 80.

A human’s brain continues to develop well into its 20s. Therefore the assumption is that full maturation in decision-making cannot be reached until development is complete. I couldn’t disagree more. If anything, the brain digresses in decision-making with age. At least with the things that are meaningful. 

Proust’s quote:

“There is hardly a single action that we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.” 

The Kids are Alright

In Palo Alto, there are some moments of hope that all people aren’t deplorable—a kind gesture from the author to break up the darkness of this text. 

“She smiled and I felt the soft skin bunch under my fingers. I looked into her smile. There was someone in there.”

But those moments are few and hard to find. I won’t pretend that Franco’s characters are likable. Most aren’t in the least bit. The ones who are, come across as victims falling prey to a group of classmates or the older soccer coach. The ones who aren’t, are their bullies or predators: bored misfits. Lewd lords. Pure shitheads.

But that’s high school, right?  

Not for everyone. Certainly not me. I was a band nerd focused on tennis and writing. But I saw what my peers went through. A notoriously bullied, talented violinist I faintly knew hung himself. A group of baseball players egged the wrong house and one was shot and killed. 

Whether or not Franco thought up all these events or borrowed anecdotes is irrelevant. Palo Alto is an integration of strangers’ experiences in one voice. One character. That all of us—no matter our background, race, gender, and upbringing—share. This commonality is most apparent at the sunbaked track fields, on the bleachers the night of homecoming, and in the stingy classrooms and yellowed hallways of high school, when we’re acting out our most savage or heroic selves.  

We’re just one big soul. Whether you like it or not, we’re tied by one string. 

“The bear had ribs like I had ribs. Underneath had been lungs, and a stomach and a heart and they all got burned away.”

Youth and Moods like James Dean

Franco, through this collection of short stories, represents the action of youth Marcel Proust lamented. He jumps off a cliff knowingly with a faulty parachute just to experience the view before it’s gone—or before his youthful courage dissipates.

This is how I see Franco’s stories compared in likeness to Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy: it isn’t just the similarity of sparse prose, stream of consciousness, and bleak subjects; it is the conviction to express truth just the way it is. And nothing more. 

The last sentences from “Caffe Buon”:

“After that, I left Pam alone. I’d see her in the halls, but she was someone different. It was like I didn’t know her. 

When we got older, I did things in my life and she did things in her life.”

The stories are like entries jotted in furious haste from the frontline of a war. The benign turned epic. 

In “April”:

“‘You remember that night in eighth grade, after Shauna’s bat mitzvah, we went to Gunn and sat under that tree? And I carved a heart in it?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I wish we could go back to that night.’

‘Ivan and I cut it down.’

‘The tree?’ I said. He nodded in the reflection and smoked.”

The author’s vignette prose is brutal. His subjects and characters are dangerous. Disturbing. Hedonistic. Franco has the courage (blame it on grasping at youth?) to pen candid observations we’ve all mused (even the most innocent of beings); the same inner secrets we fear to admit we think about even to ourselves.

In the story “I Could Kill Someone”, the narrator says:

“Brent had problems, and he had skin, and he had a mom, and one day he would die too. If I shot him, it wouldn’t really matter. There would be more people like him. Deer get shot all the time. Deer blood and deer guts all over the forest floor. Blood in the leaves, breathing slowing down. And then gone. Brent would be forgotten too.” 

Many of the characters are self-centered, borderline sociopathic. It is easy for the reader to distance one’s self as righteous, good, and “not that person” compared to these characters. But to denounce the shadow of your unconscious is just as dangerous as submitting to your shadow. 

On Jungian psychology and his understanding of the shadow, professor Jordan Peterson explained that what disgusts you the most, the darkest thing, where you least want to look—that is the gateway to what you need to know.

Welcome your madness. The revelation of the darkness within is part of the journey to enlightenment. 

Like most of the characters, the narrator in “Jack-O’” is obsessed with escaping and feeling. Something. Anything. Not sappy feelings, but the raw feeling that you’re actually here and not an enigma of some dude’s imagination. And that the other person sitting next to you in the car is actually there, too. And that there is a life after this shit life. Something to look forward to. Impulsively, he wants to know what it’s like to live.

“And I feel like I’m remembering all this from somewhere, but I’m not sure where, and everything is a little hazy, and I remember that there is an angel named Michael, and he had a flaming sword, and …

And I say to Joe, ‘Let’s drive the wrong way down the other side of the freeway.’

Joe is almost asleep, but he says, ‘Wha?’ and I can see the black gap just to the left of the center of his mouth. 

‘I’m going over to that side,’ I say. 

And I think of the olden times, when knights would aim huge lances at each other and you would feel that when it hit you, feel that force of the momentum of the horses’ pumping, channeled into the lance, and for a second you might know that you were really alive. And a little ways down the freeway there is a gap in the center barrier, and I turn the wheel and cross over.” 

He gets his way, right or wrong. Like all young people do. 

And as I reach the end of the book, I wonder what it was worth reading about the ugliness of people and their mediocrities of goodness. And then I think, why not?

Break on through to the other side.

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