About the book
Title: Palo Alto
Author: James Franco
Published: Faber & Faber, 2011
My Format: E-Book
Genre: Contemporary, Short Story
My Rating: 2/5
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ReviewBefore I get started with this review, let me first just say I am a big fan of James Franco on screen and I think he is an excellent actor. When I found out he had a book (technically a collection of short stories) out - Palo Alto, which had also been adapted into a film, I got super excited and immediately added it to my TBR list on Goodreads. When I got my Kindle for Christmas I found it on Amazon for around a dollar. I was at first apprehensive to get it in e-book form because I really wanted a hard copy of the book but now after reading it I'm happy I didn't waste my money buying a physical copy. Franco is definitely well educated and practised in a lot of literary art forms; acting, broadway, poetry even creative writing (have you seen the list of degrees this man has?!) but unfortunately Palo Alto fell short for me.
My main criticism with the book is the characters. Each chapter or story offered very little (if any at all) characterisation or character development. Every character seemed exactly the same - the tone of each of their thoughts and actions were literally exactly the same. Occasionally one was slightly less mean than the other but at the end of the day each person seemed like an asshole (mind my language) that had no direction in life and just didn't know what the hell they were doing. If no names were mentioned, this book could have easily just been about one person. Not only that but I struggled to identify which character the chapter was following and a lot of the time I couldn't even figure out their gender or age (intentional? I am not sure). At times horrifyingly disgusting things would happen to these characters, 90% of the time by pure choice or stupidity and no consequences ever arose, or if they did finally get caught the chapter just simply ended. The book probably had 20, nearly 30 characters introduced? (Or at least it felt like it) And some characters were introduced and described more than once throughout the book. The worst thing was if they were re-introduced their description was exactly the same, just reworded. I couldn't keep track of most of them. Some were only mentioned for a few chapters before never being heard of again or their name would sporadically pop up in passing in a future chapter. I didn't care enough about any character to want to read about them again anyway.
The structure of the book itself was also all over the place. First the book was split into Part 1 and Part 2 but nothing really changed between these two parts. I didn't feel any progression in the novel. Some chapters were titled by the character of which the chapter would be following, others were just titled by something significant that would occur or a location name. Some were split into 3 parts, others weren't. It was confusing. There was also no overarching plot at all, just simply random snippets of people's lives, none of them connected. Stories rarely made reference to any other event in the collection despite the reoccurring characters. Maybe that is how he wanted it to be structured, so that each character had their own moment, but I found this bland and it made it even harder to keep track of who was who and who had done what.
For a book titled Palo Alto, I got very little sense of place or setting. The book really could have been set anywhere. I didn't fell any special connection to the place after reading it. Everything was described as any other old house, school or park. I didn't see the relevance of setting the book in Palo Alto (other than the fact Franco had a past there) and what the book was trying to say about the place. It made it sound like an area run down by deadbeat teenagers who destroyed public property just for the sake of doing it, were desperate to have sex, beat up people they hated and got high or drunk at every opportunity. Is Palo Alto really is like that? I'd like to think not, but maybe that's how Franco saw it, and what his child/teen years were like. Unsure.
The reason I am giving this book two stars instead of one is because though I couldn't relate to a lot of the characters, at times a quote or paragraph would stick out to me. Most of the characters were lost and contemplating life and at times I still feel that way. Furthermore, following the lives of teenagers from a small town (not sure if Palo Alto is considered small but it had that sort of vibe in the book) was, at times, reminiscent of the characters in The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling which I throughly enjoyed reading last year. Unfortunately it was no were near as good or meaningful.
I need to keep on reminding my self that Palo Alto isn't a whole book but rather a selection of stories all set in the same area. Whilst some stories were definitely more captivating, most of them could have been cut out all together or weren't worth reading. I think Franco would have done better just releasing these on a blog for people to read in little snippets rather than as a whole book. Maybe I should have paced myself and read one story occasionally instead of reading it all in one shot. Even son, each story even when told from a different character's point of view had the exact same tone, there was no character development and no sense of setting. I found this to be a very obscure and weird read and am confused as to whether this was what Franco was going for. You will not find any coming of age themes or life lessons learned in the book. If you are someone who enjoys reading about teenagers causing havoc and their unresolved quarter life crises then maybe parts of this book will interest you. Even then, I would still not recommend it as there are much better reads with similar themes being addressed (The Casual Vacancy - JK Rowling, The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger).
The book has also been made into a movie. I have yet to watch it but from what I can tell the movie follows a few select characters, and not everything in the book. I will keep you updated via my Twitter.
All this being said, I am still a fan of James Franco. I don't think any of us can deny that he is a very good actor. I don't want to say he shouldn't write anymore because he is amazingly educated in literary creations and if he is passionate about it then I have no right to say he shouldn't pursue it. With more practice and direction he may potentially become a better writter but I won't be rushing out to buy his next book.