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Meaning out of Nihilism

by Kavish Chetty / 05.04.2011

It is a popular idiom that the 1990s started out as a grim morning-after, waking up from the cocaine excesses of the ‘80s. It’s there in the wilted flannel of grunge; it lurks in the violated veins of Trainspotting. Now James Franco has done his part to ensure that the suburban Palo Alto of the ‘90s (both his time and space for adolescence) will be remembered in part as a spiritual black hole. His debut novel, a slim collection of short stories – all of which focus on raw youth, unrequited love, lust affairs with drugs and alcohol, alienation and general hip ennui – is a deadening tract of youth trials; depressing episodes of growing up the hard way, which in the spooky suburbia of California means growing up like sitcom characters. In a 90s television show from my youth – Batman: The Animated Series – a mob-boss says of Two-Face, “the brighter the picture, the darker the negative.” This is precisely the theme at work in Franco, where the pure mediocrity of perfection conceals a repressed truth, so much more chaotic than endless symmetries of picket fences will allow.

It is tempting to argue that actors as handsome as James Franco shouldn’t be allowed to write well. The logic is something like this: you’ve already been doled out your little brown bag of good fortune in this life, so leave something around for the rest of us, will you? In this regard, Franco has probably left the jealousies and anxieties of unhandsome scribes alone. His cachet as an “indie darling” has grown tumescent off a spurt of roles in Milk and Howl, and that’s saying nothing about his utterly ridiculous marijuana-high performance at the Oscars. He’s also signed up for four postgraduate degree programmes in the last couple of years, including the Film MFA at New York University and the Creative Writing MFA at Columbia, where this book was first designed as a thesis submission. While this might seem to cut a mightily impressive resume, we may be looking at a case of the prolific rather than the potent: Franco does much, but does he do it well?

James Franco

My reception of Palo Alto is at best lukewarm. It’s a collection of ideas that suggest so much more about the tortures of youth than it delivers. It hints at those tortures of in-betweenness, marginality and indeterminacy, but only ever hints at the book’s strongest possible theme – that there is a dull dread of the familiar that we often forget, and that it is a fantasy of global capitalism (if you’ll permit me) that the life unassailed by poverty, starvation and war is necessarily a free and easy life. As that spluttering genius and charlatan Slavoj Žižek would say, the reality is that our “apparent freedoms conceal our deeper unfreedoms.”

An inaugural quote by Marcel Proust on the first page sums up the major idea of the book: “There is hardly a single action that we perform in that phase [childhood and adolescence] 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.”

So the stories take shape after this fact. There are bullied kids who return to school with guns, there are kids who accidentally kill pedestrians during jealous late-night races through the street. There are loser girls who fall in love with the mockery of the jock antagonists they can’t see the true personalities of. All the stories are written in simple, sometimes slang-laden adolescent language – this is both the book’s strength and weakness. Strength because it compels you into the centre of the existentially-agonised adolescent mind, and weakness because the numbness of those minds can only grasp at the greater motifs of youth they themselves are not quite aware of… yet, anyway.

In total, Palo Alto is like the diary of the one of its many protagonists – not properly formed, troubled, depressing. It’s only a glimpse, a snapshot, of something much more profound, and the truth is that if pretty-boy James Franco wasn’t its author, it probably would never have seen a large audience. Still, there is something in this book, as in-between as the youths themselves, that makes me see that same dead portrait of America drawn by Bruce Springsteen in songs like “Racing in the Street” and “The River”. It’s an ache and a yearning for the most important struggle of youth; the struggle to make meaning out of nihilism.

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