Why yes, I did only pick this up because it was written by James Franco. Because dude… James Franco.
Palo Alto is a collection of short stories that take place in, get ready, Palo Alto. It’s the late 80s and the teens are unsupervised and destructive. A lot of horrible things happen and angst, misery and loneliness soak the pages.
However, this is not some sort of “Let’s read this and learn a lesson and comment on the ills of society” book. Franco simply captures the essence of teenage nothingness, writes it down and then walks away. There’s no commentary or finger pointing or lessons or moral. It’s just a few moments in these kids’ lives.
The most powerful aspect of the book for me was how Franco didn’t create the angsty moments that you see in the movies and on TV. These are the moments I remember from being in high school and they are fairly easy to capture. Franco isn’t content to stay there. He shows the moments where it’s not that you think you’re immortal and that nothing will happen to you if you drive your car into the wall… it’s just that in this one moment you’re in right now… you’re driving, and there’s a wall, and what else would you do? It’s not suicidal. You’re not trying to murder anyone. It’s just there. I remember those moments doing 90 on back roads in the middle of the night, passing our friends after turning off the headlights. We didn’t want to die. We just wanted to be going 90 in the dark.
What fascinated me about these stories is the detached reality of the narrators. These kids seem to be aware that things are wrong, and so yet completely out of touch with their own selves that they can’t figure out what’s happening. It’s not denial; they simply do not seem to have the words or brain development to understand. I kept wondering what these same stories would sounds like today. Were these defining moments? Do they look back in anger? Are they simply things that happened one night? Do they even remember?
The loose structure was another plus for me. The stories were simply told as is. If there was a lesson to be found, it wasn’t up to the narrator to point it out. They probably wouldn’t even see if if it was there. The kids get away with things that we want them to be punished for, but their sense of “That happened yesterday. Why are we even still talking about it?” makes it difficult to sustain anger or outrage. Yes, you want the kid who killed the woman with his car to be arrested, but he’s so flat and unemotional and unaplogetic about the whole thing that it feels easier to walk away than to try to be the one to explain to him what he did.
And that seems to be the attitude of most of the adults that briefly appear in these stories. With the exception on the predator soccer coach, all the adults seem to have shrugged and walked away. These kids are someone else’s problem, even if these kids are their own.
I really enjoyed this book. It was incredibly fucked up, but the reality made it work. Franco’s control over the narration is amazing. He lets the kid talk, and then is done. He’s not going to add a sentence, or a look, or a gesture because the reader might want it or an adult is expecting it. The kids show up, talk, and then leave.
I just wish I hadn’t read this right after Important Things That Don’t Matter by David Amsden because they are somewhat similar and I’ve twisted the stories and characters up into one giant book.