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“I’ve been alive forever…”

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Actors Anonymous
By James Franco
New Harvest

(This review was originally published in The Washington Independent Review of Books, November 18, 2013)

Famous Actor James Franco has written something. The book’s cover describes it as “James Franco’s brilliant debut novel.”  Ah. A clue — it is a “novel.”

Here’s how it begins:

“I am the Actor. I am alive in 2013 and I was alive in 1913. … I am Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando and Jimmy Stewart…”

Uh oh.

If you’re of a certain age, you remember Barry Manilow’s chart-topping ‘70s megahit “I Write the Songs,” written by Beach Boy Bruce Johnston. A charming, thoroughly treacly and sappy tune: “I’ve been alive forever and I wrote the very first song…I am music…” You know how it goes. (And it’s okay to like it — I’m a recovering musical snob.)

Manilow’s record sold millions. It’s in your head now, isn’t it? Yes, there it is.

Sorry.

I am here to report that Famous Actor James Franco’s annoying novel, Actors Anonymous, is not in my head. In fact, I’m having trouble finding some good parts to share with you.  Yet, through the magic of Hollywood celebrity and a few very nice famous writer dust jacket blurbs (wow, Franco owes them big), the book will sell well — Amy Hempel gushes, “eloquent and suitably scorching.” Gary Shteyngart glows, “subversively funny and provocatively honest.”

So there I was as I settled down with Actors Anonymous all set to dig it. Eloquent and subversive? I’m there — count me in.

Then I read it.

Eloquent? Just don’t see it.

Subversive? If you mean playing fast and loose with convention, throwing out any fictional rule book, blurring lines between reality and a made-up world — sure. Yes.

I couldn’t wait for it to end.

Don’t get me wrong, you’ve got to admire Franco. He’s a talented, smart guy — actor, director, writer and, according to his publicist, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale. Go for it, James! Gotta love anybody going for that ultimate, terminal degree. And I’ve got to hand it to him for taking major risks with this thing. Some say Actors Anonymous is “experimental,” “a postmodern sleight of hand.” And hey, he’s got an epigraph by W. B. Yeats. Okay.

The whole thing’s a mess.

A very loosely threaded (dare I say, imperceptibly connected?) collection of twelve “Steps” and twelve “Traditions” of an entity known as Actors Anonymous (not so loosely based on Alcoholics Anonymous), the book uses many narrative voices, and they all sound alike. Call me crazy, but isn’t that James Franco, his voice, the famous actor, our author, behind that nearly transparent scrim of a fictional curtain? Is it fiction or what?

Maybe it doesn’t matter.

The “characters” are mostly young men struggling in LA, trying to make it, mostly slipping off the bottom rung of the starmaker machine’s ladder, each playing life fast and loose in all manner of awkward and brutal sexuality, controlled substances, you name it. Like out of a slickly sleazy, say, Steely Dan tune about dealers, hustlers and losers, minus any attempt to show the slightest dignity, humor, or bits of beauty in the characters you might find in everyday low-rent life.  For instance:

There’s a guy who works the all-night drive-through at an LA McDonalds who has obviously joyless bathroom sex with one of the burger-flipping guys on the crew. Probably the only bit of the book with a whiff of narrative. The writing? William S. Burroughs or Henry Miller, it ain’t.

There’s a terrible long poem about the long-dead actor River Phoenix:

“Hello James, it’s River.

Where do you think I’m calling from?”

There’s a long scene of a Parisian seduction of The Angel by The Actor, complete with multiple multi-colored fonts, footnotes, “missing text.” Sounds promising, but with characters named Diarrhea, Cunty, and little in the way of “story,” well, your mileage may vary. This section does contain the best line in the book:

“The seduction of the Virgin was as smooth as a bullet through a birthday cake.” 

Charming, eh?

There are long chapters of short, declarative paragraphs like this:

“It’s funny when people say actors can’t write. Most of ‘em can’t, but look at Woody Allen. Look at W. C. Fields.

“And what is good writing? Even the best writers resemble the best actors. They have a few good projects in them, and the others don’t seem to add up.”

Huh.

No style, no attempt at what Vladimir Nabokov called the enchantment of fiction.

Midway through the book, in a footnote (I love footnotes in fiction, by the way), Franco writes:

“In defense of myself, this is a piece of fiction. I know that my stories might sound like my autobiography, and I am not making much of an effort to hide when I call my character “The Actor,” but isn’t fiction about writing what I know? … At least acting is something I know a little about.”  

Well, okay.

So what’s The Actor’s game?

Franco, in Actors Anonymous, does not appear to have, or has chosen not to display his narrative gene. Franco is a student of and friends with author David Shields. Shields blurbed the book, calling it “an ambitious and seriously deconstructive fiction.” Shields’ recent books, Reality Hunger (2009) and How Literature Saved My Life (2013) are two literary grenades tossed at the fiction establishment. Shields writes that new fiction should be:

“Collage — in which tiny paragraph-units work together to project a linear motion…collage teaches the reader to understand that the movements of the writer’s mind are intricately entangled with the work’s meaning…are the work’s meaning.” 

So, collage — a blurring of nonfiction and fiction but without any attempt at a seduction of the reader. Actors Anonymous — it’s one big, whiny, slapdash ‘dig me!’ Franco, it is apparent, has tried valiantly to implement Shields’ make-it-new approach, tell something of his innermost story. Ambitious, yes. But a failure.

I’d rather listen to a Barry Manilow record.

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