By James Franco
(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…”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave
The Kennedy Chronicles: The Golden Age of MTV Through Rose-Colored Glasses
Thomas Dunne Books
(This review was originally published in the Washington Independent Review of Books)
“We’re the reason you have no attention span. And you can pin reality TV on us too. You’re welcome.” (Mark Goodman, VJ)
“The [MTV] studio was such a communal den of jackassery.” (Lisa Kennedy Montgomery, The Kennedy Chronicles)
“Western civilization began on a Friday night in November 1982.” (Gavin Edwards, VJ)
Dolly back. Fade to black.
Cue camera. And, for readers of certain ages, the night MTV went live a million years ago, Aug. 1, 1981, in those pre-Internet, pre-streaming, apparently pre-anything days, the world did indeed change. To chronicle those heady, big-haired, early times of MTV, we have two new books — both breezy, both beach-ready and both shallow as a kiddy pool or a People Magazine profile of Justin Bieber.
Or David Lee Roth. Or Trent Reznor.
If you don’t know who those last two are, these books are probably not for you.
One must ask the question: When did you come of age? Were you, say, 14, surreptitiously watching Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” video back in ‘84? Or maybe you were in college? 1986? 1994? It matters. See, Paul Simon — mere mention of him dates me — in his landmark 1986 album Graceland, sang, “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.” And, indeed, here we have thrown up some heroes. If the ‘80s and ‘90s were your time and watching Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video for the umpteenth time was a mind-blazing experience, or if MTV’s snarky “Beach House” show provided sustenance during those long summer days and nights of the mid-‘90s, read on.
Here then, in VJ, are the scattered recollections of the first five video jocks, as told to editor Gavin Edwards — the early VJs who, for a time, were hipper than anybody. Edwards, writing in the preface, says that the VJs were a “five-headed Virgil, taking us through MTV’s Inferno, past the circles of slow-motion table-flipping, girls in cages, and arty black-and-white cinematography … The presence of the VJs meant you always had a friend watching with you.” Whoa. That passage shows promise — a whiff of some serious journalism. Maybe VJ is an inquiry into the social changes brought about by the cultural juggernaut that was MTV, thoughtfully related in a you-are-there-memoir by Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter or Martha Quinn.
What we’ve got are vapid — but fun — incident-related chapters with cute titles such as “Got My Back Against the Record Machine/Close Encounters with David Lee Roth,” “You May Find Yourself in a Beautiful House with a Beautiful Wife” and “And Now You Find Yourself in ’82.” Each VJ speaks up on a subject: Nina remembers the times she ran into the ladies’ room to hide, Martha says something cute about David Lee Roth, Mark confesses he doesn’t think it happened that way and then Alan feels guilty about all the drugs. Or Martha again wishes she wore a different shirt while interviewing David Lee Roth.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But, as the ‘80s and VJ wear on, they all lose their jobs, and we encounter a bit of actual memoir where the VJs relate their tales of the shock of it all coming to an end — the money problems, trouble finding a new job, divorce, coming face to face with the non-invincibility of youth. They all speak with the voice of experience, marveling at their younger selves, and the reader may at last nod with some satisfaction. But not that much.
Then, back on the beach, you roll over and pick up the slightly more tasty The Kennedy Chronicles. Lisa Kennedy Montgomery, you may recall, was that very young, somewhat annoying, in-your-face, fearless interviewer of high and mighty rock stars during yet another “golden age of MTV”: the ‘90s.
Kennedy, then an outspoken, conservative, Dan Quayle-loving Republican — fodder for a pretty good chapter — in a den of happy Clintonistas, now a card-carrying small “l” libertarian, says, “I am writing this book for all the people who came of age during that time … that fleeting moment of our youth … and it sure as hell is fun to relive those passionate, earnest moment when music mattered and time stopped.”
Doesn’t it seem that music really mattered and time stopped when we were all 18?
She goes on: “I was fortunate enough to sneak onto the express and ride it though the greatest age in MTV history … lending a megaphone to a new generation to amplify and project its immoral tastes onto a blank, waiting screen.”
As with VJ, a hopeful start. Maybe Kennedy will really go somewhere, give us a serious — but fun — look at what it all means: how much entertainment do we really need? How did we survive in those pre-streaming, pre-tweeting days? But Kennedy promptly devolves into a rambling, sort of fun collection of vignettes — we’re talking with Trent Reznor, or Dweezil Zappa or Jenny McCarthy — quite touching, this one — or we’re hearing about how she almost lost her much ballyhooed virginity to Michael Jordan in a friendly game of dice.
Suggestion: Anytime Kennedy begins a sentence with, “One night, we …” — look out.
But, on the beach, maybe we’re okay with that.
Kennedy’s a good writer, but she missed an opportunity. She’s produced a mostly shallow, bitchy memoir of her wild 20s that is sometimes fascinating, sometimes fun, but ultimately forgettable.
Click. Fade to black.
Noted scribe Eric Smith, writing for Book Riot this week, says Pepperland is “gripping and quite hilarious…seriously recommend it.” Then Eric muses on seven other outstanding novels that truly rock. Pulitzer Price-winning Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity included – Pepperland is in good company.
Pepperland is now available on Apple’s iTunes and iBook stores. Buy now!
Great interview with Sarah Terez Rosenblum of the Chicago Sun Times this week.
The Paperback Writers at Boswell Books, Milwaukee, May 21, 2013. The Pepperland launch, a splendid time was had by all.
We’re big in Colorado! Number three in this week’s Denver Post Best Sellers list.
I feel the need to toss a guitar pick to the crowd!
Mania – The Story of the Outraged & Outrageous Lives That Launched a Cultural Revolution
By Ronald K. L. Collins & David M. Skover
Top Five Books
(This review was originally published in The Washington Independent Review of Books on May 20, 2013)
Poet Kenneth Rexroth wrote in 1957, after the vanguard of the Beat Generation (Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road) had ignited angel-headed hipsters from coast to coast, “What will happen afterwards I don’t know, but for the next ten years or so we are going to have to cope with the youth we, my generation, put through the atom smasher.”
In 1972, the Rolling Stones, about to begin a larger than life, chaotic, full-blown rock and roll road trip across America, released what became one of their most important records—Exile On Main Street. A mythic American landscape unreels in the music, loud and profane, a love letter to the land. One tune, “Rip This Joint”, actually refers to nine locations in three minutes—points on Mick Jagger’s and Keith Richard’s romantic mental maps of the USA—Buffalo, D.C., Tampa, Little Rock (“… and I’m fit to drop/ Ah, let it rock!”) The Stones’ entourage on that infamous airborne tour, included a polite, unobtrusive older gentleman from Switzerland, Robert Frank, a photographer and film maker. Frank’s strange and dark photographs adorned much of the cover of Exile. In 1956, he had published a collection of photographs of an America few had seen in the placid postwar 1950s—The Americans. Jack Kerouac wrote the book’s introduction. He wrote, Frank] “…sucked a sad poem right out of America and onto film…to Robert Frank, I now give this message: You got eyes.”
Rexroth was right. Something happened. And Frank’s presence on that 727 in ’72 with the lascivious lolling tongue on the tail, continued the Beats’ atom-smashing legacy beyond all expectations. Its DNA is here with us today. And Mania, a marvelous, cunningly written night journey through the back alleys, bars, mental institutions, and jazz joints of ‘40s and ‘50s urban America, is hypnotic and addicting like a Charlie Parker a solo, a Keith Richard’s riff or a button of peyote. To Ronald Collins and David Skover, I now give this message: You got eyes. And ears.
Not a simple historical survey of the life and times of the founding members of the Beats—Kerouac, Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Lucien Carr, Neal Cassady, Carl Solomon—Mania is narrative, a tale, with the distinct tang of you-were-there non-fiction as fiction. Novelistic. Not unlike Kerouac’s fictional non-fiction. It’s a gamble, but Collins and Skover pull it off with bebop style. Here’s their depiction of Lucien Carr’s showing up at William S. Burrough’s New York City apartment door after killing an acquaintance just before dawn:
“I just killed the old man.”
Burroughs was shocked. “What?” Could it be true? Had Lucien snapped?
Before Bill could say more, Lucien told his story and handed him the blood-stained pack of Lucky Strikes that had been in Kammerer’s pocket.
“Have the last cigarette.”
Strange. Burroughs paused. Then, with his trademark nasal sneer, he spoke. “So this is how Dave Kammerer ends.”
One might complain, raise an eyebrow with this technique—quoting historical conversations is risky business, asking a lot of buy-in by the reader. Did Burroughs really say that? But Collins and Skover go to great lengths, backing up their scholarship with extensive endnotes, meticulously citing sources. Though I’d quibble with the layout of the notes—they’re a bit labyrinthine and there are no note numbers in the text, making for a bit of confusion—the end result is clear. The authors know what they’re doing.
Riffing on the styles of their subjects, Collins and Skover take further risks. Allen Ginsberg enters the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute:
“How does a doctor…repair the mind of a man who was damaged by a deranged mother?
Who grew to hate his father.
Who was insecure, yet had an inflated sense of self?
Who abused drugs?
Who lusted for fanatical men?
Who cavorted with junkies, criminals and whores?
Who had mystical experiences?
Who confused fact with fiction?
Who in the asylum befriended its craziest patient?
Who loved life’s darkest sides?
And who wasn’t quite sure if he preferred normalcy to madness?”
The Biblical cadences of Ginsberg’s epic poem of mid-century American disillusion, Howl, get the point across—Ginsberg had issues. Clever? Yes. Effective—I think so. But it’s not overused. This isn’t your father’s survey of 19th Century Romantic Poetry.
Further evidence. Here, we’re talking Kerouac:
“CLACK, CLACK, CLACK, clack clack, clackclackclakcclackclakc, clack-clackclackclack. Ding. Zzzzziiiipppp.
I first met Neal not long after my father died…I had just gotten over a
Click, click, clack, clack, clack, clack, clack ….
serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about except that it really had some…”
Yes, typewriters. Kerouac said, “My heart resides in a typewriter, and I don’t have a heart unless there’s a typewriter somewhere nearby…” Thankfully, the typographic clacks and clicks don’t go on long, but we get the point—Kerouac poured himself into writing. And Truman Capote’s barbed remark, “That’s not writing, it’s typing,” doesn’t matter anymore. But Kerouac’s writing does.
Like any good narrative, Mania’s pace picks up as the tale reaches its centerpiece—the writing and publication of Howl. “Part III, The Poem & Prosecution,” on its own, is a bravura piece of journalism. Again, the book’s you-are-there feel is gripping:
“Allen typed typed typed typed typed. He filled seven pages of single-spaced strophes, rejecting inapt words or inferior phrases…
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical naked…
Winding down to the end, he knew he had done it. He had breached the dam that obstructed his poetic imagination. And with the fury of a Hebraic prophet, he had railed on behalf of the madmen and madwomen in his life…a gesture of wild solidarity…a sort of heart’s trumpet call.”
Sweetly optimistic, fervent and steadfast in its commitment to the idea and ideals of America, Mania sings and blows true to a subterranean literary tradition. Proof positive that sometimes, a generational atom smasher isn’t all bad.