The April issue of Esquire includes a short story by actor James Franco, “Just Before the Black,” which seems to have left commentators either ambivalent or hedging their bets—nobody seems to much like the story, but nobody’s saying it’s not very good, perhaps because doing so might imply that you just don’t like it just because Franco is a well-known movie actor.
But Franco is serious about fiction writing—he was in Columbia’s MFA program and was recently accepted into Yale’s English department—so there’s no reason not to hold him to the same standard of any other serious fiction writer. Neither of the two Franco stories I’ve read are very good, but they fail interestingly, for different reasons. In “The Actor Prepares,” published in the Panorama edition of McSweeney’s, Franco sets up a love triangle between a male acting student and two of his classmates, one an attractive single mother and the other a man who a bad actor but who “is good with women.” That binary arrangement is the engine of the story—the more emotion you have, the worse an actor you are—and Franco writes on this theme tentatively, with terse sentences that go ka-thunk, ka-thunk, ka-thunk. The protagonist jealously considers his rival while rehearsing Death of a Salesman:
Vince can get women, just like Happy. He is slick and empty, just like Happy. But Vince doesn’t know he is like Happy. Vince thinks he is a great guy that can get women because he is charming and nice. He could have just played himself and he would have been the perfect Happy. But Vince doesn’t know who he is.
Emotions thus appropriately logged in their proper ledger columns, the climax of the story puts the protagonist in the position of actually feeling something and then acting poorly. Which would be tolerable enough if the acting teacher didn’t show up to explain it all, making the story an exemplar of the tell-don’t-show school of writing: “That was your worst scene… You were just sitting there, isolated. You need to be connected so that you feel something.”
“Just Before the Black” is different stylistically—it’s a first-person story with more dialogue and more figurative language—but makes a similarly awkward effort to shuttle between states of feeling and not-feeling. The narrator is a bored but bright young stoner who’s eager to feel and witness pain—he rams a car into a wall, injuring his friend, who he’ll later taunt with a knife. Franco’s chief task here is to make his narrator empathetic instead of pathological, and on that front he pretty much succeeds (at least until the final paragraph)—the narrator isn’t nuts, just lost, which justifies his enthusiasm for bonghits, chatter about Aztecs and pharaohs, and conversations about violence. Ka-thunk, ka-thunk, ka-thunk wouldn’t work here—it’d make the narrator sound like a street-corner crazy, hectoring people. But Franco overcompensates in the other direction, attempting to build up a head of steam with a run-on sentence (268 words—somebody counted):
… and I think it is like life, because I am racing, and time is pushing me forward and it’s not going to stop and I will have a few passengers in the vehicle with me, and it’s either enjoy the scenery together, or listen to some music we both like, or maybe just have a little poking knife game because you want to know if the other person is really there.
This is supposed to be the climax before the climax, the window into the absurdity that the narrator sees in the world, a glimpse into his quasi-madness. In context, though, it’s just a restatement of the narrator’s confusion. In the middle of the story, Franco is trying to play his song in a different key, which draws more attention to the writer than the narrative—a bit of stylistic flash that gets used only when the storytelling is weak.