James Franco, Actors Anonymous: Book review- 'irritating and self-indulgent'

A meta-fictive novel on celebrity – written by a celebrity. But is it art?
  • @archiebland

By late 2009, James Franco was a proper movie star. He had starred in such blockbusters as the Spider-Man trilogy and Pineapple Express, and pleased the critics in Milk and City By The Sea; he had hosted Saturday Night Live; he had been voted the sexiest man on the planet. His next move was to take up a role in a US daytime soap opera, General Hospital.

Franco was cast as James 'Franco' Frank, a psychopathic serial killer who produces multimedia installations based on the murders he has committed. He appeared in 54 episodes over three years, including two that bookended his gig hosting the Oscars. In an article about his role for the Wall Street Journal, he explained that “everyone watching would see an actor they recognised, a real person in a made-up world.” “If all goes according to plan,” he concluded, “it will definitely be weird. But is it art?”

It is hard to imagine Vin Diesel asking the same question. For Franco, though, this was not an isolated experiment: more than anything else, he is known as the superstar who operates in the margins. He is a visual artist and a director and probably the only star of a movie to have grossed over $400m whose Wikipedia entry features a section on 'education' that is nine times longer than the one on 'personal life'. And, of course, he is a writer.

This insistence on a portfolio life risks ridicule, since no one likes a smart alec, much less a rich, gorgeous one unwilling to accept that public banality is the necessary price of his continued good fortune. But Palo Alto, a volume of short stories about adolescence that was published in 2010, was not a mere indulgence. Flawed though it was, it was original enough to suggest that greater things might lie ahead.

Now a second work of fiction, Actors Anonymous, has appeared, and it will not surprise students of the author's life to learn that it is a deeply self-referential work, starting with the knowing joke on the cover – that title under the name of one of the least anonymous actors in the world, in noticeably larger type.

Although it is described as a novel, it is an idiosyncratic one, held together by theme and setting rather than plot and character. A preface explains that what follows are the pooled experiences of the 50-strong collective to which the title refers; we get short stories, all of them featuring actors, a script extract, poetry, and a series of gnomic monologues on the movie industry from James Franco, or, at any rate, 'James Franco'. This is fertile territory, because the experience of an actor foregrounds a concern that's fundamental to all of us: the knowledge, as the first of the group's “twelve steps” puts it, “that life is a performance – that we are all performers, at all times – and that our 'performance' has left our control.”

The monologues, with their insider-ish feel and suggestion of the star as a disenchanted, bean-spilling renegade, are bound to make us feel pruriently curious about whether this is real or not. Franco – or an analogue referred to as 'The Actor' – shows up, too, in the more traditional stories, more than once as a Lothario, and eventually – again – as a possible murderer. This is a disarmingly ballsy strategy. If your fame means that readers are bound to have you in mind as they read, after all, you might as well try to capitalise on what's described, in a nice phrase, as 'the chameleon light of celebrity'.

The trouble is, a novel is not like General Hospital: it is not a pre-existing, commercially-motivated entity into which the insertion of a rogue real-life film star can count as an act of radical subversion. In a novel, for the now elderly device of the authorial invasion to be other than sophomoric, it has to do more than remind us that books are not stable things. The Franco we get here is unfortunately irritating, self-indulgent, and pretentious. Maddeningly, he is forever attempting to disable any possible criticism of his approach by pre-empting it. “I know you think it's innovative to do this split personality thing,” one Franco-analogue writes, “but I think it's just you covering because you can't write a straight story. It's like you can't tell a story from beginning to end, so you hide behind all this shit.”

You said it, James, or whoever you are. The answer to his identity, for the little that it's worth, is that he is – surprise! – probably both real and not. As he puts it: “I have played so many different characters that acting is hardly different than living.” So, OK, it's a ruse, probably. But those irritations are not much soothed by the question of whether or not he really means it; if anything, they are exacerbated. If there were a tethering plot that made the reliability or otherwise of this cypher consequential, we might be more engaged. Without that structure, they gradually begin to seem like showing off – and like the output of a man just as in thrall to his celebrity as the rest of us are. The book seems, in the end, like an embellishment on a life that is supposed to be a work of art, instead of a work of art in itself.

The disappointment is only deepened by the flashes of real quality that come through in the more conventional pieces of the book, most of which are only OK, but a few of which have stuck with me. There's “Peace”, in which a handsome young star-in-the-making plaintively asks the object of his affections: “Don't you know who I'm going to be?” There's “McDonald's” I and “McDonald's II”, presumably drawing on the actor's own time working in the drive-thru, but submerging that personal history in a powerful account of a junk food life. Above all, there's “Experiences”, a story of a rapist and aspiring actor who finds his audience in a drama class. As in every other piece, the characterisation is flat, the voice too plainly a vehicle for an authorial excursion. But the writing is disciplined, and moving. It lets us forget who we're dealing with.

Even here, Franco is haunted by the macho presences of Carver and Hemingway, and the obvious debt to these behemoths contributes to the sense that Actors Anonymous would be best read as a work-in-progress in a creative writing class. That's the final irony of Franco's interest in his own celebrity status: were he not such a star, it is hard to imagine that he would have been treated with anything like the same editorial indulgence. “I am not making much of an effort to hide,” he remarks, in one authorial footnote. He should have tried harder.

Actors Anonymous By James Franco (faber & faber, £12.99) Order at the discounted price of £10.99 inc. p&p from independent.co.uk/bookshop or call 0843 0600 030