Bookshots: 'Actors Anonymous' by James Franco

Bookshots: 'Actors Anonymous' by James Franco

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


Actors Anonymous

Who wrote it?

"You need to be able to take on all roles and laugh at all roles. To be able to mock the role you're playing while you're playing it."

James Franco is an actor, director, writer, and artist. In 2011 he received an Academy Award nomination for best actor for his role in 127 Hours.

Plot in a Box:

Actors Anonymous, billed as Franco's debut novel, is actually a collection of short stories, monologues, fragments and sketches.

Invent a new title for this book:

James Franco by James Franco (Sorry Michael Martone)

Read this if you liked:

Palo Alto by James Franco

Meet the book’s lead:

While there are several main characters, the real lead here is Franco, threading through several of the narratives.

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

Sean Connery. No, not really. James Franco.

Setting: Would you want to live there?

The setting moves us around downtown Los Angeles and the Valley, as well as NYU's campus and New York. We'd want to live here, but we wouldn't want to live the vacant and insecure lives of these characters.

What was your favorite sentence?

You need to be able to take on all roles and laugh at all roles. To be able to mock the role you're playing while you're playing it.

The Verdict:

I'm not that familiar with Franco's acting or directing work. I'm also not particularly put off by his decisions to adapt works of literature by Faulkner and McCarthy. So, I felt primed to give this novel a fair shake. The problem is, this isn't really a novel. Skilled writers have written about process before, but Franco's writing performance here is lacking.

Actors Anonymous would possibly have made a wonderful film. I can imagine Franco playing several roles, and the monologues filling in as voice-over narration. But as a book about acting, these fragments don't assemble into any final form. It's also not just the narrative that is fragmented; the sentence-work is too. Franco writes, "Most actors are doomed, because even for the few that achieve the kind of success that is recognizable by the greater population—I speak about fame." That's not the only place in the book I was forced to reread with no reward.

There are places in the book I was pleasantly surprised. For instance, "Peace" reads as a complete story completely capable of moving its readers. In it, we bear witness to the tragedy of a young man who has little in life but his desire for fame. Ultimately, though, the only narrative momentum in Actors Anonymous is a scavenger-hunt for the places non-fiction sneaks into this fiction. If you're a big Franco fan that might be enough for you. It wasn't for me.

Does Actors Anonymous want to be meta-fiction? Is there a reason for Franco to be in his book that feels organic to the project, and reveals a dramatic-purpose? Not that I can tell. Franco writes, "You need to be able to take on all roles and laugh at all roles. To be able to mock the role you're playing while you're playing it." If Actors Anonymous had succeeded at doing that, it would have been a better book. 

There are other wonderful books in this vein, books like Erasure, Michael Martone, A Visit from the Goon SquadThe People of Paper, If On a Winter's Night a Traveler..., or Pale Fire, just to name a few. Buy those. While you're kicked back in your lounge chair reading, Franco will have more time to hunch over his desk and hone what chops he's revealed.

Chris Rosales

Review by Chris Rosales

Christopher David Rosales is the author of SILENCE THE BIRD, SILENCE THE KEEPER, which recently won the McNamara Grant and was short-listed for the Faulkner-Wisdom Award. Most recently his work is forthcoming in 5280: Denver's Magazine. Rosales is a Writer-In-Residence at Colorado Humanities Center for the Book, and a Professor at The University of Colorado at Boulder and Metro-State University, Denver. He is the Fiction Editor of SpringGun Press, and the Founding Instructor at The Boulder Writing Studio. Lindsey Clemons, at Larsen Pomada Literary Agency, represents his novels.

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Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine October 14, 2013 - 9:11am

The misnomer, "A Novel," aside, I really liked this book. I love the Hollywood insider stuff and the may-or-may-not of meta-Franco. What other actor would have the balls to write a story about their fictional self committing a rape? It's chilling stuff. I also enjoyed Franco's constant pot-shots at himself and his celebrity. And some of the stories do reference each other, switching around names and identities, adding to the meta-narrative. I had a lot of fun with this one.

Jason Donnelly's picture
Jason Donnelly October 14, 2013 - 9:24am

I can't believe no one is commenting on how badly he stole from Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves... even the color of Actor being highlighted in blue... other words and phrases in red... the footnotes... anybody? 


P.S. I saw him last night. :-) 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine October 14, 2013 - 10:27am

I love House of Leaves, and yeah, he took a pretty big bite out of it, but for some reason it didn't bother me. I guess I spent so much time shitting on Franco that I had low expectations and have been pleasantly surprised by his output. You can't hold his audience against him if he's trying to grow as an artist and do interesting stuff.


Christopher David Rosales's picture
Christopher Dav... from Paramount, CA is reading "Canada" by Richard Ford October 14, 2013 - 11:37am

It should be said, I definitely wasn't unhappy to have read this book.Yeah, he definitely takes some inspiration from House of Leaves. We all borrow. We all should borrow. Writing is a conversation. But other than a few of the chapters that really did work well, I felt like he wasn't adding a whole lot to the writing conversation. He might have added a lot to the acting conversation (and I actually found that stuff the most interesting; I think I would have preferred to read a memoir a la his idol Brando). But I didn't feel a need for this book to be a book as opposed to anything else, and I think prose ought to feel like it needed to be prose. Like it couldn't have happened any other way. I definitely don't want to bash Franco just because he's James Franco. I have no interest in that. Kudos to the guy for doing so goddam much.

Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... October 14, 2013 - 12:01pm

Is it weird that I read the quotes in Franco's voice?

I've read some of his shorter fiction and, to put it mildly, was not impressed, so I doubt I'll ever take the time to read Actors Anonymous. Just its first two pages annoyed me. But I am glad that, judging by people's comments, Franco at least has improved from his Palo Alto days, and he's always a welcome presence on my TV.

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast October 16, 2013 - 1:46am

Now I have to finish it, to find out why it's like House of Leaves. Three chapters in and that comparison is mystifying me.

But I have noticed how much less annoying this book is the more I read of it. I've gone from 'volcanically irritated' to 'mildly tetchy' in the space of a few hundred words. Some kind of evil spell is at work probably.


Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine October 16, 2013 - 12:22pm

@Cath: It's just one story, really. Towards the end.