Bookshots: 'Actors Anonymous' by James Franco
Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review
Who wrote 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.
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 Squad, The 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.
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