"Palo Alto," his book of short stories, the product of his time earning one of his seeming half-dozen MFAs, in creative writing at Warren Wilson College, indicates a great eye for detail. It contains many skillful renderings both of the particulars of his hometown and the universals of the space inhabited by disaffected youth.
But nothing happens. He draws from the deep well of personal experience but cannot channel the water into art, or even irrigation. His work flows nowhere; it fertilizes nothing within the reader.
This is ironic considering Franco's mentor at Warren Wilson was the prolific Seattle-based author and disaffected adult, David Shields. I have met Shields, written about him, read his work, and listened to the seemingly endless, and entirely derivative, opinions about him that circulate in the shallows of Elliott Bay.
The irony is that, more than anything, more than the need to feed starving children, or the need to stop the degradation of the climate, Shields believes in art. He does not value experiences that cannot be crafted into art, does not value so-called writers who present their experience as they are, without some transcendent meaning. And yet, this is what he has produced. His most famous student is nothing more than a high-achieving hobbyist.
It is true, of course, that teacher and student cannot be defined solely in terms of the other. But the connection between Shields and Franco runs deep. They are similarly neurotic, driven, overworked. They seem to feel true kinship. Franco directed a documentary adaptation of Shield’s book “I Think You’re Totally Wrong” and the two have more collaborations in the works.
Perhaps Franco is content with the abstraction and near-nihilistic meaningless of his book. Maybe it’s event the point. But unless the point finds a family and creates a Seurat painting, no one will much spend time looking. He may not finding meaning in his own specs, however, and may instead be publicly grasping at paintbrushes. That fundamental inability to earn a reader’s respect suggests Franco is hindered not by a lack of artistic inspiration or intent, by his lack of experience in fiction writing. Fortunately, unlike hubris, inexperience can be overcome.
In addition to having no lingering effect, no larger meaning, Franco's work lacks basic characterization. While he is capable of rendering immense physical, and some emotional, detail, his characters are empty vessels acting out his contrived plots. They have no inner life; they are slaves to Franco’s interests. Worse than dull, they are dead.
What is so surprising about these undeveloped portions of Franco's literary persona is that they are the very areas that seem as though they should be developed. Franco, a critically-acclaimed actor, should, it seems, rendering characters well and clear, understand their motivations and let them guide him, instead of the other way around. He should aim for profundity, recognizing what escalates something from an artsy imitation to art itself. Instead he shows a knack for writing, the act, the sentence and the structure, but neglects to indicate any sense of inner life, emanating from him, or his characters.
Why this is, I can't be sure. But I hope that, should Franco continue to write, he will work toward bringing his actor and author personas together in a symbiosis that yields not only a well-set stage, but a well-crafted play. Otherwise, he would be better off on screen, not stationary.
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