Saturday, March 20, 2010

An Auspicious Debut in the Penny Press!

It’s an opening that would sit more comfortably at one of our estimable sister-blogs like PopWired or Pink is the New Blog, but nevertheless, it must be stated up front: actor James Franco (whom some of you might remember as the world’s bitchiest Green Goblin, or the world’s mumbliest Tristan, or the world’s least animated American WWI fighter ace, or as Robert DeNiro’s most hysterical co-star, but who is, nonetheless, a better thespian than you give him credit) is a nice guy. This is worth mentioning because a) he’s very handsome, and that can stop young men from bothering to be nice even if they remain obscure bank employees in Carol Stream their whole lives, b) he’s famous, which is a state notoriously lethal towards any kind of genuine niceness. Franco has avoided the pitfalls of nature and nurture and remained the nice guy I suspect he’s always been.

Which isn’t to say he walks on water; he can be filthy, and he does his requisite time as a partygoing lounge lizard, and more endemically, he routinely tries on and discards all the usual ridiculous rags of reinvention intellectually curious young men have always wasted time on throughout the ages – in this he’s no different than Alcibiades was at his age. Young actors are particularly vulnerable to this chameleon phase, and it’s never helped – or shortened – by having an excess of money.

That chameleon phase has lately prompted Franco to make some idiosyncratic movie-role choices, and, in a move that’s flatly baffled the Entertainment Tonight crowd, it motivated him to go back to school (his fellow actor Martin Sheen – with whom he has more in common than he’s so far allowed himself to see – did the same thing). Not to pursue acting, but to write fiction. And the fact that he’s famous – coupled with the fact that he’s not only nice but largely perceived to be friendly – creates a blurring cloud of preset reactions among those who will be the critics of that fiction: either they’ll like it because Franco’s a star, or they’ll like it regardless and be called sycophants, or they’ll hate it because he’s a star, or they’ll hate it regardless and be called jealous. It can make you feel sorry for the guy: he’s got to be wondering if this stuff he’s sweated and labored and cared over creating can get a fair hearing anywhere.

And it’s not just a question of venue, it’s a question of timing. His world-debut short story “Just Before the Black,” comes out this week in Esquire, which arrives in subscribers’ mailboxes at the same time as the 22 March issue of the New Yorker.

This would ordinarily be just another coincidence of publishing – after all, no matter when it arrives, it’s going to overlap with an issue of the New Yorker. But the 22 March issue of the New Yorker is one of those rare issues I’ve mentioned here in which every single thing goes right, in which the dreams of countless editors and sub-editors and fact-checkers and subscribers for the last hundred years all fulfill simultaneously. The New Yorker has been called the greatest magazine in the history of the world, and in issues like this one, it’s actually true.

Nobody makes a misstep, in the whole length of the thing, and we’re forced to realize that, like them or not, these writers are giants – and they’re creating an almost spooky synergy by working together right at this time. Showboating main editors come and go – several of these writers have worked for several of those editors – but quality like this is, or ought to be, eternal.

There’s the moodily evocative cover by Jorge Colombo; there’s Hendrik Hertzberg writing about nuclear power (“Converting mass to energy by atomic fission in order to achieve temperatures normally found only on the surface of stars like the sun and then using that extraterrestrial heat to boil water – well, it smacks of (to borrow a term from the nuclear dark side) overkill”); there’s an essay – doesn’t really matter on what – by the already-legendary John McPhee; there’s a piece by Jeffrey Toobin, the greatest living chronicler of America’s highest court, this time profiling Justice Stevens (“He’ll say something like ‘This is probably obvious, but I have this one question. Could you help me with this one point?’ An experienced advocate knows that you have to be on your guard, because he’s probably found the one issue that puts your case on the line”); there’s a hilarious, wonkily paranoid cartoon by Roz Chast; there’s a masterful theatre review by Hilton Als; there’s an exhibit review of the weird German artist Otto Dix by one of the greatest working art critics alive today, Peter Schjeldahl (“To truly appreciate Otto Dix, the most shocking major artist, against stiff competition, of Weimer Germany, it may help to loathe him a little … By disliking Dix, you may balance a sense that he dislikes you, too.”); there’s a great overview of the recent ‘unofficial orchestral Olympics’ recently held at Carnegie Hall, all in the mad pursuit of a nonsensical ranking as #1:
Not long ago, the British magazine Gramophone asked music critics to rate the world’s orchestras, and when the results were published there were whoops in some places and laments in others. The burghers of Amsterdam took quiet pride in the fact that the Concertgebouw placed first; their rivals in Berlin and Vienna fumed at being second and third; and Philadelphians were scandalized to find their honey-toned group nowhere in the top twenty. (I participated in the poll, but I am not about to reveal my list, for fear of being detained by the Austrian or Pennsylvanian police).

There’s even stuffy old David Denby, turning in his usual rock-solid dissection of some new movie starring one of his weird bête noirs, the cinematic non-event known as Ben Stiller (like a critical version of Stiller’s grandmother, Denby keeps urging the star, in review after review, to be more Jewish).

And perhaps best of all, perhaps the most tell-tale signal of the strength of this particular issue, is the luminously, almost sloppily brilliant short story by Junot Diaz, who in this kind of company we’re forced to consider as one of our finest living practitioners of fiction. The short story in this issue, “The Pura Principle,” is a wonderful return to form for Diaz, an utterly unsentimental account of a young man dying of leukemia and the predatory girlfriend he marries during a recuperative stay at his mother’s place. The prose is a marvel of sure control and funny as hell – an exciting experience utterly unlike the usual New Yorker angst fest.

So its appearance is great news for readers, but perhaps a bit bittersweet for Franco, because his own debut short story in Esquire is very, very good and would look dominating if it weren’t appearing in the same week as one of our greatest writers at the top of his game.

That’s just unlucky timing, though, and it can’t be held against “Just Before the Black,” which is, on the surface, noticeably Junot-esque: depressed, distracted, down-market characters talking lingo and getting wasted and bullshitting as they aimlessly wander through their lives. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this type of fiction – and it’s lucky there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, because it seems hard-wired to be the kind of fiction attractive young men write first, before they start writing the far more individual stuff that will be their literary mark on the world (before they even know if they can write that stuff). Booth Tarkington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, Richard Farina, Ernest Hemingway … the list is a long one (for all I know, Alcibiades belongs on it), and again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s a legitimate enough sub-genre, and only very, very few writers can successfully mine it for longer than the one book, although many try. Nothing becomes derivative faster than simulated anomie and the reason for this is simple: there’s a waiting line a mile long behind every such author. It hardly seems like Bret Easton Ellis has time to sprout a single gray temple-hair before Nick McDonell is elbowing him out of Disaffection Central, and that’s as it should be.

Franco’s story (the whole forthcoming collection from Scribner’s unless I’m much mistaken) is firmly in this mode: two young guys, Michael and Joe, are just hanging out doing nothing at night. Michael is the narrator, and his almost inarticulate dissatisfaction with his life suffuses the whole story almost to the choking point (“I am friends with a slug,” he thinks, “and my other friends are pigs and wolves. I never make friends with nice things. Just the shit”). The portrait of Michael is alarmingly accurate of a certain type of aimless young man who wonders if he even feels anything. His reverie while driving is one many such men have had (indeed, it’s one not-so-young men have had and perhaps shared with the poor saps trapped in the car with them):
I love driving down an empty dark freeway, lit up intermittently by the lights at the side of the road, and when I see the lights, I think of all the little worlds out there, all the little animals living in their habitats out there, and how we could pull over and have an adventure at any one of those forgotten pockets of the world, just nothing zones, backwash refuse property in the wake of the great freeways, and I like passing all of them, racing down the freeway, like a tunnel into the night…

Eventually, Michael and Joe end up getting high with their dealer friend Hector, and in the drifting conversation that follows, Michael introduces into a series of hypotheticals the one hypothetical most young men couldn’t get high enough in their lives to introduce, and it stops both Joe and Hector, and it cracks open a light of revelation on Michael, and the whole of it is accomplished with a sure, caring hand. There’s some very good imagery here, and a palpable sense of longing to change.

Naturally, it’s tempting to read this story and ascribe something of that longing to Franco himself, but the story – and its companion pieces in the upcoming book – is not a psychological hypothetical, it’s a fact. And it’s not some air-thin Hollywood vanity project, as young male movies stars are unfortunately prone to perform (the hollow efforts of Ethan Hawke, the twee little curiosities of Crispin Glover, the shudder-inducing poetry of Craig Sheffer, etc.). Don’t get me wrong: Franco’s celebrity status no doubt made some aspects of this whole process undeservedly easier (getting your first story published in Esquire, for instance), but those things don’t define the end product – readers would have to take a story like “Just Before the Black” seriously no matter who wrote it.

So congratulations are in order for our new young author! A fine inaugural effort, and I, for one, am hoping there’s lots more to come.


Sam said...

I will reluctantly read the story, but you have to admit--it rankles that he gets such incredible billing because of his pretty pout. I have probably rightly been accused of jealousy in sneering at his sudden prominence in the literary world, and jealousy is obviously not a thing one wants to waste time feeling. But still...geez. Even your even-handed praise of his story is about 80 percent rationalization about why it's okay to praise the story. I'm not saying Franco doesn't work hard, but so do thousands of other fresh-out-of-MFA grads. I think a little snobbery might be acceptable in this case....

And I agree, the Diaz story is boffo. My only slight compunction is that the 'return to form' you mention also sort of means 'return to almost the same story he's already written' ('Nilda' is my favorite of his stories, and it's very similar)--but even so, it was fantastic to read.

steve donoghue said...

No argument that Franco has received out-of-hand advantages for his fiction undreamt of by non-famous first-time writers his same age and talent level. My main point was that GIVEN his fame, his fiction could have been a LOT worse and still been foisted upon the world. This story - and the others in the collection - show CARE, a concern for the quality of the writing, and you have to respond to that regardless of the provenance, I think.

And by 'return to form' I meant 'return to line-by-line brilliance' - most certainly NOT conceptual originality. I don't think Diaz has ever had that, and the one huge time he tried to force it, he won the Pulitzer and wrote a sloppy, schizophrenic novel. I wouldn't mind at all if he just kept writing his slangy Latino fiction until he hones it to perfection and delivers a great whopping EPIC of el barrio. After all, we don't expect drawing-room social novels from Jack London, and who'd want to read a Glasgow drug-novel written by Patrick O'Brian?

Megan Kearns said...

How could you feature an image with the fabulous Tina Fey on the cover of Esquire and not even mention her? Shame on you, Steve!