REVIEWED BY A.E. WEISGERBER
Nice Things by James Franco | Edited by Sean Lovelace and Mark Neely | New Michigan Press | 2016 | ISBN 978-I-93482-53-0 | $9
Let us discuss Nice Things by James Franco. The cover design, wherein the swarthily handsome, puffy-eyed actor–hair just so–gazes directly through a scroll of text, hints at what’s inside. But beware, Ceci n’est pas une pipe. Sure, words veil most of Franco’s face, but whose?
I knew something was afoot when I saw the copyright belonged to editors Mark Neely and Sean Lovelace. (As an aside, other than Franco’s story, “Bungalow 89,” a short fiction in Vice involving Lindsay Lohan at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and seeing a trailer for his film 21 Days, I have no investment in a Franco mythology. I thought the Vice story was a decent slice of episodic fiction. I was impressed because it was interesting, scattershot.)
It nettled me, when I read this chapbook, that I’m not James Franco, as he seems to be the intended audience. But I think that means I got the joke. What Sean Lovelace and Mark Neely have done is write something that eclipses fan fiction: they’ve fed his vernacular into a super-elastic-bubble-plastic Franco linguistic-simulation-machine. It’s delightful. It compelled me to visit Franco’s Instagram; I verified they nailed his frenetic tone. How did they do it, without emojis?
Editor Mark Neely, award-winning poet and recipient of a NEA Poetry Fellowship who teaches at Ball State University, said, “We got very good at channeling his spirit and voice with a variety of techniques.”
How does that happen?
In an e-mail interview, Editor Sean Lovelace shared his process of simulating Franco’s style. Lovelace, also a Ball State professor, is a past winner of the Rose Metal Press Short Short Fiction contest.
He said, “I began writing about James Franco as a takedown, but due to deep research and inhabiting his voice, I actually (much to my surprise) turned to empathy and deeper issues, ones of mortality, of life choices, of Robert Frost and Apple Picking (a great poem about decisions and regret and resignation and some acceptance…), of Spiderman poem (James Franco can’t burn his suit either), of deeper literature, ideas of being doomed to live your one life (a short one), of being boxed in and boxed out of the truly experiential life, of living MANY lives. I actually began to see James Franco as some weird, authentic conduit for angst, but not only of a teeny-bopper, uninformed angst, but one of a true realization: I’ll never read the books I want to read, I’ll never live the lives I want to live, etc. Apples we’ll never pick.”
Neely-Lovelace present a Franco whose voice hovers somewhere between the actor he is and the artist he envisions, which concerns itself primarily with the human landscape of emotions. He’ll never be a squirrel in a pre-colonial forest, who can “travel from Illinois to the ocean without touching the ground.”
The royal narrative distance is peppered with second-person outbursts. It brings in some odd factoid or tidbit, for instance Axl Rose’s birthplace, then exclaims: “look it up!” It’s as if he continually needs validation, or is it that he holds the reader in contempt? Or is it charming?
Throughout the collection, the fictional Franco fails to emulate mentors. In the first Q&A, the narrator recalls being obsessed with River Phoenix, even adopting a vegetarian lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle that doesn’t suit the narrator, and cannot be sustained. While working at a McDonalds, the narrator chafed at corporate regulations that force food waste. He says: “I started eating the cheeseburgers that were headed for the trash after being under the warming lamps for more than seven minutes. I would also sneak frozen apple bars and eat them in the freezer.” That Q&A also has one of the truest descriptions of running a marathon, ever:
“(People say the marathon is 26.2 miles, it isn’t. It’s 20 miles first, sparks and sprinkles of pain [though it isn’t suffering], and you rely on the homework, the fartlek/intervals, the hill-work [Legs all minnows in a butter of shadow, (Gertrude Stein)], the long walks on Sunday listening to audio cookbooks; but then comes the second race, the 6.2 miles, the suffering, a tunnel, a cloudy tunnel that closes in, with lightning spider webs on the walls [if you can imagine], and you go to this place [I can’t explain it, a cave? A lost cave below an extinguished sea, on mars? (Plato)], this place… far away…well, anyway, the marathon isn’t one race of 26.2 miles: no, it’s two races, two separate identities, one walk of a tolerable pain, the other walk of—yes, I’ll say it—exquisite and existential agony.)”
Neely and Lovelace promulgate the idea, therefore, that artistic pursuits are grinding marathons, painful to finish. Their Franco is wont to leave things unfinished.
In an E-mail interview, Sean Lovelace posits that James Franco’s response to existential dilemmas “is to absolutely fragment. This has been bad for his art. Movies, arty ‘films,’ short stories, poems, paintings, graduate degrees. All his list of interests, they haven’t been sustained. So they often fail, not in concept, but in execution, in perseverance to see that vision through. Art is mostly grinding, especially good art. It isn’t gadfly.”
To illustrate, the narrator’s dilettantism includes an hubristic foray into sculpting.
“In an adaptation (some critics would even imply plagiarism) of his mentor, Toshiko Takaezu, James Franco attempts a revolutionary method of firing a triptych of copper plates at high temperatures in saggers (clay containers he keeps in the lambing barn) but the saggers explode, injuring a nearby ewe. In disgust James Franco marches to the kitchen, empties half a two-liter Diet Sprite, and fills the bottle with thick Monrovian wine.”
By the way, after that passage, my husband and I spent the next ten minutes riffing on Ricardo Montalban saying “fine Corinthian leather.” Hah hah RIP me!
What Neely and Lovelace do through this narrative pattern of trials and failures is to illustrate a charming visionary who understands deep down that reality is not glamorous. The unready self, that wanders past its artistic limits, disappoints. Maybe that loathsome fast-food corporation is okay, come to think of it, because it rewards the need to enjoy “a simple cheeseburger,” “succulent,” when the marathon of running, or writing, or acting, or sculpting, in all its “exquisite and existential agony” is done. When life fails, McDonald’s rewards.
My hands-down favorite moment of the whole collection comes in “Or holding the mirror of ourselves.” It includes – amid rumination of this earth being a “remnant of a devastating battle,” where the all-seeing eyes of circling “satellites notice” may or may not capture a lovely moment in an unexamined life, “a boy skipping rocks over the lime scum floating on the pond, invisible.” There is something lovely here, and as I look again at the cover, it is the fake words of this text which are the lime scum floating on James Franco’s image, but Lovelace and Neely have skipped a stone here, and Ander Monson’s cover design leaves a text-free aperture over Franco’s gaze, Franco’s mouth, revealing (like some white-trash sprite-and-wine-mixture’s-reflective-surface,) who Franco really is in the moonlight.
I recommend the chapbook – I’ve enjoyed talking about it with my friends immensely. I took it on a camping trip and read it during the day and recounted some of its best moments around the campfire at night. In terms of craft, Neely and Lovelace earned two cheeseburgers. Each. It’s a triumph. I didn’t know I liked James Franco so much, until I read Nice Things by James Franco. I’m a fan.
Anne E. Weisgerber has recent stories published or forthcoming in New South, The Airgonaut, Tahoma Literary Review, Vignette Review, and Jellyfish Review. She is a freelance fiction editor, and has been nominated for Best Small Fictions 2016. When not teaching, she’s working on a novel that spans five generations, or hanging out with the #fishtankwriters. Follow her @AEWeisgerber, or visit anneweisgerber.com.
Read More by This Author:
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- Rattle of Want by Gay Degani
- Jean, 1948 in Issue 2.1
- Mexicali Blues by Joseph Grant
- RIFT: Stories by Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan