Actor perhaps not so anonymous in James Franco novel

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One of the greatest concerns an author has when writing fiction is that he reveals too much of himself in it, discarding his fleshy facade and leaking the inner workings of his mind, his consciousness as visible as the black ink on the page. Celebrated actor James Franco revels in this self-fixated means of expression in his debut novel, “Actors Anonymous.”

From a technical perspective, the work is barely a novel in form, holding on to this title only through its pseudo-fictional accounts of characters stumbling and struggling through Hollywood, craving endless rounds of sex and speed dispensed with the propelling intensity of a shotgun. Indeed, Franco’s vivid portrayals of the raw, grotesque side of the film industry is riveting and commendable, but he often gets too caught up in his own recollections to string together a cohesive story with a
beginning, middle and end.

“Actors Anonymous” begins with a noble epigraph by the famous 19th-century poet W.B. Yeats, drawing the work into conversation with a more refined literary canon. Little allusions such as these — references to William Blake, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Shakespeare appear throughout as well — attempt to authenticate Franco’s qualifications as an educated writer and put his debut novel in conversation with literary greats. Franco even states explicitly in the preface that he wants his novel to be regarded as “a serious text.”

Despite such lofty goals, Franco’s burning desire to depict “the sound and the fury” of life prevails throughout the work. The book contains a complex and intermingling hodgepodge of dramatic character features, short stories, proverbial maxims, riddles, text messages, letters and Franco-on-a-soapbox rantings and monologues. The book’s experimental loose form is indeed a fascinating reflection of an intellectually troubled mind that strives to understand itself, to find meaning and symbolism amid the chaos. The novel, however, paradoxically self-restricts such order with its ceaseless desire to portray anger, addiction and sexual acts in as many different forms as possible.

The book conveys no particular character as fully developed or dominant except perhaps “The Actor,” a man who seems so likely to be Franco himself that even Franco anticipates this criticism, interjecting midstory with an awkward disclaimer reminding the reader the book is fiction. This disclaimer takes the reader out of the story world and ironically draws even more attention to the question of just how much is not fiction in the novel.

This question is the most important one in “Actors Anonymous.” Which raunchy sexcapades, which Franco describes in rigorous detail, actually happened? Which did not? He confesses to sleeping around constantly, alluding to calculated nights with fans and students at Columbia University, UCLA and UC Berkeley. It becomes clear that a lot more was once reality than one would initially think.

Franco’s narrator revels in the shock factor of odd, explicit recollections of oral and anal sex with countless women, gay sex orgies and violence. The novel’s myriad characters are loosely connected through the mysterious shadow of “The Actor,” but there is no solid climax or conclusion to fully unify the plot. The reader yearns to solve the riddles the elusive Franco inserts into the text, as countless names are blanked out with only initials or replaced with childish pseudonyms like “Diarrhea” or “Angel.” The reader’s natural desire to understand the manic, scatterbrained text underscores one of the work’s themes: Craving order in a disorderly world is futile.

Whether the intentionally disorganized, chaotic writing will appear as literary genius to all who read it is debatable. Most readers will likely just get frustrated and put the book down, writing it off as something with the rough texture of a first draft. Either way, however, Franco wins — he gets you to see that life is messy, unrefined, a blending of countless media all working in a void.

Although “Actors Anonymous” appears to be set in the external world, what it portrays even more accurately than a troubled postmodern America is a consciousness warped and shaped by the lights of a savage Hollywood.

Contact Kate Irwin at [email protected].