June 12, 2014
James Franco’s perpetual James Franco-ness manifests itself in the form of a new story
by Bradley Babendir
James Franco, who has starred in critically acclaimed films like This is the End, Spider-Man 2, and Your Highness has made another foray into (probably-maybe) fiction this year, with his story “Bungalow 89.” The piece which was included in VICE Magazine’s annual Fiction Issue, is a scatterbrained narrative revolving around characters with real names, doing things the people with those real names probably did. All things considered, it’s a bad piece of fiction.
It is not, however, the type of fiction that can ruin the world or destroy literature or forget to feed a fish or really do any sort of marginal harm at all, like this Gawker article suggests. Michelle Dean makes a number of compelling points about the problems with the story from a formal standpoint, including a handful of interesting considerations about what he is or isn’t accomplishing or trying to accomplish. But Dean’s most notable observation is her first: “People don’t and shouldn’t take James Franco seriously as a writer.” This removes him of almost all power to do the things the rest of her article warns against, namely, injuring the state of modern literature in any way.
James Franco is to writing as Michael Jordan is to Minor League Baseball. He might be a pretty good writer for an actor, just like Jordan was a pretty good baseball player for a basketball player. But he is not playing in the big leagues—VICE is not the MLB.
It might be a different scenario if his work were somehow presented in a way that lauded it; it might be a different scenario if his work was receiving bundles of awards. It isn’t. People are not saying “I read this great story.” People are saying, “I read this story by James Franco.”
And that, of course, is transparently the point of everything that Franco has done, is doing, and probably will do, up to and I’m sure past his retirement. The publishing of this story is just another scene in the neverending play in which James Franco lives the life of “James Franco.”
The entire thing, from the beginning of the story to the end, is a perpetual performance of a performance. It is published in the magazine’s fiction issue, but it is ostensibly true, the character is to be considered James Franco instead of actually being James Franco, and he goes on winding tangents that are centered around the idea that celebrities, such as himself have to always be acting in some fashion as an essential function of their lives.
If that’s not enough, the piece is categorized under the “Film” section of VICE’s website, and, in what I would consider a rather obvious satirization of what people expect him to do, his biography at the bottom of the pages refers to him only as “the author of two short-story collections.”
For better or worse, legitimate or not, the entire thing is a worm on a hook. Franco is more interested in naval-gazing, in exploring his personal identity as a celebrity and artist, than he is in anything else—and he’s imploring his readers to do the same.
James Franco is a lot of things, but he isn’t stupid. He’ll do a lot of things, but one of those won’t be destroy literature. The notion that this short story—a story not published in The Atlantic or The New Yorker or even Ploughshares or Tin House or any other serious, lauded literary publication—is probably not going to burn the literary culture to the ground.
The prevailing point here being that sometimes it’s best to just call a spade a spade. James Franco wrote a story. That’s pretty much it.