Review: Actors Anonymous by James Franco
I finished this novel last night and figured I’d better post a review while it’s still fresh in my mind. And that’s because in many ways it reminds me of a graduate course I took senior year in college called Communications and Literature. I was supposed to take this lame senior seminar as a requirement, but with a little foot work and a really cool advisor in the fine arts department who had some national fame at the time (and signed anything I asked him to sign because he knew how hard I worked in his sculpture classes) I figured out a way to bypass the senior seminar and take a graduate course that focused on literature, interpretation, and communications.
The course was so intense the professor admitted on the first day he didn’t get it either, especially the semiotics and semantics. And the reason I’m even mentioning this now is because while I was reading Actors Anonymous I felt as if I’d been transported back to that graduate course all over again. Actors Anonymous, like the graduate course, is the kind of book that needs to be absorbed a certain way, and parsed with an articulate eye. So far, in reading most of the mainstream so-called professional reviews I haven’t seen anyone do that with Actors Anonymous. I’m not talking about Amazon reviews now. I highly respect all customer reviews and everyone has an opinion I respect. I’m only talking about people who get paid to write reviews for mainstream publications, and who should know better. Unfortunately, I guess they didn’t take any grad courses in communications and literature.
One aspect of communications and literature I learned about in the grad course I mentioned above is that we tend to interpret literature differently at various times in our lives. In other words, I might feel completely different about Actors Anonymous ten years from now if I reread it again in the future. If you don’t believe me, revisit a novel you read ten years ago and see if you feel the same way about it. As our lives and circumstances change through the years, we often tend to interpret the books we read in different ways. For me, at this point in my life, I think I appreciated Actors Anonymous as much as I did because as a career fiction writer I understood what was written on the page, and also what was written between the lines of the pages. I probably wouldn’t have felt this way ten years ago.
Due to the fact that Actors Anonymous is so abstract at times I can’t get into a full plot description because the novel doesn’t really follow the normal course of novel writing. I have no doubt it’s fiction for the most part. And yet it’s not an anthology, and I should know because I’ve been in far more anthologies than I can even count at this point. What I thought it did was follow a theme that revolves around acting, the deep need to act almost to the point of addiction, and all the traps that accompany fame and fortune if an actor is successful. And it’s done in a current (and simple) way that I think is about as real as any novel I’ve ever read before. If there were a genre labeled “Reality Fiction,” this would be a perfect fit. There’s no proverbial sugar-coating deal going on here, and in the same respect it wasn’t too over the top in a way I might have questioned.
The book does bounce at times from chapter to chapter, which I thought added more abstract appeal. There’s a chapter with texts discussing a realtor who boasts about things like her glorious adventures to her deep desire for what I thought was supposed to be interpreted as affection. I could be wrong about that, but it was an interesting chapter anyway. And it’s really the way a reader interprets the chapter that matters most. And then there are chapters like McDonalds I and McDonalds II where an unusual guy who seems to drift with the breeze tries to pull his life together by working in fast food and making a few extra bucks on the side by performing sexual favors for some poor unfortunate who’s not going to get laid any other way. In fact, throughout the novel I found many well written sex scenes. But they aren’t sex scenes that are designed to stimulate the reader in a sexual way. Most are raw, they devolve into the darker side of life most struggling artists experience at one point or another, and they often left me wanting to shower (or rinse my mouth with peroxide). However, the fact that they had this brand of clarity only made the novel more intense for me and the overall reading experience.
If I had begun a book like this and found the writing overdone or poorly executed I probably wouldn’t have finished. Thankfully, none of the characters “barked,” in the dialogue tags and no one’s “feet climbed up the stairs.” However, the word economy, the exact way each sentence flows into another, and the structure of the narrative kept me turning each page into the early hours of the several mornings. I would love to have seen the original manuscript without revises just to compare it with the final book. It’s been so well edited and made so tight I couldn’t find one single flaw with the writing. Even the sex scenes worked, and scenes like this in other novels I’ve read tend to be over-written many times. But not once during a single sex scene did I read a sentence like, “He brought her off.” This might sound like a minor detail to many people. But if you read a lot and you know the difference, it’s a huge thing for others.
Whether or not this novel was written to be sarcastic at times could be anyone’s guess. I did detect a hint of snark and WTF-ery in an amusing way (Perez Hilton: smile), but it’s not the first time I’ve seen that in fiction of this nature and I’m sure it won’t be the last. The voice in a general sense kept me reading, even during a few of the bumpy sections where I had to go back and figure out what had happened. For me, that was fun. I have eclectic taste and I like reading abstract works that challenge the norm every once in a while just as much as I sometimes like reading Debbie Macomber. I’ve already recommended Actors Anonymous to people I think will like it as much as I did (or get something out of it), and I’ve cautioned a few who I know would expect something else. As a writer, the one biggest fear I’ve always had was getting nothing but three star mediocre reviews. Because the books that get the most balanced reviews between one star and five always seem to be the most challenging to the reader. They touched a nerve, they made someone think, and whether they pissed someone off or thrilled someone else, the extreme is always what matters most in the end in fiction.
My suggestion to anyone vetting this book for purchase would be to check out all the reviews and read the samples. My warning would be to beware of all the so-called professional mainstream reviews that talk more about the author and the author’s fame than the actual contents of the book.
Side note: I think you can retrieve your iTunes if your drive crashes. (It’s in the book.)