Confusing the thoughts, opinions and flaws of a book’s narrator with those of his creator is never a good idea — even when they share a name. In his debut novel Actors Anonymous, actor/filmmaker/scholar James Franco revels in such pseudo-autobiographical confusion. (His first book, a collection of stories, appeared in 2010.)
There’s a character here named James Franco who bears a striking resemblance to his famous namesake, but here that postmodernist sleight of hand reminds us that we’re all acting, all the time, in the roles we’ve come to think of as ourselves.
A 12-step series of chapters — made up of stories and poems, anecdotes and aphorisms and the requisite screenplay — follow the basic formal model of a self-help book. Each section is about a struggling actor or someone dealing with the burning desire to be someone else, even if just for a few minutes. The conceit is a smart one that asks us to consider many sorts of addiction: drugs, alcohol, sex, attention and adoration.
In addition to Franco, the characters include a former drug addict who has taken a job at McDonald’s, where he practices his goofy accents at the drive-thru window; a young man trying to find his place amid his peers in some Los Angeles acting classes; and a college freshman super excited to meet James Franco at a Starbucks. There’s a meditation on celebrity here that no one else could have written.
The chapter titled “The Sass Account” stands as not only a highlight of the book but as potential classic of postmodernist storytelling that calls to mind David Foster Wallace’s magazine essays (the best writing of his short life) in the use of footnotes as a sort of accompanying harmonic voice. In Franco’s case, an unnamed actor called The Actor is responding in writing to an unflattering profile in a glossy magazine. That episode continues later in a complex and brilliant section in which a number of characters interact in tremendously fun, meta-fictional ways.
Overall, Actors Anonymous is a lively book full of graphic sexual violence and sensitive introspection. The preface of the novel informs us that “There is usually an ingredient of self-hatred that underlies actors. This hatred manifests in different ways, sometimes it is so buried that it is virtually unnoticeable, but don’t be fooled, it’s there.” While that insight isn’t particularly original, it does speak to the sadness beneath the glamorous surface of this engaging novel.
Franco’s hard work and talent have earned him a tremendous platform, and it would be great to see him use it to take even greater literary risks. That said, Actors Anonymous succeeds on its own unique terms, but it also gives us every reason to eagerly anticipate what Franco will write when he steps even further away from his own comfort zone.
Andrew Ervin is a writer in Philadelphia.