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James Franco – Actors Anonymous (2 stars)

The actor’s circuitous, self-referential ‘novel’ is a frustrating read

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James Franco – Actors Anonymous

(Faber & Faber)

Franco mercilessly turns his “James Franco” persona inside out’ promises the book jacket for Actors Anonymous – but which persona is this exactly? Is it Stoner Franco, the pseudo-recurring character from the films Pineapple Express and Freaks and Geeks? Is it Serious Franco, the pretentious art obsessive who studies creative writing and takes part in daytime soaps as an ‘art project’? Or is it Prankster Franco, the guy behind both these roles who has gleefully volunteered them for parody in This is the End and his recent Comedy Central Roast? Is it even possible to parody a parody?

If you think this circular line of questioning is frustrating, you should try reading Actors Anonymous. Themed around the 12 steps and traditions of the other, more famous AA, it’s an interlinked short story collection (hardly a novel, as the cover claims) of every literary device Franco can cram in, including multiple (often unnamed) narrators, poetry, epistolary fragments, scenes from a screenplay and numerous allusions to the author in real life. The centrepiece of this collection is ‘The Angel’, in which several nicknamed narrators (made identifiable by differences in font, text colour and copious footnotes) bicker, lie, impersonate each other and gradually unfold a plot involving rape, murder and a character named James Franco. As if this isn’t enough, a character representing Franco’s university professor weighs in, offering a critique of Franco’s writing: ‘You throw in a lot of flash, to hide a lack of substance. I think this comes from your deep fear that readers won’t accept you as an actor and a writer.’

With so much double-bluffing and second-guessing, Actors Anonymous never has enough space to develop into something satisfying. It’s a pity, as some narratives are genuinely engaging – the ‘McDonalds’ stories feature a character called Sean who both attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and assumes different characters as he works the drive-thru, perfectly capturing the promise of the book. Of course, with Franco’s desire to be Bret Easton Ellis-lite, Sean also has two barely-discussed kids, and ends up giving handjobs to his possibly learning-disabled Mexican co-worker in the bathrooms, but at least James Franco doesn’t walk in and offer a chin-stroking assessment of the money shot.

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