Actors Anonymous by James Franco

Mark Twain said, ‘Write what you know,’ and James Franco knows acting. But he has also directed two feature films this year (Interior. Leather Bar. and As I Lay Dying) and teaches English at the University of California. He published a collection of linked stories, Palo Alto, in 2010, and is currently undertaking a PhD candidature at Yale. Director, teacher, writer, student – aren’t these but roles in the performance of life? Such is the premise of Franco’s debut novel, Actors Anonymous.

Though the title suggests a juicy tell-all, in the style of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, Actors Anonymous is the opposite of an expose. Entering the literary world as a madcap exercise in self-obfuscation, it is much closer in spirit to Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck’s hoax film project I’m Still Here (2010): a reality-inspired fiction told by an unreliable narrator. Sometimes that narrator is Franco but mostly it is the wildest figures of his imagination, expressing themselves freely in a mixed-bag confessional.

A continuation of the multi-character narrative he developed in Palo Alto, Actors Anonymous is Franco’s attempt to define and give voice to the fragmented and tortured souls who dwell in the darkest corners of his psyche. The result is a book as narcissistic as it is self-loathing. Characters who don’t embody Franco’s own white, upper middle-class, heteronormative and male constitution are treated with a lack of respect, and sensitive readers will think Franco is playing out some disturbing, deep-seeded racism and misogyny – but that would be too simplistic. It is, after all, a work of fiction. The real question then, is not so much ‘Is it real?’ but ‘Is it convincing?’ If you read Actors Anonymous and you’re outraged then perhaps James Franco really is every bit as talented as he says he is.

Tara Kaye Judah works as a bookseller at Readings St Kilda.