Actor! Actor!

Niall Anderson looks at the history of actors writing fiction

Would you buy a used Western from this man?

You can’t imagine Popeye Doyle writing a novel. Buck Barrow barely lived long enough to read one. Royal Tenenbaum wouldn’t write a novel, but he might pass off someone else’s as his own. Harry Caul, on the other hand, looks to have the necessary focus, but he’d need to put down that saxophone and stop going insane for a while.

Gene Hackman, the man who played all these parts, hasn’t made a movie in almost a decade, but he has used his relative leisure to write four novels. Gaunt, sparely told and resolutely unmodern, the first three are blown off-course every few chapters by excitable procedural interludes – long disquisitions on how to cast an anchor in a storm, for example, or dredge up a sunken chest from the bottom of the ocean. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to lay these passages at the door of Hackman’s co-author, Dan Lenihan, a retired marine archaeologist once charged with salvaging the debris from Pearl Harbor.

For his fourth novel, a western called Payback at Morning Creek, Hackman has done what all great gunslingers and novelists must do: he’s struck out alone. Gaunt, sparely told and unmodern like never before, Payback at Morning Creek does away with Lenihan’s antic boyishness and substitutes for it an epic manliness that is all Hackman’s own. Thus remasculated, Hackman turns his attention to the real business: that of rewriting Shane from memory.

It would be easy to be cruel about this (certainly easier than being funny about it), but it seems both right and significant that when Hackman the novelist goes to the well for inspiration, it’s movie plots he dredges up. Movies are Hackman’s training, and Payback‘s relative unoriginality doesn’t stop him from getting the familiar beats right. In doing so, he neither condescends to film nor overexalts the novel. In the best sense of the phrase, he writes what he knows.

Dirk Bogarde feels your pain

Hackman was born in 1930, less than nine years after Dirk Bogarde, but if Hackman’s novels can be described as historical fiction, Bogarde’s seem genuinely to belong to another age. Crammed with enough sex and violence to give Ian Fleming a headache, but with a heartsick undertow straight out of Graham Greene, Bogarde’s novels must once have seemed like the quintessence of modernity – to Dirk Bogarde.

Read enough of them, though, and you begin to notice a certain recurring theme: that rich people can have it hard, too. You also begin to notice a recurring character. He is male and eternally middle-aged. He is English, sexually ambiguous, and in self-chosen exile. He may or may not write an annual bestseller. (He might also, at this stage, start to remind you of someone.) Shortly before the novel begins, something will have happened to him that has allowed him to figure out the complete meaning of life. He never overplays this, or expects other people to understand such dearly-bought and dreadful knowledge; nevertheless, everybody who comes to him – that is to say, everybody else in the entire novel – leaves with a sad sense of having met a man who just knows. This (from A Gentle Occupation) is the kind of thing he says to people:

King and country, death and glory, all the rest of it, knew that. Knew that I might cop it one day, or get a bullet in the backside, lose a leg, couple of fingers, that sort of thing … Ordinary wounds. You know. Didn’t expect the others. The ones you speak of, the, what was it, hidden ones? Worse than the others in a way.

In life, Dirk Bogarde was a demented exaggerator. He claimed to have helped liberate Belsen, despite army records showing him as being billeted in Java at the time. In his fiction, he goes the other way: starting with exaggeration and working his way glumly down towards small truths, half-truths, nanotruths. Strangely enough, his closest kin as a novelist is Martin Amis: he has the same commitment to a personalised high-style, the same buried glee at writing the worst things he can think of, and the same oddly flat moral sense – all the flatter for being hammered at time and again.

Bogarde clearly thought of himself as a novelist, where Hackman seems to think of himself as a man writing novels. Their books are different partially as a result of these approaches, but it’s striking how little either of them seems to be trying it on. They admit of no hyphenation: they’re not actors-turned-writers. They’re writers (when they’re writing) and they mean it. Which brings us to James Franco, the most hyphen-friendly crosscultural phenomenon since Poochie. James Franco is definitely trying it on.

James Franco meets Axl Rose

Palo Alto: Stories came out to raspberries of derision just in time for Christmas 2010. It isn’t very good (“the insult came out of his cruel face like a rocky stream”), but its sins are mild compared to the offence it seemed to cause. The offence wasn’t so much at Palo Alto being a bad work of fiction; it was that it seemed to be at the service of another fiction – the embiggening of James Franco. An old-fashioned sort of puritanism, this, the kind that insists literature should be a refuge from commercial considerations rather than a vehicle for them.

Reading Palo Alto, you kind of see the puritans’ point. It’s a hasty production, all slapdash impressionism and cute vulgarity. Even the better stories are stuffed with redundancies: moody reflections on nothing much, written while Franco was deciding what the next actual scene should be. It would have been a great kindness to Franco and readers alike if someone had sat him down and helped him cut that stuff out. Unfortunately, one of the characteristics of vanity projects is how much even the people helping out think it’s a vanity project.

The other characteristic of vanity projects is that they’re always sincere on some level. Yes, James Franco is trying it on, but no work of fiction gets finished without belief, and the sheer mess of Palo Alto attests to someone with more ideas than time, and more ambition than experience; not someone without talent trying to magic it up out of nothing. Looked at that way, Franco’s other mid-career eccentricities (his MFAs and PhDs; his eagerness to describe appearing in General Hospital as “performance art”) begin to look like nervous overcompensation. Not the performance of someone who has conquered his chosen field and is looking for new challenges; rather the late-night cramming of a student with the sneaky fear that other candidates still have the drop on him.

It may be that James Franco’s approach to fiction tells us nothing that isn’t about James Franco, but his restlessness seems partly generational. Not for him the straightforward hobbyist approach of Gene Hackman, or the practiced insouciance of Dirk Bogarde counting the feathers in his cap. Indeed, it seems almost the whole point that Franco’s fiction should appear unfinished and dishevelled. If you risk doing something perfect and succeed, that single perfect work may become a canon by itself and live to overshadow the rest of what you do. But if you leave the rough edges in, you can keep coming back. In this respect, James Franco resembles certain other Hollywood-by-way-of-Etsy talents: Miranda July, Mike Mills, David Gordon Green, Charlie Kaufman – people whose works seems to say that fiction is not something you do; it’s everything you do.

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