Sean Lovelace and Mark Neely, eds.
New Michigan Press
64 Pages; Print, $9.00
…underneath, everyone is living someother life you don’t know about.
There was a moon and it was on thewater. I always see nice images like thatbut I don’t know what to do with them.
These lines, by James Franco, are the epigraphs that open Nice Things by James Franco, a slim volume of poems, prose, prose poetry and Q&A interview sessions between the author and his editors, Sean Lovelace and Mark Neely. To say the work presented here is self-referential would be an understatement: writer/actor/professor James Franco relates the complexities of many James Francos, taking readers on a wild ride-a-long with characters he has created in his own image who have his own name. And while some of the material might appear random, self-indulgent and at times frustratingly inaccessible, it turns out that, as poet Marianne Moore said of Modern poetry, “Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one / discovers in / it after all, a place for the genuine.”
And, often, the genius. Modernist in much of its construction (stream of consciousness, fragmentation)—which allows Moore’s “contempt” to be read as the kind of alienation readers in her era experienced when faced with work that appeared to resist interpretation—and contemporary in its allusions and ideas, Nice Things by James Franco showcases Franco’s literary and historical knowledge, as well as his originality and talent as a writer. While much of the work can seem like private disconnected musings and erratic explorations, it is actually quite welcoming and, surprisingly, a unified whole, thanks particularly to a consistent thematic return to the idea of “nice things” (a phrase, according to the interviewer in the Q&A, that came from Franco’s father) and formal, structural choices. For example, untitled stanzas of poetry appear every so many pages; even though the Table of Contents lists the first line of each poem as its title, rendering the stanzas as individual poems, they can also be read as one long poem, providing a kind of mother ship, tethering all of the other material buzzing around it.
The poem opens the book: “We can’t have nice things / in this artichoke- / painted room, sitting all itchy / and opera-esque, fat, obsolete, / horny for Sleater-Kinney” and closes it as well, “We can’t have nice things / digging through rubble / in these bodies / that aren’t even ours.” And here, the “ours” refers to the many James Francos in the book and, by virtue of the universality of the protagonists’s queries, to the readers as well.
Another element that provides some stability here are the Q&A sessions, which become increasingly more serious about the art and craft of writing, although the first one might not seem so on the surface. Here, the interlocutor (presumably either one or both of the editors) attempts to get James Franco to talk about his writing process:
Your ninth book Nice Things by James Franco, is a collection of linked stoemoirs (what you once called “autobiographical stories in plotted verse”). Can you describe how this collection came together?A:
All I know is that when I needed McDonald’s,
McDonald’s was there for me. When no one else was.
No matter what the interviewer asks—the standard questions about writing, about process, literary devices, and inspiration—James Franco’s responses are about McDonalds. Yes, the restaurant. How he came to work there, how it transformed him from a vegetarian to a carnivore, how he tried out acting voices on customers, how McDonald’s saved him. While it might be tempting to share what appears to be the interviewer’s frustration—at one point, he says “James, focus”—the fact is that the retelling of the McDonald’s experience does in its details and observations and revelations (“It taught me a lot about the future”) lend a level of context and real understanding to this collection, which explores, among other...