Kingsley amis stopped reading his son’s chef d’oeuvre Money when the character Martin Amis appeared. If that is how you react towards unconventional narrator/author relationships in novels, then James Franco’s debut novel Actors’ Anonymous might not be for you.

Luckily for reviewers, Franco uses a professor character in the book to voice criticisms of Franco’s own technique: “Stop writing. You don’t have the facility for it. You have the love, but not the skill. As I have said, innumerable times, 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.” If this seems witty and self-aware, his use of (valuable) pages of his debut novel to defend himself about the time he was caught sleeping in a lecture seems less so. For those interested 1) It was an optional lecture in the evening and 2) he is a busy man.

James franco’s dubious claim that the book is indeed a novel, supported by the subtitle, “A Novel”, takes shape in two ways. One of these is a schematic where each chapter is meant to illustrate a different stage of an invented actors anonymous therapy program. Franco has fun here and some stages are indeed quite amusing.

The other technique, where characters and narrators overlap across the mostly unconnected short stories, is where his “craft” presumably comes in. Other avant-garde “novels” have had less cohesion, but then they didn’t follow on a collection of short stories. Franco does, however, hone in several disconnected chapters his own unique style, where he writes sentence after sentence of half aphorisms or lone nouns with paragraph breaks between them. No need to quote too liberally but “Facebook. I think it’s nice to have a mix of everything. Some critical writing is better than fiction. Most critical writing is better than fiction. Twitter. Google. Instagram.”, with each line being part of a separate paragraph, is a representative example.

The novel’s plot is fleshed out with the description of several actors and their unfulfilling lives, often spiced with tales of semi-autobiographical love affairs. At one point there is a (fictional?) text message conversation between him and a fan/lover. There is also a series of excruciating poems which Franco addresses to River Phoenix. In the last poem “James, it’s River”, River Phoenix (as interpreted by the poet James Franco) writes a poem back. He’s aware that most of this is trite and embarrassing, which at first seems to justify it. But we call most people who are aware that they are doing something badly, and keep doing it badly nonetheless, stupid. And the self-reflection doesn’t quite mask or distract from the crap see-through characters (real as they may well be) nor the lack of anything that would make this an artwork like those he so often takes time out to praise.

Franco ends up being less the ironic actor who dressed as Justin Bieber and danced with Ashley Benson to Selena Gomez’s “Love you like a love song”, clearly having a joke at our expense, and reveals himself to in fact be the embarrassingly earnest grad who praises his hero Salinger in Vice.
Actors’ Anonymous is published by Faber and Faber and (if you really want to spend money on 304 pages of cringingly terrible fiction) is available here.