If you’re wondering why Sean Penn’s smug face has been all over the talk show circuit of late, here’s why: He has a novel out today. No, your eyes do not mislead you: We all thought he was just an Oscar-winning actor, an intrepid international journalist and onetime terrible husband to Madonna, but he’s something much more. Just like David Duchovny and Tom Hanks, Penn is a very literary actor man.
When news broke earlier this month that Penn’s debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, not only existed but included a poem about the #MeToo movement, I received it as a clarion call to action.
“Saddle up, Fallon,” I told myself. “An actor’s overblown prose needs puncturing.” I cracked my review copy of Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff and settled in to ruin my own weekend.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Is it needlessly cynical to read a pompous celebrity’s very bad novel purely in order to dunk on it? Yes. But the true joke is on me, because it’s physically impossible to dunk on a novel that is already dunking on itself so hard.
Bob Honey is an exercise in ass-showing, a 160-page self-own.
We might also call it needlessly cynical to promote such a garbage novel as the second coming of The Crying of Lot 49 just because it was written by a craggy white man with an unearned sense of intellectual superiority and a well-thumbed thesaurus. Nonetheless, Penn was allowed to publish this novel, and Salman Rushdie blurbed it. So here we are.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is Bob Honey? It’s a slim novel about Bob Honey, an aging septic tank entrepreneur, merkin peddler and government contract killer of senior citizens (they drain society’s resources and produce methane). Bob Honey does stuff, and he doesn’t like all the BRANDING and SELFIES the teens do these days.
He obsessively hates his chubby, red-haired ex-wife, and he obsessively adores a young woman named Annie, who has alopecia and is completely hairless. After they first have sex, he requests that she use a merkin, as he’s “[n]ever one for psychosexual infantilism or pedophilic fantasy.” Eventually, President Donald Trump becomes a figure in the plot, but this happens without explanation or narrative consistency.
Aside from that, it’s hard to explain what the novel is about. It’s constantly smash-cutting from Bob’s California home to Baghdad in 2003 to a barge in the Pacific Ocean. In each place, something violent happens that signifies very little in the scheme of the novel. Nothing hangs together. Often when critics compare a novel to a “fever dream,” they mean it as a compliment, conveying that the book creates its own otherworldly universe and dream logic. When I say that Bob Honey is reminiscent of a fever dream, I mean that it’s nonsensical, unpleasant and left me sweaty with mingled horror and confusion.
All well and good, you might still be thinking. But is Bob Honey wildly offensive? Reader, it is.
Scattered throughout is the sort of gleeful racism and misogyny that qualifies Penn’s work as “darkly comic.” At various points, the novel espouses progressive viewpoints ― that women speaking up about rape is brave, that extrajudicial killings of black men are wrong, that people should have voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump. But Penn has long struggled to translate his professed liberal views, and his virtuous causes, into a respectful attitude toward women and people of color generally.
Bob Honey is no different. Its perfunctory pro-equality screeds sit uneasily in a book that invents a New Guinean contractor patrol in 2003 Baghdad, which he refers to as a “grass-skirted cadre of cannibals,” and nicknames a black teenage girl who lives with a predatory older man “juvie Jemima.”
The novel repeatedly makes comedic hay out of violence against women, while holding them up as objects of ridicule. Women are revolting because they have lipstick smeared on their teeth, because they age, because they try to avoid aging, because they have boogers, because they’re chubby, because they talk too much or too loudly or at the wrong time. They’re killed in all sorts of colorful ways: hammers to the skull, helicopters crashing into their suburban homes, scissor-lift collapses, being plunged into shark-infested waters. Their deaths are plinking grace notes in the symphony of Bob’s adventures.
Offensive, yes ― yet the book world loves a provocateur. And perhaps the plot is a nausea-inducing mess, but in literary fiction, plot isn’t necessarily king. What of Sean Penn’s prose stylings, which earned him comparisons to Mark Twain and E. E. Cummings by [checks book jacket] comedian Sarah Silverman? Is the prose any better than the underwhelming narrative?
Well, Penn’s prose is worse.
It’s not often that you read a literary novel about which the most flattering adjective you might use is “derivative,” but such is the case here. Transparently modeled on the work of transgressive 20th century literary men like Thomas Pynchon, William S. Burroughs and Charles Bukowski, Bob Honey is replete with 25-cent words, tits and assholes, and political harangues.
“I suspect that Thomas Pynchon ... would love this book,” blurbs Salman Rushdie. I’m sure Pynchon would, in the sense that it’s flattering to be so energetically imitated.
As a long-time, passionate defender of polysyllabic words and dense prose in the name of precision and complexity, I consider myself taught a very painful lesson by Bob Honey. Sometimes, longer words are not more precise. Just because Penn chose to use the word “soupçon” doesn’t mean he’s used it precisely. (In fact, he rarely uses words quite correctly.)
Here are a few sample sentences demonstrating Penn’s “shock and awe” tactic of deluging readers in a flood of sesquipedalian terms which, on closer inspection, barely mean anything in the given order and context:
“Hence, his life remains incessantly infused with her identity-infidelity, and her abhorrent ascensions to those constant salacious sessions of sexual solitaire she’d seen as self-regard.” ― page 11
“Whenever he felt these collisions of incubus and succubus, he punched his way out of the proletariat with the purposeful inputting of covert codes, thereby drawing distraction through Scottsdale deployments, dodging the ambush of innocents astray, evading the viscount vogue of Viagratic assaults on virtual vaginas, or worse, falling passively into prosaic pastimes.” ― page 36
“Behind decorative gabion walls, an elderly neighbor sits centurion on his porch watching Bob with surreptitious soupçon.” ― page 71
“While the privileged patronize this pickle as epithet to the epigenetic inequality of equals, Bob smells a cyber-assisted assault emboldened by right-brain Hollywood narcissists.” ― page 99
This is all, apparently, supposed to seem deeply witty and profound. Instead, it’s akin to the product of a postmodern literature bot. It doesn’t seem quite possible that a human person wrote this mess.
In part, this is because Penn has certain overwhelming tics that seem like the product of a flawed algorithm rather than a conscious choice. For example, alliteration. Penn’s penchant for alliteration is so marked that I wondered, at times, whether he thought it was a prerequisite of the novel form. I considered covering Bob Honey by simply rounding up every instance of alliteration in the novel, but reprinting 92 percent of the book would be a copyright violation. Instead, a few samples:
“Bob’s boyhood essence set him up for a separation from time, synergy, and social mores, leading him to acts of indelicacy, wounding words, and woeful whimsy that he himself would come to dread.” ― page 12
“Silly questions of cherries saved served to sever any last impression Bob might have had of Spurley as a serious citizen.” ― page 94
“There is pride to be had where the prejudicial is practiced with precision in the trenchant triage of tactile terminations.” ― page 125
“His dream’s desert daylight diffusion dictated disturbances in the void of visual detail.” ― page 142
This prosodic feast culminates with a six-page epilogue poem, which delivers some heavy-handed insights on our current political moment. Here’s Penn on #MeToo:
Though warrior women
Bravely walk the walk,
Derivatives of disproportion
Draw heinous hypocrites
To their flock.
Where did all the laughs go?
Are you out there, Louis C.K.?
Once crucial conversations
Kept us on our toes;
Was it really in our interest
To trample Charlie Rose?
And what’s with this ‘Me Too’?
This infantilizing term of the day...
Is this a toddler’s crusade?
Reducing rape, slut-shaming, and suffrage to reckless child’s play?
A platform for accusation impunity?
Due process has lost its sheen?
But, fuck it, what me worry?
I’m a hero,
To Time Magazine!
As I read Bob Honey, I couldn’t stop thinking of Lili Loofbourow’s recent, brilliant Virginia Quarterly Review essay, “The Male Glance,” which argues that we refuse to read genius, or even artistic intentionality, into works by women. The flip side is that we do readily presume those things in the works of men. Her central example of the latter phenomenon was the first season of “True Detective,” which was “analyzed and investigated to the point of parody — so much so that, in the aftermath, multiple critics wrote articles about their experiences of so badly overreading the show’s ambitions.”
I sincerely believe that no serious critic will embrace Bob Honey as credulously and breathlessly as critics embraced “True Detective” ― the literary world is suspicious of hobbyist celebrity authors ― but Penn’s already been offered more benefit of the doubt than he’s earned, and more than any equivalent actress would receive. He joins a select crew of successful white male actors who think they have very literary things to say, and who have therefore been offered hardcover book deals with blurbs by Salman Rushdie.
Y’all: We don’t have to do this. The next time Matt Damon or Gary Oldman or, God forbid, Alec Baldwin decides that he has a novel in him, publishers can just say no. Save that advance for someone who knows what “soupçon” means, or at least someone who won’t write the following passage:
“She begins to writhe, cackle, and cough out her laughter uncontrollably. Her eyes watering, she nearly poos. Bob spies what might be a dime-sized and expanding moisture blossom from her rear-end-center, signifying perhaps some minimal ass-piss.”
Lord save us from the minimal ass-piss of Sean Penn’s literary genius.
Clarification: A previous version of this story indicated Penn allegedly had been abusive to Madonna when the two were married. In 2015, in a sworn affidavit filed in court as part of a defamation lawsuit Penn filed over the allegations, Madonna denied Penn had abused her.
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