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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Put away the pen, Sean: your debut novel belongs on the cutting-room floor

Yet another actor has deigned to write a book. The loser will be anyone foolish enough to read it

US actor and director Sean Penn AFP
US actor and director Sean Penn AFP

In a high-profile television

interview at the weekend, Sean Penn invited CBS News into his home, told them he didn’t really enjoy acting anymore and began trying to sell his debut novel which, as the pre-publication headlines noted, features a part-time assassin who believes the #MeToo movement is infantilising and suggests the United States (under a Trump-esque president called Mr Landlord) is a “nation in need of an assassin”. Controversial, certainly. Provocative, absolutely. And yetBob Honey Who Just Do Stuff barely seemed to interest Penn himself.

“You know,” he drawled, somewhat half-heartedly. “Some people are gonna get this book and some people are not gonna get this book. Some people will really enjoy it, others will loathe it.”

Spoken like a successful actor who doesn’t really need to be a writer – but has enough cultural cache to get a publishing deal anyway. Prior to Penn, the most recent convert was Tom Hanks. On promoting his collection of short stories Uncommon Type (gathered from 20 years of ideas) Hanks, too, barely managed a ringing endorsement of writerly life. His slightly lame advice to an assembled London audience eager to hear his thoughts on where inspiration might strike was: “you should never throw anything away that you have written. It may become worthwhile.”

Still, at least Hanks’s effort was actually enjoyable to read, on the whole. James Franco’s 2013 novel Actors Anonymous was a dismal example of an actor who fancied he could play a kind of literary shock-jock role but simply didn’t have the skills (or story) to follow it through. And then there’s Ethan Hawke, writer of a number of novels in different genres, some more successful than others. His self-satisfied justification for turning to writing? “I have given myself permission to do what I want”.

Which brings us back to Penn. Let’s put this as politely as possible: Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff is at best a vanity project, a Hunter S Thompson-style rumination on the souring ugliness of the American dream in the 21st century. There are nods to the visceral, depraved world so expertly depicted by Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk too; the footnotes more than a little reminiscent of the brilliant David Foster Wallace’s work.

Nothing wrong with that kind of ambition, but Penn is so in thrall to satire, politics and opinion, he forgets the mechanics of novel-writing. Protagonists can be unloveable, but Bob Honey, a sewage specialist who operates as a contract killer for a government agency targeting the elderly and infirm, and who just happens to be present at most of the flash-points involving the US over the past 20 years, is somewhere between totally unbelievable, utterly unconvincing and completely annoying. There is never the sense that he is anything other than the stream-of-consciousness mouthpiece of a deliberately provocative Penn.

Stylistically, Penn is dreadful, too. Someone desperately needed to be brave enough to tell him that an alliteration addiction is only intermittently impressive. Page after page is cluttered with passages such as: “He realises that not only in road-roaming reality has romance been relinquished to ruins, but the cinemas themselves have been caged and quartered into quixotic concrete calamities of corporatised cultural capitulation.” Penn is obviously hugely pleased with his thesaurus. But at regular intervals Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff is genuinely unreadable.

Maybe that’s because Penn didn’t actually begin the journey to Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff intending to write an actual book with pages. It started out as an audio project under the pseudonym of the “sociopath” Pappy Pariah, with Penn rush-releasing it to get it out before the 2016 US elections. When he thought, post-election, that there was more to explore in this story, he started fleshing it out.

So it’s interesting that in the CBS interview he admits that he doesn’t use a typewriter any more, has never used a computer because he’s too lazy to learn, and did a lot of “pacing, smoking and dictating”.

This is all telling, because this book – from the title onwards – does feel like a transcription of some loosely thrown-together ideas from someone shouting very loudly about the issues of the day.

Bob complains about Donald Trump, via Mr Landlord, in just the way you’d expect: “Many wonderful American people in pain and rage elected you. Many Russians did, too. Your position is an asterisk accepted as literally as your alternative facts. Though the office will remain real, you never were nor will be.” Not exactly the stuff of literary awards, is it? Nevertheless, it’s the section on #MeToo which sums up why Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff fails on almost every level.

The accusation – from people who haven’t read the finished book but have seen the excerpt – is that Penn’s line on the empowerment campaign as “infantilising” and “a platform for accusation impunity” is a criticism of its laudable aims.

Penn’s response since has been to point out that for his protagonist, #MeToo does sound like a playground whine rather than a grown-up campaign – and that social media shouldn’t be the forum in which people are convicted. But because Bob Honey is such a thinly drawn character, any views like this are bound to be easily picked apart.

Such sloppy writing has forced the author to clarify – after the book was published – that he does want the #MeToo campaign to win. It doesn’t help, either, that he’s chosen to discuss this issue via some of the worst amateur level poetry ever committed to print.

But, of course, Penn is a famous actor, as is Tom Hanks, James Franco and Ethan Hawke – all of whom have enjoyed seeing their largely inessential books of variable quality published.

Thankfully, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff is mercifully short – but if Penn has genuinely fallen out of love with acting, his future depends on people out there who will, as he put it, “really enjoy it”. Somehow, though, I doubt he’s actually that bothered.

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