I don’t know how Sean Penn’s debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuffends. Admittedly, I don’t really know how it begins either, because as it turns out reading past the eighth page of this book is physically impossible. What I can say with certainty is that in the span of a few hundred words Sean Penn produces a remarkable, breathtaking checklist of everything a writer should never do—so vast, in fact, that a less cynical part of me believes that this could only have been some kind of performance art.
The opening pages of a book rarely give away the rest of the plot, but usually we are able to understand what is happening—as in, comprehend the overall action taking place on the page. That is not the case in Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff. The opening pages are incomprehensible to the point where I literally have no idea what is happening. Penn crams so many adjectives into every sentence and has such a laissez-faire attitude toward punctuation that the result is gobbledygook. It feels like being very drunk and high and listening to someone trying to imitate Italo Calvino. Stranger yet, a lot of the novel’s branding hints that it is a tome for the Trump era. It’s obvious that what Atria Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) wanted was not to put a good text before readers but rather had hoped that enough people would buy it due to name recognition alone before the rest of the world would have a chance to realize just how terrible it was.
Penn struggles with words, both in theory and in execution. In every line of this book you can feel the presence of his thesaurus. As a result, words get used in ways that occasionally diverge from their actual meaning. He describes the strobe of a car as “rarefied.” But what did he actually mean by rarefied? I tried to reverse engineer his meaning by doing a backwards search on thesearus.com, and was able to deduce that he probably meant to say “light.” But obviously a word like rarefied sounds smarter. Penn routinely deploys fancy-sounding words that are either totally outmoded, inappropriate, or sometimes even bordering on insane. He uses the word “portraiture” when I think he means portrait. He uses the word “citizen” to just mean person. At the end of each paragraph you begin to question your own literacy skills. To describe the skin of people’s faces, Penn uses the term “dermal masks.” That would be like calling the skull a “brain helmet.”
Penn also struggles with sentences. He tries to get cute and stitch together phrases like “The last life spark extracted from their oblivion.” It’s obvious that Penn is trying to be poetic, but in reality a phrase like this is totally meaningless. A writer only commits to putting a phrase like that on paper after making peace with its inability to describe things accurately, and after presupposing their readers’ forgiveness for these artful licenses. The truth is that only the most gifted and most elegant writers can get away with this trick.
It doesn’t stop there, however; while you are able to wade through the fake poetry and make sense of some things, there are also parts of this book that occupy the highest peaks of unintelligibility. I am not even sure some of these sentences are English. Even the title itself isn’t even really English. At one point Penn begins a sentence with the phrase “Ah, When these considerations tickle the tumult of actionability.” You read something like this and suddenly a frightening realization begins to set in: This book is not the work of a seasoned ghostwriter tapped for the actor’s vanity project, but is actually the work of Sean Penn himself, sitting down at a computer extremely pleased with himself, winking and making a fingergun gesture toward his keyboard.
In reality this level of self-aggrandizement and celebrity worship is exactly the reason we have Trump in the first place.
The true failure of Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff I think is that Penn fundamentally misunderstands how books work. His prose is bad regardless of intent, but it would be foolish not to note that it sounds like scene direction in a screenplay. A sentence like “A gloved hand reconnects wires in a power box out back,” tells me that he assumes the prose in a book is functionally identical to that of a screenplay, and that one can get away with describing purposefully disembodied gloved hands the way you can in a movie. The truncated cadence of Penn’s prose, the half-formed descriptive phrases—all these are hallmarks of text written for the screen. And so at this point I begin to question whether Penn even reads books at all.
This, truly, is the reason Penn’s whole endeavor is so misguided. Because Penn so clearly believes in the interchangeability of long-form fiction and screenplays, then clearly what he wanted was not to write a book, but to have written a book. To be a novelist. It’s possible he wrote a screenplay and then deleted the line breaks because he wanted to have novelist on his Wikipedia page. The reason Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff is so painfully bad is not just that it is poorly written—bad writing is easy to ignore—but because it was intended to be not just good, but great. It was meant to be Penn’s attempt at literature, and readers are subjected to the full weight of this ambition. The truth is, you cannot produce a good, readable book, let alone art, if you don’t read other books, or know what words mean, or believe that sentences have purposes and are strung together for a reason.
We live in a world where people on TV or in films are given book deals that dwarf those given to literary fiction writers. That’s fine. These books represent a legitimate form of entertainment. But there is a difference between the collection of funny short stories that sitcom writers like to release in their late 30s, and Bob Honey. The former is a paradigm that makes sense because we know what these writers want and we know what is expected of us. And while it is true that many of these writers wouldn’t have been given book contracts were it not for their fame, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff wouldn’t have made it past critique in a freshman fiction seminar let alone to the press had it not been written by Sean Penn.
There is something almost immoral about letting people spend actual money on this with the promise of a Trump critique, and in telling readers that this book is worth their time and money because it was written by Sean Penn. In reality this level of self-aggrandizement and celebrity worship is exactly the reason we have Trump in the first place. There is a difference between publishing a celebrity tell-all because of who the celebrity is, and letting Penn run free and do whatever he wants simply because he is Sean Penn and he is famous. I can almost imagine an editor suggesting a title change or inviting a ghostwriter into the process and Penn just going Nah, it’s perfect! Send it to the press! But I can’t imagine that anyone at any point thought there was actual merit to Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff. Or maybe there is, and the whole thing is just too rarefied for me to understand.
Read Alexander Aciman’s Bookworm column in Tablet magazine on Mondays.
Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.