On Monday night, Sean Penn, 57, made a bizarre appearance on The Colbert Show, looking and acting like a frazzled man who had just wandered out of a dive bar and onto a stage. He started off the interview by saying he was on Ambien, then pulled out a pack of cigarettes and, shockingly, started to casually smoke one right then and there. (For the record, the state of New York banned smoking in enclosed work spaces, which includes the sets of late night shows, in 2003.)
The two-time Oscar winner, who said he’s taking a break from acting because he no longer enjoys the spirit of collaboration (or, as he put it, “I increasingly don’t play well with others”), was there to promote his new novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff: A Novel.
The fact that the title makes no sense whatsoever gives a good feel for the style of the book, which is a word salad buffet disguised as political satire.
In a classic postmodern move, Penn first created the character Bob Honey—described as a 57-year-old Californian man with “an ultraviolent skepticism toward the messaging and mediocrity of modern times” who moonlights as an assassin—for a 2016 audiobook, but denied writing the novel, claiming instead that it had been written by a man named, allegedly, Pappy Pariah, that he’d met down in Florida years ago.
When pressed about why he lied, Penn responded, “There’s a line in the book that says, ‘Sometimes I like to lie.'” When asked if those were his words, he said that they were the words of a German rock band called AnnenMayKantereit. (This, for what it’s worth, does indeed check out, as it’s the name of one of their songs).
He then elaborated, “When I first thought about this book, I started to hear a rhythm of speech, a storyteller about Bob Honey. So I gave him a name–Pappy Pariah–which became a character in the novel, and I decided to let it live as his for a bit. And now I’m here, in an evolution of that process, sharing the development of the earlier truth I told you.” And, fair warning, that’s about as coherent as things get.
The description of the novel on its publisher’s website is as follows:
Bob Honey has a hard time connecting with other people, especially since his divorce. He’s tired of being marketed to every moment, sick of a world where even an orgasm isn’t real until it is turned into a tweet. A paragon of old-fashioned American entrepreneurship, Bob sells septic tanks to Jehovah’s Witnesses and arranges pyrotechnic displays for foreign dictators. He’s also a contract killer for an off-the-books program run by a branch of US intelligence that targets the elderly, the infirm, and others who drain this consumption-driven society of its resources.
When a nosy journalist starts asking questions, Bob can’t decide if it’s a chance to form some sort of new friendship or the beginning of the end for him. With treason on everyone’s lips, terrorism in everyone’s sights, and American political life sinking to ever-lower standards, Bob decides it’s time to make a change—if he doesn’t get killed by his mysterious controllers or exposed in the rapacious media first.
The reviews of the book have been—as is often the case with fiction that appears to have been written on a cocktail of Hunter S. Thompson influences, whiskey, and sedatives—so bad they’re good.
In a book review for The New York Times, Jeff Giles wrote, “What have you done this time, Sean Penn? What is this book-shaped thing that lies before us?,” calling the novel “a riddle wrapped in an enigma and cloaked in crazy.”
In The Huffington Post, Claire Fallon called the novel “an exercise in [butt]-showing, a 160-page self-own.” She compared it to a “fever dream,” by which she means that it was “nonsensical, unpleasant and left me sweaty with mingled horror and confusion.” And if that weren’t enough, it’s also wildly offensive, ending with a poem about #MeToo in which he calls the movement “a toddler’s crusade.”
On Twitter, social media users similarly shared some of their “favorite” lines from the book.
— Robin Wasserman (@robinwasserman) March 27, 2018
Someone needs to explain to Penn that “purposefully bad writing” is still really bad writing.
— Anna Mazzola (@Anna_Mazz) March 27, 2018
Please hand this man a summons because he has committed assault on the English language!
— Anna Mazzola (@Anna_Mazz) March 27, 2018
The only person who ostensibly seemed to like it was Salman Rushdie, who wrote a blurb saying, “I suspect that Thomas Pynchon and Hunter S. Thompson would love this book,” which, to his credit, isn’t even so much a compliment as it is a statement of fact, given that the prose is clearly trying to emulate the anarchist scrabble jar that is the works of these noted professional 20th century alcoholics.
It might just be the most bizarre thing we’ve read since that Quincy Jones interview, wherein he claims to have slept with Ivanka Trump. At least that one was fun.
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