Sean Penn’s debut novel – repellent and stupid

The Oscar-winning actor’s foray into fiction, with Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, has met derision online. Can it be that bad?

Back in the heady days of 2015, it was thought that singer and eternal tester of patience Morrissey had taken the bad celebrity novel to the limit in List of the Lost, when his "bulbous salutation" simultaneously put everyone off both books and sex. But now Morrissey's debut – a novel in which people didn't just say things, they "topspin" them ("'I have erotic curiosities,' topspins Ezra") – has a healthy challenger for the most mocked novel by a sleb. Sean Penn's Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff is a book in which people don't just have vim or vigour, they have "spizzerinctum to spare".

Early and bad reviews of Penn’s debut novel ahead of its April release have prompted a lot of joy online. “Bob Honey is an exercise in ass-showing, a 160-page self-own,” was the Huffington Post’s verdict, while a new game, “Vagina bingo” was coined by one Twitter user to mark Penn’s multitudinous references to vulvas (always “magical” and “glistening”, on often “nymphomaniac” and “whoreish” women).

So Penn's novel is repellent on one level, but stupid on so many others. It follows Bob as he Just Do Stuff, often without much reason: he variously sells septic tanks, rigs explosives and kills American pensioners with a mallet, purportedly to offset their large carbon footprint. He daydreams about a hairless woman called Annie, whose alopecia is no barrier to their sexual escapades. ("Never one for psychosexual infantilism or paedophilic fantasy, after their sex he said, 'Good vagina. Maybe more Vietnam.'") At one point he sets fire to a dildo in the desert, due to "an assault of animism", which makes just as much sense as anything else in the book.

Bob is an absurdist character, clearly modelled on A Confederacy of Dunces’ Ignatius J Reilly: slobby, universally disdainful and lacking self-awareness. But where Ignatius’s arrogance is almost perversely charming, Bob is, at best, a cipher for Penn, who has a bewilderingly wide capacity for both strongly liberal and robustly conservative attitudes. Whenever “Bob understands”, or a paragraph starts, “The thing is”, Penn’s rage at advertising, gun owners, Hollywood, #MeToo (“Reducing rape, slut-shaming and suffrage to reckless child’s play?”) or Trump (“a bloated blond high priest and pavonine of branding”) rings all too clear. Bob’s “ultra-violent scepticism towards the messaging and mediocrity of modern times” ends in an ultra-violent killing rampage, and the novel finishes with an epilogue in verse (also already scorned online) that simultaneously showcases the sheer range of Penn’s opinions and the complete lack of range in his poetry (“so rattled, addled and saddled/our entitlement is recklessly embattled”).

Penn doesn’t just swing and miss with his ambitious vocabulary; he swings and cracks a hole in reality as we know it, leaving us all unsure of the concept of a good sentence, how a novel should be structured and generally what makes sense any more. Words are not just misused, they are misplaced, to the point that Penn’s prose is more reminiscent of bot than man. One can only emerge blearily from sentences such as “Bob hastily exited and breathed the new morning’s Muslim air”, or “Behind decorative gabion walls, an elderly neighbour sits centurion on his porch watching Bob with surreptitious soupçon”, or “She sharted agave shimmering spirits and shifted shit-faced overboard.” It’s like beat poetry, just somehow worse.

In the grand, bleak tradition of celebrity novel writing, Penn's is certainly neither the worst nor the best. His clear ambition shows he is not just a mediocre writer, like Pamela Anderson (whose novel Star includes lines such as, "The hard bump turned out to be one of a pair of unruly and self-willed nipples."), or Charlie Sheen (whose poem Heretic Proof ends, "Turtle, android, pain./ Endeavor, endless, end./ P.S. Janonis."). No, Penn's novel is bad in the same way James Franco's and Morrissey's were bad: loudly and precociously, with a tendency to fling about big, empty words, not because it makes the writing better but because it just looks smarter, with an unashamed, almost masturbatory glee.

In a very generous blurb, Salman Rushdie suspects that "Thomas Pynchon and Hunter S Thompson would love this book"; one suspects Penn would love that comparison even more. But Pynchon and Thompson are countercultural writers, casting their gaze over the most raw, scabrous parts of American life to convey something much more universal; Hari Kunzru once called Thompson a writer who "makes himself ugly to expose the ugliness he sees around him". In Bob Honey, Penn just exposes himself. – Guardian Service