Actor and activist Sean Penn has written a novel that, by all accounts so far, is terrible. As a fan of So-Bad-It’s-Good films and Schadenfreude at Penn’s expense, I invite you to join me on a literary journey that, while likely unpleasant, confusing, and frustrating, is sure to be unique.
We’re off! The book starts with two quotes about self-expression, one from high school theater staple Spoon River Anthology, the other from arthouse film icon Igmar Bergman. I get the feeling that the novel’s theme is wholly encapsulated in these quotes; a red flag when you consider that the author took an entire novel to say what has already been succinctly expressed by multiple people.
The prelude itself is a transcript of police action in Woodview County, California in the early 2000s. A Helen Mayo calls the cops multiple times on her unnamed neighbor (betting that’s our protagonist) for being weird; she asks the cops to “sniff him out” (pg. 6). The behavior described includes mowing the lawn at 3 A.M., having a haircut “like a Nazi, or a woodshop teacher” (6), wrapping insulated wire around his fence, and having a sign which reads “International Airports Boast Morbid Mannequins at Duty-Free” (4). The police take no action, but Helen’s busybody attitude establishes pretty quickly that the neighbor is supposed to be self-actualized and cool, while society at large just doesn’t understand him.
Station One: Seeking Homeostasis in Inherent Hypocrisy
The chapters are called stations, and I hope we are never told why. This short chapter, set in 2016, describes a drab, bleak old folks home where “Portraiture of sagging faces falling in an out of indelicate light and shadow” (8) have been awakened by the loss of power to the building. Three nameless elderly people are murdered by another unnamed person, and the chapter ends. I’m not sure how exactly a person is awoken by the loss of power (and resulting light) to a building, or what the point of this chapter even is. We do get this delightful gem out of it: “Here it seems the desert itself has been deserted” (7).
Station Two: Recollections of a Teenage Carny
We meet our protagonist, Bob Honey, and learn that he is in fact the neighbor from the Prelude. He also appears to be a dangerous psychopath. He wakes up every morning and daydreams about murdering his ex-wife. He keeps a mallet in a gun safe (I feel begged to interpret this symbolically somehow) and when he was a kid he set off homemade bombs for fun. Present day Bob is divorced, his ex-wife married her attorney (I think) and now she drives an ice cream truck around all day. Bob hates the song ice cream trucks play because it reminds him of her. “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” (11). When Bob was a kid he had trouble making friends and was an outcast. He briefly falls in with someone named the Cowboy and his black girlfriend, cringingly referred to as a “juvie Jemima” (12). The Cowboy teaches Bob about septic tanks before being arrested for statutory rape; Bob is left to a job at the local carnival, where he discovers the Strong-Man carnival game (the author takes an entire page explaining the mechanics of hitting a plunger hard enough with a mallet to ring a bell). By the chapter’s end Bob has graduate degrees in physics and engineering. He gets into the septic tank business and manages to make lots of money selling exclusively to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Symbolism is a neon sign here, dear readers. Bob concludes the chapter by deciding “EVERYBODY/…ELSE/…IS/…WRONG” (16).
Station Three: Ephemerally Disarmed
Bob starts the chapter off by deciding to go to Baghdad in 2003 to sell septic tanks to the new Shia regime there. By fantastic coincidence, Bob knows the Afrikani (italics Penn’s) pilot of a humanitarian aircraft, and hops a ride into a war zone. When he arrives, he runs into cannibal New Guineas from the Papua Academy for Urban and Guerrilla Warfare (22). These cannibals are apparently cheaper than Blackwater, so they are hired by the “five sided puzzle palace” (23) a.k.a. the Pentagon at a rate almost double the salary of a typical United States solider. Perhaps not shockingly, Bob makes friends with the mercenaries and finds shared purpose with them. Their description –“spear-ian flare, grass skirts, and bare feet” (23)– further fuels my suspicion that the author is a racist. After smoking hookah and passing out, Bob wakes to discover most of his money gone and his passport filled with phone numbers to call if he wants a contract. Feeling renewed, Bob returns to the United States. Helen Mayo from the Prelude makes a brief appearance at the end of this chapter, leading me to think that Bob is eventually going to kill or bed her, if not both.
I have no idea where this roller coaster is going. It is by turns unintentionally hilarious and genuinely off-putting. Setting aside the troublesome racial facets of the book so far, no woman has been portrayed in a remotely positive light. Additionally, Penn’s politics range from the sanctimoniously absurd– “Branding is being! The algorithm of modern binary existentialism” (16) to the absurdly sanctimonious. On page 22 we get a multi-sentence footnote about how “shock and awe” is actually not a media buzzword but in fact has its origins as a military term. Who knew?
Wherever this ride is going, I can only hope it ups the ante from station three’s grass-skirted New Guinea cannibal mercenaries operating in Baghdad. I hope you’ll join me next week for the second of this five-part series.