57-year-old Sean Penn makes his debut as a novelist with his new book Bob Honey Who Just do Stuff, which hit bookstands in hardcover format in late March. The book details the life of the protagonist, Bob Honey, and his adventures as a political activist; he is a man with an ideology so fervent and desperate for change that letter-writing campaigns do nothing for him; instead, his anger drives him to commit acts of violence.
Penn has stated that Bob Honey’s exploits are largely motivated by his own political beliefs and indeed, seem to be a thinly-veiled critique of the Trump administration. Penn himself is notorious for his political activism and, over the past few decades, has traveled to distant locales including Iraq, Iran, and Cuba in an effort to hobnob with political leaders and promote international democracy and world peace.
Most recently, Penn sat down to interview Mexican drug lord El Chapo. Outside of the adventures of Bob Honey, Penn has been outspoken in his dissent with the policies of the Trump administration. In a recent opinion piece for Time magazine, Penn called Trump “an enemy of mankind.”
Sean Penn the Satirist
Penn’s satire is a unique way of dealing with modern political movements such as #metoo and the Trump Resistance. The anti-Trump references in the novel are not subtle: most notably, the president in the novel is named “Mr. Landlord,” an obvious reference to Trump’s status as a billionaire and hotel tycoon.
The novel also contains a six-page reflection on the #MeToo movement which has attracted fierce criticism from media outlets such as Rolling Stone and the New York Times – critics who may not have expected the actor-turned-director to write a novel, and most definitely did not expect Penn to write a novel which includes elements discussing women’s issues.
Penn is no stranger to what he calls “warrior women” who “bravely walk the walk”; he was famously married to pop icon Madonna in the late 1980s. However, Penn’s view of the #metoo movement is that it is “infantilizing,” rather than empowering, “reducing rape, slut-shaming, and suffrage to child’s play.”
Penn’s view on #metoo seems to cast it as a “platform” for the public shaming of media stars such as Charlie Rose and Louis C.K. As we in Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, Penn does not see #metoo in its current incarnation as being in the public interest, and does not believe that the movement can truly generate the important discussions that it purports to create. These “crucial conversations,” Penn writes, are required to advance the rights of women in the workplace and defend them from sexual harassment.
“The question is, how do you get victims to be able to report that when it happens? Those who do are heroes,” Penn tells Marc Maron of the WTF with Marc Maron Podcast. However, Penn has been a critic of those who seek to use #metoo as a way to publicly shame perpetrators of sexual harassment in the workplace, and particularly in media, where it has been extremely rampant.
Penn’s book appears to emphasize the collective “we” and eschew the individualism that has been a central focus of, ironically, both the Trump administration and the #metoo movements. “If we don’t balance our lives between the I and the We, we don’t move forward – we move back,” Penn recently told Marc Maron.
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Ditching acting and directing for the solitary writer’s life
Why the transition to the written word from the movies? “It’s more of a conversation about where I feel I can be productive,” Penn explains to Marc Maron. “In the 1970s, the girl I fell in love with … was a movie theater,” Penn states; however, in recent years, he has grown weary of the commercialization of the movie industry and how the industry has affected people’s view of society, leading to “merchanteering thespians and image builders” dominating the current media industry. “Everybody is being told what to talk about, and if it’s a film the conversation might, on a good day, last two weeks.”
“I’m ready for the writer’s life,” Penn tells Maron, “with my golden retriever sitting there.” Regarding acting, he says, “I’m sure the joy is there, but I’m not feeling it.” This transition has appeared to shock-and-awe literary critics, who were clearly not expecting the actor-turned-director to make his transition away from the silver screen to the written word.
“It’s a riddle wrapped in an enigma and cloaked in crazy,” writes the New York Times. Vogue states that Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, “gleefully skewers our culture’s worship of the notion of branding.” However, despite the criticism from mainstream critics who have derided Penn’s literary style as clunky and esoteric, he has received critical acclaim from writers including Salman Rushdie and Sarah Silverman.
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What’s next for Sean Penn after the publication of Bob Honey?
Interestingly, Penn appears to love the writer’s life and even has another project in the works. When asked by Vogue magazine if he was going to write a sequel to Bob Honey, he divulged, “Let’s just say I’ve got somethin’ cookin’.” Time will tell whether Penn will choose to soften his political stances or develop them further, or branch out into an apolitical sphere of fiction.
One thing is for certain: Penn will continue to confuse literary critics and keep them on their toes by staying one step ahead of them. Bob Honey seems like the first step in disrupting the traditional media sphere. Sean Penn told Rolling Stone that in his writing of a novel, he felt “pretty free” and that there was no “inhibition” regarding “the way […] to tell the story or pandering to the way you think readers might like to have told it or something. You just kind of go for it.”
Penn’s decision to write the novel may appear to be due to midlife crisis and a disenchantment with the movie industry. Penn’s activism points to Bob Honey’s production as single-minded desire to criticize the current administration and its policies. With another novel in the works, Penn appears to have embraced the writer’s life. “What surprised me,” Penn related to Rolling Stone about writing Bob Honey, “was why I hadn’t done it sooner.”
Find the book on Amazon.
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