Stars—They’re Just Like Us!
In the sense that they think the world wants to read their novels, that is.
The release, and near-immediate critical beat-down, of Sean Penn’s fiction debut, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, has provided us all with a lot of shameful joy this week. Claire Fallon, in her delightfully scathing Huffington Post review, wrote “it’s physically impossible to dunk on a novel that is already dunking on itself so hard. Bob Honey is an exercise in ass-showing, a 160-page self-own,” while Sian Cain in The Guardian declared “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,” and Mark Athitakis, writing in The Washington Post concluded that “Bob Honey is best appreciated as the fever dream of a boomer who watches the news, cannot make sense of it, but cannot contain his fury at it anyhow.”
Penn is, of course, a ludicrously affected and self-important jackass, and it’s both easy and fun to call out his extreme pomposity and the masturbatory nature of his writing. Bob Honey is fruit so low hanging that it may as well be rotting on the ground. Still, Sean is far from the only celeb to stray from his lane in recent years. Sometimes it works out quite well (Kareem, Carrie Fisher); in other instances (Morrissey) it really, really does not.
Here then, in chronological order, are a taste of the critical responses to ten of our favorite works of celebrity fiction:
Tarantula by Bob Dylan (1971)
Dylan fans who want a precise sense of what the book is about need only refer to the liner notes of Highway 61 Revisited. The basic technique is right there: the vague story, peopled with historical (Paul Sargent), fabulous or pseudonymous (the Cream Judge, Savage Rose) characters, punctuated with dots and dashes and seasoned with striking but enigmatic asides, all capped off with a fictitious letter having no obvious connection to what has preceded. That’s all folks.
Tarantula is a concatenation of such pieces. Most of them seem un connected, although a few characters, notably someone named ‘aretha,’ do recur. The only literary precedent that comes to mind is Naked Lunch, but in a more general way Tarantula is reminiscent of a lot of literature because it takes an effort to read it. Unless you hap pen to believe in Dylan, I question whether it’s worth the effort, and don’t call me a philistine—it was Bob Dylan who got me asking such questions in the first place.
“The Tarantula’s web is therefore labeled ‘jibberish,’ as demonstrated by a recent listing of the ‘Top Five Unintelligible Sentences From Books Written by Rock Stars’ in Spin Magazine. Dylan made the top of the list with ‘Now’s not the time to get silly, so wear your big boots and jump on the garbage clowns.’
It’s ironic, of course, that those who claim Dylan is unintelligible assume that his words have no meaning, but it’s pathetic that they fail to notice who the ‘garbage clowns’ are. If such bumbling media-mongers juggling rubbish took a moment to consider that the poet might actually be a poet and have some insight into human nature, they might decode the metaphor.
Meanwhile, there’s an undiscovered continent of sense to be made from the seemingly nonsensical pages of Tarantula. Because reviewers of music are not authorities on poetry, there’s a whole poetic ‘novel’ by Dylan here waiting to be praised for cryptic brilliance. So get past the music, Garbage Clowns, and read the book–but slowly, and out loud, pausing with reflection.”
Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher (1987)
“…a couple of things come to mind when you get about 50 pages into Postcards From the Edge. You wonder, thinking back, why Carrie Fisher—why she didn’t grab your mind as you watched the screen, the way her mother did. And it occurs to you, Carrie Fisher’s heart might not have been in it. You deduce this fact because her heart appears to be in this novel and in the writing process. This book is so much better than you think it’s going to be! It’s intelligent, original, focused, insightful, very interesting to read.”
“…a maybe autobiographical, definitely ultra-hip, experimental, and dryly comic chronicle of a young actress’s bouts with drugs, Hollywood, men. Fisher flashes some wicked talent here, especially in the opening scenes, where she flip-flops two first-person voices to chronicle goings-on at a glitzy drug-rehab center … The increasingly flat narrative is, however, somewhat fizzed up by a Hollywood that rings funny and scorchingly true, especially Fisher’s portraits of the ego-heads who rule Tinseltown. But reader sympathy for self-pitying Suzanne slips and slips, bottoming out when, to fight off the blues, she wanders into the Bottega Veneta on Rodeo Drive, briefly considers buying a purse in every color, and modestly settles for a $450 ‘square black bag.’ Poor me, indeed. But not to worry; Suzanne finds love with a hunkish writer just in time to save her scattered life—and Fisher from having to figure out a less dreamy end for her tale. At times, Fisher writes with a delightfully poisoned pen; too bad that she dilutes the acid when it sprays too close to home. Nonetheless, this is an entertaining, often exhilarating portrait of the worst and the dimmest.”
Shopgirl by Steve Martin (2000)
“Shopgirl, Martin’s elegant, bleak, desolatingly sad first novella, is in every sense his most serious work to date … Martin’s humor has always been about people who do not realize they are absurd. In Shopgirl that sense of absurdity is larger and more encompassing—something closer to an existentialist idea of the absurd, of life as defined by a tragicomic absence of purpose … The novella has an edge to it, and a deep, unassuageable loneliness. Steve Martin’s most achieved work to date may well have the strange effect of making people glad not to be Steve Martin.”
“Except for its love-hate relations with L.A., little about this book sounds much like Martin; its anxious, sometimes flat prose style can be affecting or disorienting, and belongs somewhere between Coupland and literary chroniclers of depression like Lydia Davis. Martin’s first novel is finally neither a triumph nor a disaster: it’s yet another of this intelligent performer’s attempts to expand his range, and those who will buy it for the name on the cover could do a lot worse.”
Ash Wednesday by Ethan Hawke (2002)
“In this road story about two young lovers—a pregnant woman and the man who dumped her but now wants to marry her—he displays a novelist’s innate gifts. He has a sharp eye, a fluid storytelling voice and the imagination to create complicated individuals … Ash Wednesday is not a perfect novel or a major one, but it is absorbing and thoughtful, observant and witty, with enough delicately crafted flashes to justify its existence well beyond its author’s Hollywood fame. It is not subtle, but you don’t name your socked-in-the-heart hero Jimmy Heartsock if you’re going for subtlety.”
“Ethan Hawke is sincere in the belief that love is all you need. This was the message of the actor’s inept first novel, 1996’s The Hottest State. Undaunted by the withering reviews he earned, Hawke again tries to spread the word with Ash Wednesday, a road novel that is artless in a way that comes only to the extremely earnest … By any name, the novel is such an embarrassment that it works only as a joyride administering little thrills of schadenfreude to celebrity watchers. Ethan Hawke has been generously indulged by the house of Alfred A. Knopf, conventionally regarded as America’s preeminent publisher, here engaged in a project better suited to a vanity press.”
The Death of Bunny Monro by Nick Cave (2009)
“In this case, his target is the uber-lad culture of contemporary Britain, of which Bunny Munro is an extreme, but always credible, example. Cave satirises that reductive strain of warped maleness with some glee and an undercurrent of comic disgust, but The Death of Bunny Munro is essentially a tragic tale; a novel that is by turns sick and funny, and sometimes both simultaneously, but that moves inexorably, determinedly, towards its terrible end.”
Cave continuously–near stubbornly, in fact–dismisses characteristic complexity with each adolescent ‘tenting’ of his character’s pants.
Unfortunately, Bunny Munro is Cave’s only character at all bordering complexity. Munro’s poor son, Bunny Junior–perhaps the most tragically flat of them all–his boss and friends, the victimized women, each are more predictable and over-dramatized than the last … For Cave, point of view is a real problem, as is character believability, plot redundancy, and tense: all red flags from sophomore year’s Creative Fiction 101.
Writing as catharsis is wonderful, but if your forehead doesn’t bleed when you’re making art (Cave has suggested his does when he creates lyrics), if, in other words, it’s ‘easy,’ then—I sincerely ask—is it worth it? Nick Cave thinks writing is easy. It was Thomas Mann, I believe, who is quoted ‘a writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’ When in writing you sidestep thoughtful analysis and intricate, painful rearranging of words, for something more anecdotal, you miss much of what decent writing is. While it’s lovely for a musician to embrace varying art forms, it’s clear that for Cave writing is a hobby, not a vocation, and he simply hasn’t the technique.
Actors Anonymous by James Franco (2013)
“This lack of self-restraint echoes throughout Franco’s new novel, Actors Anonymous. Like Palo Alto, Franco’s debut short-story collection published in 2010, Actors Anonymous isn’t really a novel so much as a slim collection of short stories fleshed out with nonfiction pieces that feel about as extraneous as those Instagram stunts … But Franco’s fiction isn’t devoid of redeeming qualities. Considering his other artistic dalliances, you might expect his stories to be heavy on pretentious flourishes and overwrought details. Instead, his work is spare and, at times, engaging. Franco’s protagonists say what they mean; they just don’t know themselves very well. This slippage between public scorn and private delusion keeps us interested, wondering what terrible fate will await these sad creatures … Why would Franco feel the need to gum up the works with such an unruly barrage of self-indulgent snippets? If he’s trying to link his fiction to his real life in some kind of grand prank, his attempts fall far short of the mark. By including the literary equivalent of blog entries and lengthy, enraged emails in his book, he seems to suggest that readers should find his random musings fascinating. While it’s hard not to admire his openness and enthusiasm for everything under the sun, Franco won’t be a good writer—or a great artist, if that’s his goal—until he learns how to edit, censor, politely decline and bite his tongue.”
” ‘Excremental,’ in fact, is an appropriate word for this work of fiction. I think Franco may have anticipated the adjective, such is his delight in having shitty things, literally, happen to his characters. (In searching the ebook for one quotation I found that the word ‘shit’ appears on 66 of its 304 pages). One character, or a character’s character — the levels of metafictionality become too wearisome to plot — is nicknamed ‘Diarrhea’ due to an explosive bowel movement. The Actor, as our protagonist is now titled, nonetheless has sex with her, as well as with her ‘smaller and less attractive friend’ whom he nicknames ‘Cunty’ … Performance is a worthy subject and ‘is there a veridic self underneath?,’ which the author asks more than once, is a more than worthy question. But Franco makes the sophomore’s mistake: performing writing about performance.”
List of the Lost by Morrissey (2014)
“List of the Lost reads like the outcome of the perversity, or simple lack of self-awareness, that induces a writer to run with his bad qualities. It’s terrible, though in such a bizarre way, unique even, that it might have prospects as a cult book, or at any rate an enduring curiosity. But I wouldn’t bet on it … if you’re not a bit indulgent of Morrissey’s Cap’n Crankypants side you probably won’t be interested to begin with. What really kills it off is the style, an ear-punishing high-flown Romantic/Modernist mixture of sententiousness and knotty obscurity and very heavy sound effects: every passage brims with assonance and alliteration, occasionally there are actual rhymes, and what might be witty and memorable in a lyric becomes maddening when it is deployed in fiction.”
“Brevity is the closest Morrissey’s 128-page novella gets to the soul of wit. That, and a few viciously turned barbs, the only mode of writing the ex-Smiths singer now displays any aptitude for. Otherwise, List of the Lost is more self-indulgent and tedious than its slender dimensions would suggest possible … Geographic and period settings are depicted with indolent strokes of a broad brush. Americanisms pop up in the text like confused tourists. Equally muddled is the book’s obsession with sex, at once portrayed as crucial (‘It is sex that binds us to life’) and nauseating (‘how easy to kill, how queasy to kiss’). A nasty streak of misogyny is matched by the unpleasant decision to make the villain a gay paedophile. The sex scenes are beyond bizarre, an unfathomable combination of the Marquis de Sade and Russell Brand … List of the Lost sullies the reputation of the publishing house that has been foolish or greedy enough to commit it to print.”
Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (2015)
“Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse have created a smart origin story for Mycroft that slots neatly onto the shelves next to the original canon, but also reveals some harsh truths that Doyle probably never considered. We get to see the birth of the plotter and schemer of the other stories. Mycroft begins this adventure convinced that he will find a logical explanation, and that once the truth is out, everything will be put right. But rationality has its limits. What he learns is that sometimes the villains are all too human, and what we do to each other can be more monstrous than any blood-sucking demon.”
The authors hit all the right notes here, combining fascinating historical detail (on Trinidadian culture and folklore, on tobacco importation in London, even on the development of the Gatling gun) with rousing adventure, including some cleverly choreographed fight scenes and a pair of protagonists whose rich biracial friendship, while presented realistically, given the era (Douglas must sometimes pose as a butler), is the highlight of the book. Yes, Douglas is a sort-of Watson, but a much brighter, more physical, more bantering version, an equal not a foil. Mystery fans will be eager to hear more from this terrific duo.
Holy Cow by David Duchovny (2015)
“…for the most part, Duchovny does a good job. This is a funny book, if an acquired taste. You either like the sound of a novel about a cow wanting to escape to India (because cows are sacred there), with a pig who wants to go to Israel and changes his name to Shalom as part of his understandable appreciation of all things kosher—or you don’t … it is refreshing to read a novel by a Hollywood actor who—unlike the James Francos and Ethan Hawkes of this world—is not aiming for literary cool. This prose does not squint; it is wide-eyed and playfully juvenile. Indeed, if you were being picky, you would have to wonder who this novel is aimed at—the only swear words have asterisks in, as Elsie says the film version would be for kids, though 90% of the jokes would be lost on anyone under 14. And although Elsie’s ‘memoir’ feels slight, and reads too often like a funny first draft of something more substantial, it does what all good animal novels do—it makes us think about our relationship with the other species we share the planet with.”
“Holy Cow, in other words, does not have a plot so much as a set of high-concept scenes that barely relate to one another at all. The most coherent sections are Elsie’s polemics against factory farming, which sound very much like a PETA pamphlet. This makes sense: most likely, all chill cows oppose being slaughtered. But heavy-handed agitprop in the name of a good cause is still heavy-handed agitprop, and readers of all ages tend to hate being lectured … David Duchovny is, by all accounts, an intelligent man. He has a master’s degree from Yale, where he studied under Harold Bloom. He is a talented actor, and he clearly feels deeply, as he should, about animal welfare. But Holy Cow is one of the most half-baked, phoned-in books I’ve ever read, and it’s hard to look at it as anything but a vanity project. Of course, his fans want to believe. When it comes to this novel, they shouldn’t.”
Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks (2017)
“Hanks proves his bona fides as a serious scribe, producing a collection of 17 short stories so accomplished and delightful he can rest assured he has a great fallback plan should that acting thing, you know, not work out … Good acting is about good storytelling, so maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that Hanks can dream up a multitude of characters and worlds for them to inhabit. Like any great actor or writer, he brings a panorama of emotion to these tales, from humor to poignancy and a lot in between … So yeah, some of these tales are pretty retro and some of the references date Hanks, who is 61 (‘Rat Packesque,’ ‘Abbott and Costello’). Some of the kids in the contemporary stories talk like it’s the 1950s. These are quibbles, though … Hanks does what all the best story writers do: He packs a punch, a pow, a wow.”
“It’s true that the bulk of these seventeen—seventeen!—stories sound like Tom Hanks movies. Or rather, they are stories that could have been written by an alien whose only exposure to the planet earth is through Tom Hanks movies … in four hundred pages, there’s hardly even a hint of conflict or a suggestion that American life is anything less than a holiday where everyone rides Schwinn bikes, leaves the immigration office to go bowling, and has a dog named Biscuit. If there’s anything good to observe about Uncommon Type, it’s that Hanks may have accidently revived a long-lost literary form: the idyll, as practiced by Goethe, placid and innocuous pastorals that invoke ornate symbolism … The impregnable constellation we call ‘Tom Hanks,’ with its observations on what life is like a box of, can give no real offense, can do us no lasting harm. But Uncommon Type is pushing it, man, a collection of clichés that only deserves clichés in return.”