The difficulty of writing a novel means there are a lot of rotten novels out there, published or not. But sometimes writing is bad in a grand, towering way; sometimes the badness of a novel is so overwhelming that it warrants recording and remembering. Such is the case with Sean Penn and Amanda McKittrick Ros, whose bad novels have a great deal in common. At a glance, the two authors have little to do with each other. Ros was an Irish teacher born in 1860 who lived a mostly quiet life and died in 1939; Penn is an American actor born in 1960 who has lived a flamboyant, well-recorded life since the early 1980s. Ros self-published her first book, Irene Iddesleigh, a slight novel of Victorian-style romantic fiction, while Penn’s first novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, which strains to be political satire, was published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster with wide availability. Although these writers are a century apart and completely different on the surface, their work bears astonishing similarities, from the way each author assembles sentences to the bombastic, preposterous ego hovering without sufficient disguise behind the work. Both books are bad, but “bad” does not suffice. A little word of three letters does not plumb the depth of these books’ failures. The critic Barry Pain wrote that Iddesleigh “is a thing that happens once in a million years. There is no one above it and no one beside it, and it sits alone as the nightingale sings.” The critic Claire Fallon called Bob Honey “akin to the product of a postmodern literature bot. It doesn’t seem quite possible that a human person wrote this mess.” Ros’s prose is so bad that little societies formed around her in the early 20th century, reading her work aloud as a contest to see how long one could keep from laughing. Penn’s prose is so bad that pictures of his sentences have been shared around social media for ridicule. Similarities abound. 1. Sentences, generally. Both Penn and Ros write terrible sentences. Both fall victim to the agony of overwriting, using phrases of unnecessary complexity; Penn writes that music “attenuates in amplitude” (i.e. gets louder) and that Bob desires to “recommit to the seeking of social connectivity” (i.e. make friends). In Ros, Lord Gifford “sat burying in the silver receptacle that lay by his side the deadened ashes of feathery manufacture produced by the action of his thin lips” (i.e. put out his cigar). Their sentences wind around the reader like boa constrictors, misusing vocabulary and syntax freely. Ros: “Now he stood supported by the strong giant he so often before had hugged because of its silence, its secrecy, its shade, trembling in every nerve lest the virtue his loved-one claimed would pass for ever from his crafty capture to that of some equally depraved digit of distrust and distinction.” Penn: “Normalization of commercial compromise had left this medium as one of dominantly irrelevant fantasies adding nothing to the world, and instead providing a perfect storm of merchanteering thespians and image builders now less identifiable as creators of valued product than of products built for significant sales.” 2. Absurd alliteration. What is it about continuous alliteration that makes bad writers revel, and that makes experienced readers cringe and cry out in pain? Penn and Ros both use handfuls of two-dollar words in long runs of purposeless alliteration. Penn: “He realizes that not only in road-roaming reality has romance been relinquished to ruins, but the cinemas themselves have been caged and quartered into quixotic concrete calamities or corporatized cultural capitulation.” Ros: “The living sometimes learn the touchy tricks of the traitor, the tardy, and the tempted; the dead have evaded the flighty earthly future, and form to swell the retinue of retired rights, the righteous school of the invisible, and the rebellious roar of raging nothing.” 3. Poetic rhythms. Ros wrote two volumes of poetry, Poems of Puncture and Fumes of Formation (alliteration was her lifestyle choice). Penn incorporates poetry into his novel to no real advantage. They favor similar rhythms. Penn: He observed a familiar sensation in sensing himself alone, Might next he go to prison, or die there on his own? Would his body be poked and prodded or simply left to rot? Then his recall brought back the words of Egypt’s own Sadat… Ros: I stood while the ground was hollowed To admit this pile of stink; They placed the coffin upside down (The men upon the brink). How the stony mould did thunder Upon the coffin’s rump, The louder grew the rattle, The deeper Jamie sunk. Penn also writes passages full of sentences with rhyme but little meter: But inside the room, the television is on. A Duck Dynasty star speaks conventionally for the artist of con. Pundits report their version, already inured to the preposterous perversion. A singularly immoral inversion. 4. Vituperative rants. Approximately once per chapter, Penn offers a few paragraphs of pointless ranting in the voice of an old coot with a well-thumbed thesaurus, thinly disguised as Bob Honey’s interior monologue. Here is something about the Pentagon, or possibly the Department of Defense in general: Dollars dispersed with impunity to contracting companies operating without elected oversight. Their employees, often good eggs doing the dangerous and difficult work, and just as often, assholes in need of attitude adjustments. A grab bag of seasoned former soldiers, security specialists, and small-town truck drivers toiling for tax-free tender, with government gifting grandly to these corporate gunslingers, be they of guts or greed. Ros, for her part, lashed critics, lawyers, and other enemies repeatedly with the same switch: her words. The preface to her second book is an 8,000-word, sentence-by-sentence response to Barry Pain’s review of Irene Iddesleigh, and a number of her poems are little more than exercises in gloating over deceased foes: Beneath me here in stinking clumps Lies Lawyer Largebones, all in lumps; A rotten mass of clockholed clay Which grows more honeycombed each day. See how the rats have scratched his face? Now so unlike the human race; I very much regret I can’t Assist them in their eager ‘bent’. 5. Outlandish ego. Here things get interesting. Of course Penn has a big ego; he’s a rich, famous, Oscar-winning celebrity who’s had rapturous praise thrown at him from all quarters for decades. And that ego bursts out of Bob Honey, both in the content of the novel (Bob Honey never doubts the rightness of his own behavior, even when that behavior entails murdering senior citizens with a mallet) and in the novel’s very existence. Penn evidently did not doubt that he could write a novel and it would be good. He, totally untrained as a writer, elected to write in potentially the most difficult genre to get right (satire), to imitate writers whose work stands alone in quality among many inferior attempts at its characteristics (Thomas Pynchon, mainly, but also Charles Bukowski), to write prose that individually offends an astounding array of people (women, people of color, Jewish people, military, anti-military, elderly people, non-Californians, non-Americans, dog lovers, Katrina survivors, just…anyone you can think of who isn't a middle-aged white man). With such hubris, it is no wonder his book is an artistic failure. But at no point did he appear to examine any of the presumptions behind this effort, to think that perhaps writing a novel isn’t as easy as putting words on paper for 150 pages. At no point did he think to himself, hey, maybe a person literally rowing through the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, observing floating bodies and houses on fire, should not be feeling “a cathartic sense of momentarily connected bliss; the kind he might, in a pinch, one day pick from his back pocket, were he ever in the greater Gulf Coast area again, and in need of sensory soothing.” Maybe writing that is not such a hot idea? No. Never. Penn can do anything; everything Penn does is worthwhile. That is the assumption underlying the awful reality of Bob Honey. It’s the same assumption that brought Ros’s work into the world. Everything divides the two writers; Penn has many years of fame and privilege on which to base his opinion of himself, but Ros would likely have lived a totally forgotten life had she not decided to put her work in print. Yet her voluminous correspondence records an ego that matches Penn’s. She once asked a friend if she ought to “make a dart” for the Nobel Prize in Literature, having just heard of it. “I am prouder of my Works than ever,” she wrote to a correspondent: Surely there must be something strangely great about my Works when they create such a furore amongst the World’s noblest and best down to the “Hogwashing Hooligans” whose sole foundation is based upon spleen. I pity such poor apes. This superiority complex bleeds through her novels. She looks down her nose at drinkers, Catholics, women, lawyers, anyone who is not a member of the peerage, and “that class who subsist on the prostitute penny” (i.e. prostitutes). Most chapters of Irene Iddesleigh begin with a paragraph of condescending purple prose meant to teach some kind of life lesson: Be grateful for blessings, beware of ambition, “Torture trifleth not.” The prose in these paragraphs operates in the mood of a hard-won, Melvillian revelation, even if the point is contradictory or incredibly obvious. What a boon to the sad, sorry human race that we have this countrywoman from Ireland to teach us such things. “I expect I will be talked about at the end of 1000 years,” she wrote. A thousand years! Even the major romantic novels of Ros’s time are hardly read after only a hundred and fifty. A similarity less obvious, but perhaps most instructive, is the sheer boredom in the subtext of both writers’ works. Ros could not have been satisfied with her life; she exaggerated its circumstances at every opportunity. Her books are (intended to be) breathless romances, where stakes are high and life is short. The opposite was true in her life, as she lived to 80, and her grand fantasies remained in her head and on the page. Penn’s book touches on some of the major political disasters of the recent past: Baghdad in 2003, New Orleans in 2005, Benghazi in 2012. It is jammed with pointless military jargon, often footnoted patronizingly, as well as large, unlikely accidents (a helicopter falls into a house for no reason). Through all this, Bob Honey’s life is practically static, and his motivations never emerge. Penn, too, must have a great deal of time to sit in his home and do nothing, now that he has purportedly retired from acting. Unlike his character, Penn has not been a propulsive actor in any world events; he has played roles around them, often very well, but that is all one can say of his life. It’s as if Penn is writing the boy version of Ros’s fantasies. His take place in the political realm, while Ros’s take place in the domestic. But both write of inflated lives from a perspective of no real consequence. Both possess the time and the ego to try at writing, fail at it, and move forward as if they have succeeded. It’s appropriate, then, that aside from the century that divides them, the major disparity between Penn and Ros is power. Penn’s power as a male celebrity propelled his book into print, granted him reviews from major publications, and landed him a blurb from no less than Salman Rushdie. So of course, he writes about power, about the political landscape. Ros, who had virtually no power at all in her lifetime, writes about marriage and manor-house intrigue, and her book’s initial publication was her husband’s gift to her—she could not even propel herself into print. Perhaps this is why Penn’s book is so unpleasant to read, while Ros’s book delights. The two writers’ sentences are equally risible, and their pugnaciousness is equivalent, but Penn rages at a world that has given him so much, while Ros sniffs at that world primly after being denied its pleasures. Penn’s book would be repellent if it were not so stupid, while Ros’s books would be stupid if they were not so funny. The uncanny similarity between the sentences and tendencies of each writer cannot be explained by simple incompetence, because incompetent writing does not always sound and feel like this. Although their similarity is amusing, it’s the distinctions between the writers that may reveal something significant about what happens when bad writing transcends obscurity. The difference may be the century that separates Sean Penn and Amanda McKittrick Ros, but it may also be gender, or power—or some significant mixture of the two. Ros wrote three novels: Irene Iddesleigh, Delina Delaney, and Helen Huddleson. The first is available on Project Gutenberg, while the other two are more difficult to find. Thine in Storm and Calm, a short compendium edited by Frank Ormsby of Ros’s prose, poetry, and correspondence, as well as other treats, is highly recommended, if you can find it. A charming biography of Ros, O Rare Amanda! by Jack Loudan, has been out of print for some years, but may be available in libraries and sometimes at AbeBooks. Penn has threatened to write more novels. Let us hope he does not. Related: Millions Original Epic Fail by Mark O'Connell about Ros and many other purveyors of bad art.
If, like me, you are a reader who wants to turn and run whenever the phrase “coming-of-age novel” appears in conversation or in a blurb, it may seem that a book about two young women attending college in the early 1980s is not for you. But if you seek to understand how American consumerism became what it is today, or if you’ve ever felt like a skinful of secrets, I’ve got just the book for you, from a small press that reliably delivers exceptional novels about women and the worlds they inhabit. Silver Girl is not really a coming-of-age novel, anyway. It’s not such a simple or insignificant book that it can be shunted into the pigeonhole of a particular genre and set aside to go quietly out of print. Silver Girl is an act of mesmerism, of misdirection; it appears slight and forgettable, but turns out to have more substance and permanence than half the novels on a given bookshelf. Thematically, it’s ambitious: irreconcilable conflicts regarding money abide within it, as well as enduring mysteries about female friendship and a spooky motif of displacement and replacement. Nothing is as it seems between its pages, or between its characters. The two central characters of the novel are a nameless narrator and her best friend, Jess. The young women meet on moving-in day at the dorm of an unnamed university that is plainly Northwestern, in Chicago, and become best friends in that bonded, implacable way that only seems to exist between women in their late teens and early 20s. The narrator is from a horrifyingly dysfunctional, poverty-stricken family in Iowa, while Jess is from a relatively nice family with Chicago money. Each chapter unspools more and more information about these women, revealing their flaws, their desires, and some of their secrets. (No one will ever know all of the narrator’s secrets—not even the reader.) Instead of placing its events in chronological order, the book zigzags through seasons and incidents in an ordering strategy that feels random but probably isn’t. Such disorientation makes it hard for a reader to keep pace with the narrator’s comprehension of her own story, but the reader will inevitably lean in closer, invest more deeply, in order to follow along. Part of what makes this novel so compelling is Leslie Pietrzyk’s stellar wordcraft. After committing an act of betrayal in a library bathroom, the narrator washes her hands, and then: I wouldn’t leave behind even a used paper towel marking my presence, so I wiped my wet hands on my jeans, telltale dark streaks slashing my thighs. Not only is this sentence a perfectly made image, it’s also a gesture to the clandestine act that has just occurred, and it performs sly characterization. The narrator uses as few resources as possible, because she has so little money; plus, she doesn’t want to take up space or be known. Every sentence in Silver Girl is this multilayered, this plugged in to the novel as a whole. Not every sentence has such beauty, but Pietrzyk has written every one just as carefully. Still, the language of the book is not its primary pleasure. This novel, unlike so much contemporary literature, feels like a novel, not like an extended story. It’s a rare book that strikes this bell; the last one I remember reading was From Here to Eternity, which takes place across 10 months. The characters seem to genuinely live that time. They eat meals, they get restless, they sing songs, they make bad choices. They change imperceptibly, day by day, incident by incident, until the novel concludes with gestures we know the characters will make but hope they won’t. This same dynamic is at play in Silver Girl, which happens across three years. Jess and the narrator live through enormous changes, and small ones. They drink Tab together, they borrow each other’s clothes, they dance and watch TV and stoke each other’s fears about the Tylenol Killer (the novel’s setting in the early 1980s is contemporaneous to that episode). After the last page, the reader feels she has encountered a world entire, real people and situations that have just been waiting to be brought to life in the reading, rather than a series of canvas backdrops with bright mannequins puppeteered to look human. [millions_ad] The novel’s focus on money and class issues provides some of its most profound and naked passages. For a while, I was saving money, planning to buy one for myself, but when I thought it through, I understood that even if I had the comforter, I wouldn’t have the Lanz of Salzburg flannel nightgown for frigid nights, and if I had the nightgown I wouldn’t have the Topsiders, and if I had the Topsiders (which, actually, I did have—three dollars at a thrift store) then I would need the Fair Isle sweater in blue and if I had it in blue, I would need it in pink and cream and heather…that there was no end to wanting and needing and imagining that just one more thing would be the thing, one more sweater, one more kiss, one more boy, one more anything. That endless yearning, that empty hunger, even when I knew it wasn’t sweaters I wanted (though also, actually it was). It was to not care how many sweaters I had; it wasn’t a number, but a word: enough. And that word was impossible, it seemed to me. The narrator’s background, and her placement among mostly rich kids attending Northwestern, force most of her waking thoughts to be about money. It’s not greed, or an unnatural obsession with status symbols (the careful placement of which foreshadows the brand-driven consumerism that characterized the millennial years); it’s just that she notices, and cares, that she can never pay for groceries or meals out or school supplies, and Jess always can. Jess doesn’t notice, doesn’t care, but the unevenness in their relationship proves untenable. The novel peels off the layers of charisma surrounding Jess slowly, deliberately, and before we even realize it, her privilege appears hideous, her spoiled, careless attitude more monstrous than we ever imagined. The narrator herself is no saint. In fact, she makes one bad choice after another: she fails to be empathetic in the face of various tragedies, she makes missteps with clothes, sex, and parents, and she leaves her sister in a situation she knows to be dangerous. These choices are all easy enough to understand, since the narrator has suffered terribly at the hands of her family and has no idea how to form healthy relationships. Besides, part of what confounds the narrator (and the reader, until she can spot the pattern) is the way sisters are displaced and replaced in this novel. Sisters act as mirrors, as hobbles, as parasites and sites of conflict. The death of Jess’s biological sister destabilizes the sisterly relationship between Jess and the narrator, and then a half-sister comes along to destabilize Jess herself. The narrator’s sister, Grace, disrupts her ambition to forget her family. She remains haunted by her invented stories of the Silver Girl, the stories she shares with Grace to keep her safe—which, of course, fail. The Silver Girl didn’t string along in never-ending, world-saving adventures; she was invented fresh each time I told a story, meaning I didn’t have to remember what happened before. I could simply start with “once upon a time.” The Silver Girl had absolutely no history or past. We liked that about her. Though she presents herself to Jess in the same way, as a girl without a history, the narrator’s real past continues to overwhelm her present choices. The reader doesn’t get a full accounting of this past, only gestures and whispers, but it’s enough to tell us that her backbone is formed of titanium and her skin of carbon steel. Even through all her mistakes, even though she lets no one into her mind and heart all the way, not even the reader, this central character is compelling and unforgettable. As is this novel. It’s a novel in the finest, most challenging sense of the word. Although Silver Girl is complex and sometimes difficult to track, and the narrator’s motives for her destructive behavior only come clear toward its end, it is a singular, crystalline achievement, a book that will keep you thinking and feeling long after its final chapter.