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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
With his massive debut novel, Charlie Kaufman disappears up his own ass

With his massive debut novel, Charlie Kaufman disappears up his own ass

Graphic: Karl Gustafson

An odd moment occurs near the end of a recent New York Times interview with the acclaimed screenwriter and director Charlie Kaufman. The piece’s author, Jon Mooallem, is discussing how the writer of films like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind would like to see his work reviewed. “[Kaufman] would prefer,” Mooallem explains, “if film critics prefaced their negative reviews by disclosing that they’d just had a fight with their spouse, or: ‘I don’t like this guy because I don’t like the way he looks.’ Because those things are true, he said.”

This is funny for two reasons. One is that it makes it sound like Kaufman thinks any critic who writes a negative review had some unrelated real-life unpleasantness or petty personal grudge that caused them to dislike his work, rather than finding the film itself bad. Two, Kaufman’s debut novel, Antkind, is a satire whose main character is a buffoonish film critic with precisely the kinds of childish personal vendettas and public embarrassments that Kaufman suggests define their output—which is an awfully on-the-nose blending of art and lived expectations.

So let’s mea this culpa: I have not had a fight with my significant other recently. This pandemic is certainly taking its toll, but I can honestly say I’ve managed to settle into a tolerable routine. I have no idea what Charlie Kaufman looks like, so I couldn’t tell you if I like his appearance or not. I can say that I find his filmography to be tremendously impressive (and, in my opinion, he’s batting almost 1.000 when it comes to the results of those films). Hopefully that provides some context for the fact that I have spent the past two months patiently reading all 720 pages of Antkind. And after giving it a good amount of thought, my strongest belief is that despite the book’s various likable qualities, Charlie Kaufman has disappeared up his own ass with this novel. Given the overwhelmingly meta elements at work, I should probably make clear I’m being metaphorical with that statement.

If there’s one thing you will take away from B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, the pompous and cartoonish main character of this book, it’s that he hates the oeuvre of Charlie Kaufman. Early on, Rosenberg mocks Kaufman’s “novel” idea of having an actor play himself; some time later, he calls Synecdoche, New York an “irredeemable, torturous, tortuous yawn.” Later he delivers a lecture entitled “I Vote With My Feet When It Comes To Charlie Kaufman,” bemoaning the filmmaker’s latest “turgid, overhyped foray into Kaufman’s self-referential, self-congratulatory psyche.” Et cetera. This serves as a kind of microcosm of the novel itself: a parodic barrage of metafictional conceits that keep returning to the same obsessive themes.

That last indictment that Rosenberg levels against “Kaufman” is in response to the filmmaker’s new project, Dreams Of Absent-Minded Transgression, purportedly about the “lulling of our contemporary world into a semiconscious dream state in which, by degree, we accept an ever-increasing surrealism in our daily lives.” (This also defines the structure of Antkind.) Rosenberg, feeling unappreciated and marginalized in his chosen profession as an author and professor of film criticism, stumbles upon what he believes will be a career-making find: A hundred-years-plus-old man named Ingo Cutbirth has spent his entire life single-handedly making a stop-motion animated film—and the movie is three months long.

Rosenberg plans to use this brilliant work of outsider art as a means of finally making his name in the world, but immediately confronts tragedy: Cutbirth dies midway through screening the film for Rosenberg, and before the critic can return to New York with the print, it burns up in a fire, leaving only a single frame of celluloid and Rosenberg’s memory as proof it ever existed. What to do? Rosenberg’s plan is straightforward enough: Dive into his memory with the help of a hypnotist, in order to reconstruct the entire thing from beginning to end.

It’s a compelling hook, the kind of thing you’d expect to see in one of Kaufman’s films. Unfortunately, the unfolding of the narrative suggests there’s a reason Kaufman has found such success in cinema: With only two hours or so of running time to play with, there’s a firm structure in place that mitigates the desire for excess. But here, Kaufman’s talent for the absurd refuses to bend to any structure whatsoever, stretching on to what feels ad infinitum at points. It gradually becomes enervating, a novel simultaneously overstuffed and plodding. Given free rein to dump the contents of his mind into prose, Kaufman crams into Antkind as many one-joke premises, surrealist curlicues, superficial lampoons, and Pynchon-esque reworkings of his premise. The result is bloated and frustrating—less an embarrassment of riches than a dearth of restraint. The experience of reading about a very silly man’s Kafka-esque descent into suffering becomes a Kafka-esque process in itself.

The examples of Kaufman’s ill-considered excess are as plentiful as the Job-like punishments he visits upon his self-important character. One recurring gag is Rosenberg’s over-the-top and self-serving embrace of leftist identity politics, which runs the gamut from repeatedly mansplaining how feminism works to his insistence on affixing anyone and everyone with his self-invented gender-bending pronoun, “thon.” As satire, it feels outdated and clumsy. As insight into Rosenberg’s character, it reads as caricature. Similarly, continual dives into Rosenberg’s “memory” of the Cutbirth film keep returning to the same basic scenarios, such as competing vaudeville comedy duos and the efforts to assassinate them by a vindictive Abbott and dimwitted Costello. These are amusing at first, but in trying to inject pathos by showing the characters making the wrong choices again and again or misunderstanding their place in the world, it all loses its potency. This accumulating effect of disenchantment and spinning one’s wheels may be intentional, but it doesn’t make the book any more fun to read.

It’s possible to see glimpses of the more impactful book that might’ve been. As anyone who has seen his films or read his screenplays can attest, the writer is capable of some truly arresting passages, and here, when he finds just the right impressions for a feeling or an image, the Pynchon comparisons are apt. It’s there in his description of a film beginning—“a birth, silent of course, the death-rattle chatter of sprockets, shutter spinning like that madman in Washington Square, the inevitable, relentless background noise of this clockwork universe to which we have found ourselves exiled.” It’s there in the rich allegory of his central conceit—Cutbirth’s film contains an entire world of unseen characters, built simply to exist around the events he captured on camera, yet with their own never-to-be-filmed narratives. And it’s there in the many moments of comedy that succeed by virtue of Kaufman’s warped sensibilities, often deployed with a daffy, Vonnegut-like gusto—as in the section where Rosenberg can’t stop falling down manholes.

Rosenberg does, eventually, evolve as a character. But it feels unearned, too abrupt a shift on the heels of all the farcical flailings and absurdist turns that came before. And it’s weighed down with so much winking; Kaufman feels the need to jump in and remind you that all of this is painfully self-aware and distanced to a degree that would make Bertold Brecht envious. Nearing the end, Rosenberg makes this all too obvious:

I am glad there is a logical explanation for the ridiculousness of my existence. But the horrifying reality is that I am under the thumb of a third-rate talent who no doubt despises me as much as I do him, likely because I have called him out on his pathetic attempts at screenage. He holds all the cards in the ill-conceived, irrational world in which I find myself unjustly imprisoned.

There is gilding the lily, and then there’s shoving the lily under someone’s nose while revealing you’ve replaced it with a squirting joke flower, at the exact moment you unleash a blast of water into someone’s face. The messiness and sprawl and insecurity about every aspect of Rosenberg’s life—of life, full stop—is the point, and there are moments when the tragicomedy feels pure, and true. In one scene, a character identifies humor as the key framing device for existence: “If performed properly, it transforms a painful experience into a tolerable one.” Were it not for the flashes of insight, wedded to some oft-excellent prose, the narrative bloat and insecure-white-guy tropes would have remained painful. Thanks to Kaufman’s talents, they are instead tolerable. But fidelity to Kaufman’s theory of honesty dictates I allow the possibility that I had a plate of bad sushi halfway through reading his book; maybe that’s why I ended up disliking so much of it.

Author photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images