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‘Antkind’ a giant leap for Charlie Kaufman

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Something I’ve learned in a decade or so of book reviews: Even when you think you know, you don’t always know.

Take “Antkind” (Random House, $30), the debut novel from acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, for example. As someone familiar with Kaufman’s body of work – his style, his sensibility, his thematic interests – I figured I had a pretty good grasp on what I was getting into when I picked up his first work of literary fiction.

Reader, I did not.

Kaufman’s creative output is fluid, an elaborate and evocative liquid that takes the shape of whatever container it is placed into. Movies have strict delineations – there are unavoidable limitations of time and technology – and hence Kaufman’s work in that sphere is likewise limited. But on the page, there are no such limit. In that regard, “Antkind” is Kaufman unleashed, his careening creative brilliance utterly unfettered.

It’s … a lot.

This book is a sprawling, recursive metanarrative, one unbound by literary convention. It is the story of what happens when mediocrity is confronted with genius and forced to reckon with what happens when singular brilliance proves ephemeral. It is about a man in whom self-regard and self-pity do constant battle, forced to come to terms with how little he understands. It is about what it means to be tangentially touched by greatness, only to have that greatness escape your grasp.

B. Rosenberger Rosenberg is a film critic. A neurotic, underappreciated and not particularly well-regarded film critic, but a film critic nevertheless. He is dismissive of the mainstream, preferring to focus on the brilliance he perceives in the obscure. He writes excessively titled monographs and fails to make any sort of academic inroads.

But his life changes when he inadvertently stumbles onto Ingo Cutbirth. You see, Cutbirth is the ultimate outsider artist, a longtime janitor who has devoted his entire life to making a film. It is a work of staggering ambition, a work of stop-motion animation that he spent decades making and that will take three months (with scheduled breaks for sleep, food and the restroom) to watch. When Cutbirth asks B. to watch the film, the critic haughtily agrees, assuming the worst.

Instead, it proves to be the greatest film he has ever seen. Indeed, it may be the greatest work of cinematic art ever created. Finally, B. has discovered his true purpose – he must devote his life to making sure the world sees this masterpiece. He sets out to do just that, only to almost immediately be faced with disaster.

The film is destroyed.

B. is left with nothing but a single frame of film and his memory of what he saw. From this, he must try and reconstruct a film that could perhaps be not just a work of art, but the very salvation of humanity.

What follows is a descent into madness, a swirling maelstrom of metatextual chaos. We’re dealing with the epitomic unreliable narrator, one whose own emotional and intellectual idiosyncrasies are deeply entangled with the sporadic memories of the film that he is trying to excavate from his subconscious. As chunks of the movie become snarled with his own perception, the lines blur. Truth – already subjective and colored by his own pretensions – becomes ever more difficult to discern. The man is swallowed up by a yawning abyss of weirdness … and we’re just along for the ride.

We’re talking murderous vaudeville teams and robot presidents run amok and ever-shifting fetishes and a proclivity for falling down open manholes. No notable film figure’s names are quite right, save for Judd Apatow (the only good American filmmaker, in B’s opinion) and Charlie Kaufman (the absolute worst person in the history of cinema).

Like I said – it’s a LOT.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything quite like “Antkind.” The easiest way to describe it is that it is precisely the sort of novel you would expect Charlie Kaufman to write. It could be compared do the weirder fictional digressions of David Foster Wallace or the see-what-sticks postmodernism of someone like Mark Leyner. When things get cooking, there’s a pretty strong Pynchon vibe (if you tilt your head and squint a little). The highbrow/lowbrow referential ping-ponging, the blending of tragedy and absurdity, tangents begetting tangents begetting tangents – it’s a real workout.

In truth, there’s literally nothing straightforward about this book. Every aspect of it – the prose style, the character choices, the narrative direction – is layered and stratified. Ideas are taken out of the box and kicked around before being abandoned. Subplots meander off into the sunset, never to be seen again. In “Antkind,” reality is a construct and memory is a lie – both figuratively and literally.

It’s a challenging read, to be sure. Kaufman is unapologetic in the demands he places on the reader. The pace is wildly varied, moving at breakneck speed at certain points and slowing to a crawl in others. The voice of our narrator is whinging and wheedling, built upon seemingly oppositional feelings of superiority and victimhood. The real is presented as fictional and the fictional as real – except when it’s the other way around.

At 720 pages, it’s a real doorstopper of a novel – yet another shared quality with some of its PoMo forbears. It has a similar density as well, packed tightly with reference upon metareference upon meta-metareference. And yet, even with all that, “Antkind” is extremely readable; one imagines that Kaufman channeled his experiences with making the bizarre accessible on the big screen to make it so.

“Antkind” will not be everyone’s cup of tea. At times, it is willfully obtuse and gleefully off-putting. But there’s a vividity and viscerality to it that will prove irresistible to a certain kind of reader. It is tightly layered and unflinchingly weird, a book that sets the subconscious churning. You’ll have to put in the work, but if you do, you will be richly rewarded.

Last modified on Wednesday, 15 July 2020 11:12

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