It’s possibly a shameful thing to admit, as a guy who has run a Kaufman website for 20 years, but I’m a reader much more than a cinephile. I know more about books and publishing than I do about movies and filmmaking. For me, Antkind is a collision of worlds—the man about whom I run a website has entered the world I love the most. I had high hopes for Charlie’s debut novel, but expectations that I thought were muted and realistic.
There was no need to mute those expectations. THANK GOD.
Charlie Kaufman isn’t a screenwriter. He’s a writer, period, and if he ever gives up screenwriting for books, count me in.
If you haven’t read the publisher’s description of the book, here’s a quick rundown: B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, neurotic and underappreciated film critic, stumbles across a film nobody else has seen, a 3-month-long stop-motion movie that took its creator 90 years to make. The filmmaker is a Darger-esque outsider, and Rosenberg takes it upon himself to become this guy’s Max Brod, bringing the man’s work to the world at large. Alas, before Rosenberg can get that far, the film is destroyed. All that’s left behind is a single frame, and he spends the next 600 or so pages trying frantically to recall the rest of the movie.
But that’s nowhere near all that this book is about. It’s a shaggy dog tale in the tradition of Thomas Pynchon. And it is damned funny. The story wanders a convoluted path, to put it mildly, digressions are rife, yet there’s always method to the non-stop madness. There are ceaseless references to real people and events, mostly obscure. (The book opens with the St. Augustine Monster dropping from the sky, which is a real event that you can look up but probably shouldn’t until you’ve read some of the book. In fact, this is the first of several moments involving things falling down from the sky. Also the narrator spends a lot of time falling down manholes.) There’s an ongoing storyline about Abbott and Costello’s encounters with rival comedy duos. There’s an ongoing storyline involving Lewis Fry Richardson, a meteorologist trying to predict everything. In true Malkovich style, we get literally inside the head of a certain President. There are hypnotists and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and Charlie Rose… All of it, somehow, remains tied together in a meandering, dreamlike, yet essentially coherent story.
But for all of the comparisons I could make, this is unmistakably a Charlie Kaufman work. The book reads like a novel—you wouldn’t guess it came from a screenwriter, if you ignored the filmic references--yet this is Charlie Kaufman all the way. It’s as if he has pulled in the key elements from each of his films, stirred them together and rolled himself around in the resulting stew for 700 batshit hilarious pages. There are puppets. There are miniature cities. There are hirsute people. There are living arrangements akin to the 7 ½ floor. There are references to Christopher Nolan, Charlie Kaufman, and Judd Apatow. There’s a clown fetish and an old man who might be a time traveller. In Synecdoche, New York, Caden Cotard talks about how there’s no such thing as an extra in real life, and that’s an idea explored at length here. Likewise the passage of time, and the nature of memory, the nature of storytelling, fumbling romantic relationships, everything we expect when we think about Charlie’s work. This book is as Kaufman as you can get, and still--because of the form, and the voice he uses--it's something very different.
Charlie is famously wary of outlining his stories in advance, and though this can lead to delightful surprises and fascinating twists, there’s always a danger that you’ll write yourself into a dead end or into a tangle of unresolvable threads. Late in the novel, it felt like Charlie was about to run into trouble, and I thought I could see how he was going to get out of it. “DON’T DO IT, CHARLIE,” I thought to myself in uppercase letters. In a way, he did do it—he brushed up against it, he went partway down the road I feared he was about to take. But he didn’t go all the way, and this is what made it work. Another writer (one comes to mind, but that might be a spoiler) may have gone all the way. Not Charlie, who remains fully committed to the insanity going on in this book, steering the final act down an avenue that I found comparable to David Lynch, but there’s probably a better comparison that’s slipping my mind.
Do I recommend this book? God yes. It’s not a breezy read. It’s not a commercial novel. It’s not a summer blockbuster. It’s not linear and if you like your stories to be resolved into a neat bow at the end, you won’t dig it. But since you’re here on this website, it’s probably for you. If you love Kaufman’s work but wish he’d write something weirder and funnier; if you want 700 pages instead of 120 minutes; if you like post-modern novels and Thomas Pynchon or perhaps Kurt Vonnegut with the occasional… I dunno, Douglas Adams?; if you enjoy asking yourself “Wait, is this scene real, or is this a memory within a memory, or is this a flashback, or what is going on, how did we get here and why is there a talking donkey?” then this is the book for you.
I said it before, but I think it’s a pretty good line, so I’ll say it again: Charlie Kaufman is a writer, period, and if he ever gives up screenwriting for books, count me in.
(Also there’s a fast food joint called Mick’s Burgers on page 8. Which, despite my name being Mick, is probably coincidence, but still. I'm gonna tell people it's not.)