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Charlie Kaufman’s Debut Novel Reveals His Genius Has Its Limits – Slate

A person holding up a cutout of Charlie Kaufman’s head over his own, surrounded by other images of Kaufman’s head.

I’ve long had a weakness for obsessive, neurotic, paranoid, and comically vain narrators, but Charlie Kaufman’s overstuffed, formless first novel, Antkind, may have finally cured me of it. B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, the bitter, unsuccessful film critic at the center of the book, rants his way through 720 pages of Job-like trials and misadventures that include breakups, lost gigs, having to move into a New York City apartment too small to accommodate a bed and then having to take on a roommate to afford it, being supplanted by an unctuously prosperous doppelgänger, an apocalyptic conflagration, being trapped in a cave with 40,000 animatronic replicas of “President Trunk” that can fly and shoot lasers out of their eyes, sexual congress with a mountain, and a tragically thwarted friendship with a lonely, intelligent ant named Calcium from 1 million years in the future.

B himself is such a relentlessly broad caricature that he makes the cadaverous restaurant critic in Ratatouille seem nuanced.

If this sounds wearisome, it is. Yet Antkind also has flashes of wit and even beauty, often just at the point when the reader has started to wonder if Kaufman wants her to suffer as much as the benighted B. The novel’s premise has B traveling to St. Augustine, Florida, to research an obscure silent film about a gender-bending couple. (The movie, A Florida Enchantment, is real.) There he meets Ingo Cutbirth, a retired school janitor who claims to be 119 years old and to have participated in the making of A Florida Enchantment in the role of the “unseen boy,” a character who never appears on screen because the film is shot from his point of view. Ingo himself has spent his life making a single film, a stop-animation feature whose run time is three months. B persuades Ingo to screen it for him, but the filmmaker dies during the process, leaving B with the untitled movie and instructions to destroy it. B intends instead to make his critical fortune by preserving and celebrating this masterpiece of outsider art. However, on the way back to New York, he leaves it in a parked U-Haul truck on a hot day while he tries to impress a young woman working in a fast food restaurant, and it catches fire, leaving behind only one still. B then, with the aid of a hypnotist, takes as his mission the meticulous remembering of the film, imagining “the future adulation I will perhaps receive, the lectures, the Nobel for Criticism, the Pulitzer for Profound Insight.”

What at first appears to be a parody of the parasitical nature of criticism soon metastasizes into a grab bag of long-standing Kaufman motifs and themes: doubles, time travel (mental and otherwise), the torment of consciousness, the impossibility of truly representing experience in art, erotic fixations, professional envy, artistic failure. This proves a mixed blessing, as B himself is such a relentlessly broad caricature that he makes the cadaverous restaurant critic in Ratatouille seem nuanced. The limits of this comic device soon make themselves felt. B broods over assorted nemeses (Manohla Dargis, A.O. Scott, Armond White—the last of whom he suspects of sending a tiny drone to spy on him), fumes about criminally neglected masterpieces, makes Top 10 lists that inevitably include 9 obscure foreign titles and one Judd Apatow movie. He has written countless monographs with such titles as “At Last, I Am Becoming: Gender and Transformation in American Cinema,” “Patterns of Speech, from Stammer to Yammer, from Stutter to Mutter, from Drone to Intone,” and so on. His paltry achievements include delivering lectures at meetings of the “International Society of Antique Movie Projector Enthusiasts (ISAMPE),” the “92nd Street Y Student Residence Dining Hall Overflow Room,” and the “Boy Scouts of America Jamboree Rain Day Film Festival” (but only in the event of rain). He also did “an experimental two-month stint as the film critic for the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog.”

These gags are funny once, perhaps twice, but Kaufman keeps making them over and over again until they arrive like a kind of blow. Maybe that is the joke, the inherent cruelty in comedy (another pet theme of Kaufman’s), exposed by turning humor into a form of punishment—not just on the character but on the reader. Maybe! All I can tell you for sure, though, is that it gets to be some pretty heavy sledding.

Other B preoccupations include the verbal rituals of contemporary identity politics. He’s invented his own nongendered pronouns and is forever qualifying his observations with such statements as “the assumption of male gender in hobos has hindered the dreams of more female hobos than I as a white man can imagine.” At the beginning of the novel, he has an “African-American girlfriend” he refers to constantly, who is also moderately famous for a role she played on a sitcom, which he also refers to constantly. (“You would certainly know who she is.”) Initially uninterested in Ingo because he seems to be white, B later discovers that the outsider artist is Black and instantly becomes fascinated with him: “Oh, the things he must have seen as an African American. The places he must’ve gone in his long and relentlessly African American lifetime.” And while it’s hard to credit that anyone as comprehensively self-absorbed as B sincerely cares about such issues, his ability to parrot conventional wokeness is impressive: “I am not a speculative fiction maven,” he announces at one point, “although I do greatly respect the work of the African American genii Octavia E. Butler, Samuel R. Delany, and Tananarive Due, who have rejiggered this frivolous form, transforming it into a tool with which to investigate societal and racial injustice.”

This could be a shrewd observation of just how easily, and therefore superficially, these attitudes can be adopted, but that sort of obedience to social pressure seems out of character for B. And, in fact, he also proclaims, “A genius must sometimes be a racist if we are to hope for elucidation. History is generously peppered with geniuses who despised the Jews, who dismissed the blacks, who objectified women. Are we to bury their great works because of this?” If B’s utterances on such matters have anything in common, it’s that they replicate the sort of banal statements many people post to social media with the air of having delivered an important and original insight. Despite all his pronouncements, what B himself actually believes never comes into focus.

Instead, the narrative begins splitting and forking, alluding to Beckett and Dostoevsky and Preston Sturges. After the fire, in which B is badly burned trying to save Ingo’s film, he can no longer remember whether Ingo was Black (and therefore either a sharecropper or a Pullman porter) or a “Swede.” The film he reconstructs from memories uncovered with the help of a stage hypnotist is either about a comedy duo of the ’40s and ’50s named Mudd and Molloy or a plain white rectangle of light in which, over a span of weeks, a tiny black dot appears and grows incrementally larger until it turns into Ingo. When B goes out of town for a few days, he returns to find that a double has taken over his life, writing a bestseller about Ingo’s film, misrepresenting it as a fusion of superhero saga and the fantasias of Henry Darger (a real-life janitor and outsider artist, although not Black). Unlike B, this false self does not deny being Jewish. Instead, he goes around in a yarmulke talking piously about the designs of “HaShem, in his infinite wisdom” and dispensing the inspirational nostrums that have made him rich and famous. The real B murders him, but then another double takes his place, and B begins secretly living in the second double’s apartment.

These are only a few of the wayward tendrils of story that take over Antkind like kudzu and ultimately bleed into one another: different selves for B, different versions of Ingo’s film, Mudd and Molloy routines, twin infants who magically appear in the command module during the Apollo 11 mission, a woman from the future who infiltrates B’s dreams. Some of these are very funny. Molloy, born in 1906, was, as a child, “diagnosed with ‘the fidgets’ and placed in a special facility, the Paramus School for Fidgeting Boys, where the treatment consists of spinning boards, hydrotherapy, insulin comas, leg restraints, and crafts.” The woman from the future wants B to write a novelization of a “Brainio” (a sort of movie piped directly into one’s head) she has written because she hopes to win an award for Best Adapted Brainio, “since I have no hope of winning Original Brainio due to politics.” If she can plant an earlier book version of her Brainio in the past, though, she might have a shot at the adaptation prize. (Kaufman’s screenplay for Adaptation, a film about a character named Charlie Kaufman trying to write an adaptation of a Susan Orlean book, was nominated for an Oscar.)

In another giddily amusing section of the novel, B meets an imperious woman named Tsai and becomes sexually obsessed with the desire to abase himself before her. She orders him to get a job in her local bodega, where, to his delight, she humiliates him by acting as if they’ve never met and befriending his loutish boss. When she breaks with him, B gets a job at Zappos on the chance that he might one day take her shoe order, but management insists on promoting him from customer service to the marketing division where he becomes a great success and almost forgets Tsai entirely while embroiled in a feud with a co-worker. Sadly, however, this segues into an extended bit about clowns and clown porn that is best passed over in silence.

Throughout, B expresses contempt for the films of Charlie Kaufman, eventually noticing that whenever he dwells on this subject, he tends to fall down an open manhole into a pool of sewage. From this, he concludes that he is the hapless creation of Kaufman, a truth with which the reader cannot argue. But while this might at first make Antkind look like an extended act of revenge on Kaufman’s own critics, by this point in the narrative, B is clearly an avatar for Kaufman himself, a brainy, bearded neurotic with a bag of meta tricks and a susceptibility to existential angst that he believes only comedy can soothe. Why, then, is Antkind so often tedious when Kaufman’s films are, for the most part, entertaining and delightful? Could it be something so simple as the constraints of cinematic form, the fact that you can’t make a three-month-long film because every minute of a movie costs a lot of money, typically other people’s money? That the limitations collaborators impose on a genius can end up rescuing him from his own hopelessly dithering solipsism? It could. Other people may be hell, according to Sartre, but sometimes they can save your ass—or at least stop you from crawling up it.

Book cover of Antkind.