Whether you find Charlie Kaufman’s films enchanting or exhausting really depends on your tolerance for meta. From mysterious portals into the mind of John Malkovich, achingly sincere puppet sex or an ‘adaptation’ of The Orchid Thief where Kaufman writes himself into the script as the main character; the man’s oeuvre has wandered so far off from the beaten track that it’s plummeted off a nearby cliff, crashed through the topsoil and now scratches a living underground, biting the heads off fish. Since Kaufman stepped behind the camera for the first time with his bleak masterpiece Synecdoche, New York, he’s been spreading his artistic wings further and further, taking punts on everything from audio theatre to the aforementioned hardcore puppetry. The shock isn’t that Kaufman’s put out a novel, but that it’s taken him this long.
As his literary debut, Antkind is exactly the kind of novel that Kaufman has been threatening since 1999. At the time of writing it’s sitting pretty as Amazon’s number 1 bestseller in the ‘Surrealistic Literary Criticism’ genre which feels as much of a warning as an endorsement. Real talk: if you are not a fan of the man’s cracked worldview, Antkind is not going to be your Damascene conversion. It’s 720 pages long for one thing, so this is an investment even for the true believers. If Antkind is about anything (and it’s possible it’s about everything which is bad news for a five-hundred-word review) it’s about how art and memory shapes our perception of the world around us. Too nebulous? The story traces the fortunes of one B. Rosenberger Rosenburg (seriously), a deeply pretentious film critic/historian/maker whose numerous attempts to break into the film/criticism business have met with ignominy and failure. His steady downward trajectory is interrupted when he meets the floridly named Ingo Cutbirth, a black 119 year old former child star who has been making a stop-motion film for over 90 years. Said film takes over three months to view (with breaks for eating and sleeping naturally) and is in Rosenberg’s view the single greatest film ever made and possibly the cure for all of humanities moral turpitude. Rosenberg (who insists throughout the novel that he’s not Jewish) takes possession of the only copy of the film which almost immediately is immolated when his car catches fire. Typical.
Desperate to reconstruct the film, Rosenberg spends the remainder of the novel attempting to work with therapists to fully recall every instant of the three month long opus so he can reconstruct it and save his career/possibly humanity. However, he finds himself repeatedly borne backwards by a series of comic disasters in his career and personal life and gradually becomes increasingly unsure where his life ends and the movie begins. This is notably familiar territory for Kaufman, but the sprawling (and sprawling is putting it extremely mildly) nature of the work moves Antkind away from his usual tightly constructed box and into actively Pynchonian territory. Whilst 700 plus pages of anything, let alone sardonic metafiction, should be approached with caution, it must be said that the novel moves at a deceptively fast clip that sees the reader careen through its cavernous environs at roller coaster pace. It’s facile to describe a book as ‘not for everyone’ but if you’ve made it through this review and still feel interested, it might just be for you. And if it’s for you, you’ll love it dearly.