It took me three or four years to read Charlie Kaufman’s Antkind. Or at least that’s how it felt. Objectively speaking, I probably only spent a couple of determined weeks ploughing through the novel’s 720 pages. But subjectively speaking, it was a near-eternity. After a while, I began to wonder whether, like one of Kaufman’s metafictionally marooned characters, I had in fact always been reading Charlie Kaufman’s Antkind; if my reading of Charlie Kaufman’s Antkind was in some strange fashion coextensive with my experience of life itself – in the same way, perhaps, that the endless reality-replicating play in Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008) is coextensive with life itself. Eventually, I resigned myself to the long haul. It wasn’t easy. No matter how many times I sat down with the book, no matter how many pages I managed to get through in a given stint, I just didn’t seem to be making any progress with it.
The strange thing was, Kaufman didn’t seem to be making any progress with it either. Every time I checked back in, there he was, stuck in another dreamy, loopy digression. The book is all gags and riffs. Dream sequences. Flashbacks. Miniature essays on ontology and epistemology. Parodies of Abbott and Costello routines. Hallucinations. Surrealist detours. Visions under hypnosis. Interpolated anecdotes. Alternate histories. Previsions of the future. Intertwined running gags. There is no obvious destination in sight. Plotlines are followed like trails of breadcrumbs and then unceremoniously abandoned. Narratively speaking, Antkind doesn’t develop. It just continues. It’s a New Yorker Shouts & Murmurs squib inflated to Tolstoyan girth.
Which isn’t to say that it’s bad. On the contrary, any given riff almost immediately repays attention. He’s a funny and inventive man, Charlie Kaufman. But you already knew that because you’ve probably seen at least one of his films: if not Synecdoche, New York then Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) or Anomalisa (2015). Kaufman knows a killer conceit when he sees one. On the other hand, even his best films tend to outstay their welcomes. Synecdoche, New York – to date the only film Kaufman has both written and directed – could lose ten minutes and still be a certifiable masterpiece. And if Antkind were three hundred pages shorter, we’d have a classic comic novel on our hands.
Tant pis. Kaufman’s prose debut is narrated by B (for Balaam) Rosenberger Rosenberg, a pretentious, anxious, schlubby, middle-aged, divorced ‘film historian/theorist/critic/maker’ who looks Jewish but isn’t (there are numerous jokes about this), went to Harvard and is the author of ‘over seventy small-press monographs’ on obscure branches of cinematic theory (sample title: Fallowcentrism in Cinema: Planting the Seed for Change by Not Planting the Male Seed for a Change). Visiting St Augustine, Florida, to research a new book, he divides his time between the headquarters of the St Augustine Society for the Preservation of St Augustine Film History (SASFPSAFH) – which is designed to look like the head of the Creature from the Black Lagoon – and his rented apartment, where the supervisor is a deaf man who can tell when Rosenberg moves his lips without speaking.
In the apartment next door lives Ingo Cutbirth, an African-American man of indeterminate but certainly advanced age who has spent ninety years making a film using stop-motion animation. The film, which is ‘about everything’, takes three months to watch, a period that includes ‘predetermined bathroom, food, and sleep breaks’. Ingo believes that ‘the relentlessness of the movie will cause it to enter your psyche and thus infect your dream life’. Imagining that he has discovered an unheralded masterpiece – longer, and therefore better, than Jacques Rivette’s thirteen-hour Out 1 (1971) – Rosenberg submits to Ingo’s film. It is ‘startling, revolutionary’. But before the screening is complete, Ingo dies. Rosenberg intends to tote the film back to New York in a U-Haul truck and use it to resuscitate his critical career. But before he leaves Florida, the truck bursts into flames. Ingo’s film is lost. Back in Manhattan, Rosenberg enlists the help of a hypnotist named Barassini, who installs a ‘toggle switch’ in Rosenberg’s neck to facilitate access to his memory (shades of Eternal Sunshine). Together they attempt to reconstruct Ingo’s film, frame by frame. But it becomes clear, eventually, that the film has done its work: Rosenberg’s dream life is ‘infected’, and film and reality intertwine, to elaborate surrealistic effect.
And this is more or less where the plot stops moving – with five hundred or so pages left to go. Packed around this whimsical conceit like cladding are all those gags and skits, all those dreams and divagations. ‘A new idea on every page’ is laudable, as guiding principles go. But it does usually mean that some pages, and some ideas, are duds. Illustrative running gag: every time Rosenberg complains about the work of Charlie Kaufman (‘an irredeemable, torturous, tortuous yawn’ is his verdict on Synecdoche, New York), he falls into an open manhole or gets whacked by a plank of wood. Ho, ho, ho. On the other hand, there is a late section narrated, via a futuristic technology called Brainio (don’t ask), by President Trump that is so good it’s almost worth reading the whole novel just to get to it.
Like a Kaufman film, Antkind is crammed with ideas and goes on for far too long. And, like a Kaufman film, it’s frequently too damn cute for its own good. Or, to coin a phrase, you whim some, you lose some.