Antkind by Charlie Kaufman review – a screenwriter's debut

Puppetry, metafictional self-awareness and incessant cultural referencing – all Kaufman’s trademarks in a novel that leaves the reader punchdrunk

This debut novel from the award-winning screenwriter of movie masterpieces such as Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York, is funny, exhausting and very, very long. Reading it is like watching (or being) someone trying to sprint to the top of an Escher staircase.

With its unmistakable obsessive-compulsive aesthetic, it could only have sprung from the head of Charlie Kaufman. There is the magnificent joke-telling stamina working against a constant crisis-of-faith undertow, which whispers that all comedy is futile and dishonest. There is the metafictional self-awareness and incessant autoreferencing of real movie celebrities and writers, including of course a despised “Charlie Kaufman”. There is Kaufman’s fascination with the false promise of cinema – of all art – that human existence can be represented; he catches himself in the act of thinking about his own existence, and then in the act of thinking about thinking about his own existence.

And perhaps most of all there is Kaufman’s preoccupation with puppetry: the naive artform which is so wrong, because silly, jerky puppets can’t fairly represent human beings, but also so right, because all of us are silly, indistinguishable little puppets, each bizarrely convinced of our own compelling individuality.

The hero of our story is B Rosenberger Rosenberg, a film critic in his late 50s, who in time-honoured style is a pathetic, pompous loser. B is painfully progressive in his attitudes, especially in his obsessive use of the nonbinary pronoun “thon”, but manages to be artlessly offensive about everyone. Nobody cares what he thinks and the only outlet for his opinions is his utterly unregarded blog, in which he gives condescending two-star reviews to the work of his estranged film-maker daughter, who is creatively driven by her loathing of him.

John Cusack in Being John Malkovich
‘All of us are silly, indistinguishable little puppets’ … John Cusack in Being John Malkovich. Photograph: Sportsphoto/Allstar/Cinetext Collection

And then B befriends an ancient recluse in Florida called Ingo Cutbirth, who shows him the epic stop-motion puppet animation he has been secretly filming in his tiny apartment all his life. It is three months long, and apart from its creator, B is the only person ever to have seen it. B is electrified by this discovery of a primitive masterpiece that could finally make his name, and like Max Brod with Kafka disobeys Cutbirth’s dying wish that the film be destroyed. He carelessly loads the thousands of reels and innumerable boxes of meticulously crafted puppets into a hired van and sets off home, intending to show the film, write about it, and bathe in the glory of being sole proprietor of a precious, unique work of genius. But B is apparently unaware, despite all his cinematic expertise, of what can happen to old nitrate film stock when it is exposed to the open air. The resulting catastrophe sends him on a terrifying journey down the rabbit hole of his mind, where imagination and reality merge, to finally confront a giant symbolic ant.

It’s a gigantic book, crammed with insanely creative gags, though these thin towards the end; the material about Trump is a bit stale. Yet Kaufman gouges the reader for laughs with expert force. B has an awful habit of getting his cultural references wrong, perhaps through incipient dementia, or perhaps because he occupies an alternative universe in which they are correct: “‘Are you talking to me?’ I say, reminding myself of Robert De Niro in the TV series Taxi.” (A film version of Antkind will have to use top-of-the-range digital tech to put De Niro’s Travis Bickle into the same room as the youthful Judd Hirsch and Danny DeVito.)

He is also obsessed with the work of bro-comedy maestro Judd Apatow, whose films (some imaginary) he is always putting in his insufferably hipster “best of the year” lists. Perhaps Kaufman despises Apatow – a distinct possibility – or perhaps he is amused at the business of solemnly analysing commercial comedy product. But B’s misremembered dialogue from Apatow’s film This Is 40 is both surreal and hilarious (though perhaps a bit niche for many readers).

Finally Antkind comes to its crazy, hellzapocalypticpoppin ending, and this twilight of the puppet-gods dwindles into darkness, leaving me with the punchdrunk feeling I have after all Kaufman’s movies. He may be someone for whom anxiety and sadness are a personal ordeal, but he transforms them into bleak, stark, unearthly monuments to comic despair.

Antkind is published by 4th Estate (£18.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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