Book review: Charlie Kaufman's debut novel, 'Antkind,' is just as loopy and clever as his movies
"Antkind" by Charlie Kaufman (Random House) 720 pages, $30
B. Rosenberger Rosenberg does not think much of filmmaker Charlie Kaufman or his work. "He sticks in my craw like no other," Rosenberg says, and it's one of the milder insults he lobs at the screenwriter and director responsible for such celebrated, mind-bending films as "Being John Malkovich," "Anomalisa" and "Synecdoche, New York." That Rosenberg correctly suspects Kaufman of being his creator and the decider of his fate has no moderating effect on his attacks. Kaufman, he says, is "a third-rate talent who no doubt despises me as much as I do him."
Rosenberg is easy to dislike. A self-described "older, intellectual writer" who reviews movies for obscure publications, Rosenberg is deeply envious of his fellow critics. He loathes most other writers and believes his essays are well-known when, in fact, they may not even exist (sample title: "Swedish Hsi Dews," about Swedish palindromists). He tries so hard to prove that he's woke, "as the children today say," that he comes off as anything but. Disagreeable, arrogant and clueless, Rosenberg is no one's idea of a quarantine companion. He is, in short, a jerk.
All of which makes him the ideal protagonist for "Antkind," Kaufman's loopy, loony, 720-page raspberry of a first novel. A dyspeptic satire that owes much to Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon, "Antkind" has in Rosenberg a contrarian whose tomatoes are always rotten. "Starbucks is the smart coffee for dumb people. It's the Christopher Nolan of coffee," he offers during one discursive rant. About the only things Rosenberg approves of are sex (which he seldom has) and Judd Apatow ("the Great Exception").
Why spend a minute, let alone 720 pages, with this guy? For starters, he can be outrageously funny, often without meaning to be. "Imagine a holy synthesis of Brandon Cruz from 'The Courtship of Eddie's Father' and Mayim Bialik of 'Blossom' fame and you're imagining me as a boy," Rosenberg says, totally serious. "I am the Marilu Henner of men," he brags of the extraordinary memory he claims to possess and certainly does not. His chronic misspelling of famous names (Jake Gillibrand, Tarrantinoo) is the novel's best running joke.
Kaufman, of course, is the clever one here, and he has a blast tweaking toxic masculinity, celebrity worship, political correctness, filmmaking, therapy, high art, low art and much more. Themes that have long preoccupied the writer, particularly in the films "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," reappear in "Antkind." Humanity's ever competing perceptions of reality, the unreliability of memory, the question of God's existence and the malleable nature of storytelling are measured again and again in this novel that is long but never dull.
"We are all of us victims of the illusion of constancy," a filmmaker named Ingo Cutbirth tells Rosenberg during a visit to St. Augustine, where he is researching a book about gender and cinema. Cutbirth, who claims to be 119 years old, has spent nine decades creating a stop motion-animation film that is three months long and features thousands of handmade puppets. Rosenberg agrees to watch the film in one stretch, pausing only for bathroom, food and sleep breaks determined by Cutbirth. It is, Rosenberg decides, "the greatest single piece of art ever created."
As Rosenberg watches the film, Cutbirth dies, and the critic dedicates his life to making sure the movie is "properly disseminated, appreciated, celebrated." He packs decades' worth of boxes filled with film reels and puppets into a rental truck and heads home to New York. But while he's inside a fast-food restaurant, the truck catches fire. Only one frame of Cutbirth's film survives. For the next 500-plus pages, Rosenberg attempts to recreate the movie through a variety of self-invented memory techniques and hypnotherapy. Soon, he can no longer tell the difference between the real world and that of the film, and he's traveling back and forth through time, pausing frequently to complain about this and that. He becomes Billy Pilgrim as played by Larry David.
Keeping up with the story is near impossible, particularly when Rosenberg finds himself embroiled in a war between a million Donald Trump robots with nuclear bombs inside their heads and an army formed by the Slammy's fast-food chain. But for all the absurd digressions and circuitous detours, "Antkind" remains propelled by Kaufman's deep imagination, considerable writing ability and bull's-eye wit.
Increasingly among the mayhem, the promise of Rosenberg's redemption also surfaces. "Perhaps this would have been the work of art that would do what no other work of art has ever been able to achieve: unite us, show us the best in ourselves, lead us on a collective journey toward compassion," Rosenberg says of Cutbirth's lost film. "I know it led me toward compassion, at least one-seventh of the way."