As a screenwriter and director, Charlie Kaufman has won acclaim for movies like Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York—but not from film critic B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, the protagonist of Kaufman’s new avant-garde romp, Antkind (705 Pages; Penguin Random House), who, in a meta twist, maligns the author time and again, often before B. is hit by a bicyclist, or buried beneath an avalanche of books, or falls into a manhole. (He does that a lot.). Reading Antkind is a bodily thing, so full is it of gut and heart. For once, the cliché front-cover epithet proves true—Antkind will make a reader laugh, then cry.
The novel begins with critic B.—a “bizarre combination of obsequious and blowhard”—discovering an unknown, three-month-long cinematic masterpiece by Ingo Cutbirth, who is either one-hundred-eleven- or one-hundred-nineteen-years old, a giant Swede or a meek Black man, a foolish or genius filmmaker. Before B. can digitize, champion, and become famous off this odd man’s film, Ingo passes away and the reels burn. Believing the destroyed film could nevertheless jumpstart his stalled career, B. tries to remember and novelize the whole affair.
“Memory is a funny thing,” Antkind says, and not in the “duck wearing a cowboy hat” way, “but sometimes, yes, in that [way], too.” Memory is funnier here than in most places, and Antkind’s unconventional understanding of it makes for a remarkable reading experience. When B. incorrectly remembers the past—forgetting, for instance, that he does not have a photographic memory—it is up to the reader to catch his faults. Or, when Antkind argues that memory functions in both directions, that one can “rememory the future,” that time’s “chronology is skewed,” the reader’s understanding of the book’s timeline becomes shattered.
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This sort of postmodern weirdness appears again in strange (and hilarious) scenes, like when B. attends back-to-back-to-back appointments for a ketamine-prescribing psychologist, a shaman, and a hypnotist; a film from the future where President Trump, known then as President Trunk, romances his Hall of Presidents robot; and, as B.’s memory of the film blends with his reality, some very unexpected plot twists. A favorite, out-of-context line from later in the book: “It is, in many ways, like a cosplay convention, except the killing is real.”
A reader might not expect such a massive book about (apparently) so little to compact anything, but the laughs are dense. (Best practice: do not read Antkind somewhere you should be quiet.). Many laughs spring from Nabokov-esque wordplay, like hearing “meteorologist” as “meaty horologist.” They also appear when serious moments are delivered comically, as in, “On the right deltoid is Saint Nicholas, who represents not killing children.” But mostly, Kaufman writes dialogue:
“So, quickly, tell me how you would novelize a movie about screaming and sleeping”
“Aiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeee!!!!!! and zzzzzzzzzzzz!!!!!!” I say.
He seems impressed.
“I’m not impressed,” he says.
B., on the other hand, is “a fierce advocate of humorlessness”—which is ironic given his short-lived clown fetish—believing “comedy is almost always harmful since it makes fun of those less fortunate and, when punching up, more fortunate.” B. is laughable. His terrible luck, performative signaling (like calling a “manhole” a “personhole”), and enormous ego make him a great punching bag. However, as B. writes in a review of his daughter’s autobiographical movie, where “the father [is] an impossibly caricaturish buffoon,” if there is “no attempt to show [B.] as a complex human being with his own set of frustrations and… an unwavering love for his daughter, then the truth of this whole relationship is erased, leaving a gaping hole in the story.”
B. suffers professional, familial, and romantic failures; B. suffers at the whim of a creator he does not understand; B. suffers his own inconsistent, neurotic mind, which is wholly unprepared to endure the novel’s epic storm. In his continuous breaking and reforming, B. is a compelling imagination of both human frailty and resilience. As it does with B.’s story, comedy makes “painful experiences…tolerable,” but “dilutes the true message.” There is such a thing as too much humor, Antkind says. Ingo’s film, “a relentless and distracting comedy,” tackles the barrage of sedatives that is contemporary humor: three months in length, packed with jokes—“The jokes. The jokes. The fucking endless jokes.”—the monolith is exhausting. Antkind’s humor is complicated. Where it is ironic, there are layers of irony and, beneath them all, Kaufman pleads for sincerity.
Antkind is about memory and comedy, but, like any massive postmodern tome, it is about everything else, too—corporatism, the consequences of digitization, visibility, unselfish love, fascism, self-aggrandizement, loss, social anxiety, Truth, “the hope of brilliance and the fear of never being understood”—it seems as though everything is stuffed in these pages. Antkind is a heavy book but, fortunately, it has enough jokes to feign lightness.