September 23, 2020

In Charlie Kaufman’s Novel, a Comic Hero Is Haunted by a Lost Film

ANTKIND
By Charlie Kaufman

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A man writes a novel, a very long novel full of recondite information and pop-cultural jokes, references spanning from Shakespeare to Hegelian philosophy to contemporary TV, and a plot that involves both omnipresent corporate sponsorship and the pursuit of a film of mysterious power, which exists only as a single copy.

This too-broad summation could describe “Infinite Jest” as easily as it does Charlie Kaufman’s debut novel, “Antkind” — but you only have to pierce the veil on “Antkind” to discern radical differences. After a brief preamble about a gelatinous sea monster, written in a faux 19th-century argot, we are hurled into the mind of one B. Rosenberg, a film critic driving through the Florida darkness, on the way from New York City to St. Augustine to research a book on gender and cinema. (“B.” is a man — or, to use his own iconoclastically devised pronoun, a “thon” — but sticks to the initial for the sake of gender neutrality.) Pompous, opinionated, self-conscious, self-loathing, B. is an astonishing creation: a volcano of ridiculous opinions and absurd neuroses, a balding, bearded nightmare of a person whose involutions could practically carry a 700-page narrative by themselves because they, and he, are so riotously funny.

B. stops for a hamburger at a chain called Slammy’s, worries about his various ailments, worries about his girlfriend — a former sitcom star who’s currently filming on location — pulls up at his rented apartment complex, and is summarily disturbed by a neighbor shouting what B. perceives to be an anti-Semitic slur. When B. knocks on that neighbor’s door, he discovers one Ingo Cutbirth, an elderly gentleman who claims to have appeared as an extra in the film B. has come down to research, a 1914 silent called “A Florida Enchantment.”

Anyone who’s ever seen a Charlie Kaufman film will recognize the landscape here: a loose-but-faithless representation of “reality” that ripples with psychedelic strangeness. The laws of gravity almost — but don’t quite — apply. Ingo claims to have been born in 1908 (later, he corrects himself: 1900), and to have nearly finished a film he has been working on for 90 years. Perhaps B. would like to see it? “This is too good to be true,” B. thinks: “ancient, reclusive, likely psychotic African-American filmmaker. Outsider art, undoubtedly.” Believing he has struck the film critic’s mother lode, B. dives in. (“Finally I can pry open the prudish legs of Cahiers du Cinéma.”) The film is a fever dream: a technologically advanced claymation tale of a lone twin named Bud Mudd who teams up in a comedy duo with a partner named Molloy. It is also three months long. When B. emerges from what he believes is a masterpiece, his life is forever changed. He calls his editor in New York, packs the film into a truck. When he stops at Slammy’s for a soda, he glances back at the parking lot to see — the truck has caught fire! His great discovery is lost.

If only this summary did any kind of justice to the ferocious comedic energy of the book’s opening, or prepared one for the imaginative maelstrom to follow. It must be said that, by any standard — and even for someone who remembers the shock of Kaufman’s work when it was passed around Hollywood as unproduced samizdat in the 1990s — “Antkind” is an exceptionally strange book. It is also an exceptionally good one, and though one is tempted to reach for the roster of comparably gnostic novels by contemporary (-ish) writers — not just Wallace, but Pynchon, obviously; John Barth; Joshua Cohen, perhaps — such comparisons inevitably collapse.

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The novel’s “plot” essentially consists of B.’s efforts to reconstruct Ingo’s masterpiece from memory, with the aid of a hypnotist named Barassini. (The nearest contemporary antecedent for “Antkind” is most likely Jonathan Lethem’s underrated 2009 novel “Chronic City,” which features a film-critic protagonist suspiciously like B.) As B.’s quest grows increasingly absurd and humiliating (for reasons too detailed to explain here, he takes a job in the Zappos corporate offices; he visits a series of therapists and falls in love with a woman named Tsai, then goes to work in a laundromat to serve her), his immersion in the hypno-world of the film becomes ever more total, until the two worlds blur and it becomes difficult to know where we are exactly.

New details emerge and then correct themselves. B. is beset with visions of Mudd and Molloy, and of Ingo’s puppets: not just the ones who appeared onscreen, but the thousands the filmmaker meticulously created to remain off-camera, termed “the Unseen.” He finds himself stalked by the shadowy and malign corporate presence of Slammy’s, and soon enough by the existence of a doppelgänger, a successful version of himself whose book is sold out of every store in the city.

The novel’s doublings and redoublings are sometimes confounding (by the time B. encounters a second doppelgänger — having accidentally murdered the first one — and as Mudd and Molloy are occasionally swapped out for a similar duo named Rooney and Doodle, my head began to spin), its perversions of an already-perverse reality (a “Donald Trunk” — sic — appears, both as an individual and as a robot army) so lavish as to verge on the gratuitous, and yet. …

I’m hard-pressed to call the book “difficult,” simply because its portrait of B. is so oddly humane and because its baseline energies are closer to those of a Tex Avery cartoon (or an Abbott and Costello routine) than they are to the dauntingly postmodern tradition of which the book also partakes. B. takes ketamine. He develops a clown fetish. He holds forth, ludicrously, on filmmakers he admires (Godard, Judd Apatow) and ones he doesn’t (his bête noire, the “turgid, overhyped” Charlie Kaufman). He develops a habit of falling into manholes because — what sort of comic figure would he be if he didn’t?

Even at its most hallucinogenic, “Antkind” remains appealingly earthy. Its real presiding spirit, as signaled by the name of one half of Ingo’s comedic duo, is that other “B.”: Beckett. As Kaufman’s B. collapses into a kind of spiritual invalidity (he winds up convalescing in a “clown hospital”), he resembles not just the earlier Molloy but also Watt, or the narrator of “The Unnamable”: figures whose hopelessness (haplessness, helplessness) is matched by their radical absurdity. And as he walks through a kind of infernal Manhattan (“No Werner Herzog faces. No Jonah Hills.” Just roaches, crows and flames), B. is left to wonder

Why is this day different from all the other days of the year? What does it have that other days lack?

Compassion. Uncertainty

Within the certainty that we will all burn there lies an uncertainty, because within that certainty there are the unanticipated moments, the collisions, the interactions, the physics of how the smoke will curl, what shape the licks of flame will take, the order of combustion, the moments of grace.

A fragment plucked from the book’s molten center, but one that concentrates “Antkind”’s strengths, and its real concerns. In a world that is endlessly reshaping itself in the grips of malign and incomprehensible powers, we are all hapless Punchinellos, like B. And yet it is only through being such that we can find — as Kaufman’s novel does, too — anything resembling grace.