Stranger than Fiction is the Film Kaufman Would’ve Written if He Were Able to Plan and Structure His Work

Charlie Kaufman – Antkind (4th Estate, 2020)

Do you ever finish a book and wonder if you’re the only person who’s read it?

Charlie Kaufman’s megalithic new novel, Antkind, appears to be designed explicitly to alienate and offend every member of the bookbuying class. It’s huge, sprawling, often directionless, and yet funny enough and wacky enough that I just couldn’t put it down.

B Rosenberger Rosenberg, who goes by “B.”, whose pronouns are “thon/thonself”, and who is adamant to let you know he’s not Jewish, has written over eighty impenetrable academic monographs, left his wife for an “African American Girlfriend”, and introduces himself with a three-page monologue about his beard.

He’s very sorry for being white, and he thinks you’re a cretin.

The narrative hook of Antkind is introduced over the first hundred pages. B is down in St Augustine researching a monograph on the transgender movies of the silent era, when he is accosted by an old “African American Gentleman” called Ingo Cuthbert.

B helpfully informs Ingo that he is a “Magical Negro”, and therefore an offensive stereotype. Ingo shows B his movie.

Ingo has spent over ninety years making his movie; a stop-motion piece that is three-months long and uses the future-tech “Brainio” to incorporate the viewer’s own minds into the film. It is the greatest film ever made.

Even more profoundly, Cuthbert has animated an entire city of “Unseen” characters off-screen. Every character shown in the film is white; the Unseen are black. The Unseen have been animated for ninety years off-screen, watching on as the white puppets are animated before the cameras.

Halfway through the screening, Ingo dies. B realises that this movie is his ticket to stardom.

He packs it in his car, along with all the puppets and sets. He intends to drive to New York but instead sets the car on fire. He spends three months in the burns unit and wakes up without any memory of the now destroyed movie.

It’s a brilliant set-up. But don’t get too excited: there’s another 650 pages to go.

The rest is a typical Kaufman-esque phantasmagoria, moving from the real, to the uncanny, to the comic and then to the downright bizarre and dreamlike.

B argues with his author (of course!), murders a doppelganger, is visited by travellers from a future where movie novelisations are considered higher art than the movies themselves, and is finally caught in an apocalyptic war between a million robotic Donald Trumps and the corporate-war-machine-slash-burger-chain Slammys.

Kaufman turns frustration into an art form. Our narrator cannot simply describe Ingo’s film. Instead, we are overwhelmed by academic jargon, woke posturing and reflections on film-watching technique.

Ingo’s own compelling and moving theories of film are rapidly snatched away by B, who tells us what to think instead. Every moment of profundity is swiftly barfed on; a regurgitated word-salad of academese saturating every scene.

I challenge a film theorist to read this without burning it. The whole Rosenbergian enterprise of film studies must surely be dismantled after this. So spot-on is the satire that it’s barely satire, merely a description of our horrible, stupid reality.

And it just keeps going and going.

Could it be the ultimate novel of the twenty-first century? Frustration building upon frustration, transparently self-serving moralising on the one side and a bumbling, childish ineptitude on the other? The whole thing jarring, boring, tonally confused and yet compelling, laugh-out-loud funny, outrageous and hateful?

It feels like real life! But it is so unreal!

The only way it could possibly have ended would have been for B to wake up, realise it was all just a movie and that he had been sat in Ingo’s apartment the whole time. And yet, being too clever even for himself, Kaufman points out that this is the only viable ending for his book and then sabotages himself by pronouncing it trite.

He refuses to end it this way. I can’t even remember the real ending. I guess you should read it and find out.

If you aren’t already horrified by the prospect of this novel, go and search for it on Twitter. The collective hate, anguish, and despair that it has elicited is the ultimate marker of its success. If you feel any sympathy for the enraged Tweeters, don’t buy this book.

If you would prefer to laugh at them, and laugh at yourself, and laugh at the world, buy the damn thing now – but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Joe Darlington

Hell is a Circle

Phillip O’Neil – Mental Shrapnel (Equus Press, 2020)

The image of hell dies hard. The rest of the Christian assemblage may have fallen away, but hell retains its power over us.

This is because hell is a description of a world without forgiveness.

I recently read René Girard’s work, Violence and the Sacred, in which he argues that sacrifice, whether human or animal, was not simply ceremonial, or a tribute to the gods, but a way of directing the whole society’s violence in one direction, thus dispelling it.

In a collective act of murder, ancient man could finally attain forgiveness. Eventually, Christ supplanted the living sacrifices.

Without a mechanism to allow us to forgive, ancient society entered a state of total distrust, total suspicion and total war. Without forgiveness, we unleash hell.

Phillip O’Neil’s book is a study in hell. Christopher Mahler, our protagonist, is either a psychotherapist or a war correspondent (his identity is unstable, in flux). He saw the worst of the war in Sarajevo and, years later, suffers blackouts as a result.

Sarajevo is a vision of the hell without. Mobs, murder and mutilation are commonplace. Simply seeing the war is enough to pollute Mahler. The chaos enters his soul.

Cut to 2008; Mahler is now in Prague, living in a halfway house with drunks and drug-addicts. He witnesses their decline while trying to piece his own mind back together. His bizarre PTSD-driven actions and fugue states are easily confused for drunkenness. He fits in well.

Finally, having seen the hell without and lived the hell within, Mahler pierces the fabric of reality. He goes in search of his memory, and his lost Beatrice, in a world of his own making.

This parallel existence takes the form of a city, similar to Unthank in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, where every meeting is a confrontation and every compliment contains a threat.

The alternative worldspace is divided between PeaceZone and WarZone. The differences between the two are minimal and the line drawn between them is shifting and arbitrary.

At times we are back in the Bosnian war. Sometimes we meet the drunks and drug addicts from his building. Often the dead come back to life.

There is a reason that hell is a circle. We learn that through Mahler’s odyssey, and whether O’Neill truly succeeds in exorcising his character’s demons is up to the reader to decide.

This is a brutal book. It’s shifts in tone are often jarring. And yet that gives it a texture and a patina unlike any other book I’ve read.

I would expect no less from Equus Press, whose experimental texts are at the forefront of the contemporary avant garde. As publishers, they don’t flinch from discomfort, and works of twisted brilliance like Mental Shrapnel are the result.

This is a book that shoves you, then looks at you expectantly; waiting to be shoved back. A dynamic absolutely of our times.

  • Joe Darlington

Continuation and confusion…

Steve Hanson – Proceedings (Knives, Forks & Spoons)

Towards the end of Section 5 of this book I wrote, in the margin, ‘malfunctioning robot’. Section 5 seems to me the section where this book’s narrative voice finally falls apart. After a run of ‘uhm’s and uh’s’ we pass through ‘tarck hard antigence/ polder estany’ to ‘menstritive trivage andora/ gincholism languahaven’ before ending up in the stuck record repetitions of the part entitled ‘All my bright ideas’.

What’s going on? While, yes, it does seem that here Siri has gone rogue (and I find it interesting that when encountering this kind of language, these days, the first thing I think of is broken technology rather than an author nodding to modernist literary experimentalism, though that thought does come after…) the reader also seems to be encountering an instance of language being bent out of shape under the strange weight of ‘present times’, times so bonkers and strange that language can no longer provide an accurate representation. But then to what extent has language ever been able to do that? These are the kind of questions I find myself wondering about as I make my way through this new work from Hanson.

Concerns with language, indeed, run through the whole of the book, perhaps most explicitly in the poem beginning ‘Nations, favourite poems’ where we find ‘What there most definitely is is/ a pandemic of words/ most definitely is is is’ and ‘Parallel plague/linguistic, viral’. Later on, at the beginning of Section 2, we encounter ‘are you really going to speak and write like that/for the rest of your life?/ Like a pre teen practising for being an adult/ in front of its parents/ and the idea of god’. Here, however, it seems less the limitations of language that Hanson’s railing against, and more the limitations of some of language’s users, specifically those users inhabiting the party political sphere. An attack on both fronts maybe.

Because make no mistake this book is an attack. It’s an attack on everyone who’s led us into our state of climate emergency (which is everyone), it’s an attack on those responsible for the narrowed horizons of what were once called the working classes, and it’s an attack on the way UK towns and cities are managed and run these days… And, accordingly, a great deal of this writing drips with anger: ‘Nother niminy piminy/shoved its way in my face’; ‘Keep walking, try to walk out the furies’; ‘Now he goes in understanding/ he may want to murder everyone he meets’; ‘A thousand years of light crushed into dark’… As someone who – shamefully – pretty much gave up watching and reading the news several months ago due to an inability to sidestep the hopelessness it would induce, this book, at times, feels quite hard to bear. It’s almost too real, contains too much reality. The thing about Hanson’s anger, though, is it’s because he cares, he cares deeply and passionately about people and places – no one who cared less could get so angry.

Running alongside the state of the nation address, though, is a strand of autobiographical narrative where Hanson seems to be addressing the state of Hanson. And for me, this laying of the internal beside the external, the intertwining of the two, is perhaps one of the sources of this book’s tremendous power: the one strand seeming to amplify the other, and vice versa. Early on in the book, for example, in the poem beginning ‘Funeral suit laid out’, Hanson swings his focus from ‘them’ to him ie himself, with the result – I think – that the poem packs a far greater emotional punch than if it had just been a standard confessional piece. Hanson, in these lines, shows that he’s fully in control of his craft, aware of both what he’s doing and the dangers he’s avoiding.

Though I’m hard pushed to identify influences upon this book and, accordingly, find it difficult to situate Hanson amongst the current poetry scene (as possible clues the Index offers mentions of Alan Halsey, Kelvin Corcoran, Jeff Nuttall and Kenneth Rexroth), that unplaceability I find very intriguing. My feeling is that at least part of the reason this book strikes me as not ‘being at home’ in poetry is because Hanson refuses to limit his sphere of operations so narrowly, instead operating across the whole of literature, taking in everything from sociology, politics, theory and fiction. My impression is, and I feel this is borne out somewhat by this book’s Afterword, is that to Hanson writing is writing, with the specific category assigned to that writing not being of the foremost importance. And I think this multi-disciplinary approach can only be to the good of poetry, reinvigorating the contemporary scene.

The final section of this book, Section 7, returns to the picking at language, where, here, we encounter a series of lines which seem to stop short: ‘Turn away the/ will not turn away/ will not turn’; ‘Four I will/ for four I/ And for three/ three of those’. Lines with bits missing. So is Hanson showing us the limits of language running up against the unthinkable? Or else language meeting the unsayable? Perhaps Hanson is just saying that at a certain point we need to stop just saying and, instead, start doing stuff. But then, of course, that raises a whole other set of questions…

The first time I finished reading this book I felt confused. The second time I finished reading it I felt largely the same. And the thing is I like being confused by books and art. I find such works a challenge, things to return to again and again to try to get to the bottom of just why they’ve made me feel the way they have. I’ll take that kind of thing any day of the week over something which gives up all its secrets immediately, and after only a cursory engagement. So while I’m about to embark upon my third reading of Proceedings if you haven’t read it once yet I strongly advise you to rectify that.

  • Richard Barrett

The Poetics of the Puzzle

Philip Terry – Birds of the British Isles (Red Ceilings Press, 2021)

Tom Cowin – Static Gleanings (Red Ceilings Press, 2021)

For the ancients, poetry’s job was to sanctify. For the Romantics, it was to express. What is its role today?

Two new short works from Red Ceilings Press suggest, in different ways, the same answer: that poetry is a puzzle.

“Puzzle” is, yes, something of a diminutive word. It is cosy. Domestic. A night in with hot cocoa rather than out with the Sturm und Drang.

For the first of these collections, Philip Terry’s Birds of the British Isles, such a descriptor might be suitable. Terry was editor of The Penguin Book of Oulipo, and here offers us some wordgames of his own.

                  Oak battle daze

                  Pine fight erasure

                  Larch conflict haze

                  Birch feud muddle


There is a dotted line at the end of each poem; a space reserved for a bird of the British Isles: fifty in total. For the above piece, as I’m sure you’ve got now, the answer is willow warbler (as in “willow war blur”).

Some of these are easier than others. A layman’s knowledge will suit for most – puffin, seagull, robin, shag – but a quick brush-up with a bird book might be needed beforehand if one is to get every answer. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of the bee-eater or the sheerwater.

As Sunday afternoon amusements go it’s definitely original, and particularly fun to play with others. It’s often said of poetry that it’s “intended to be read aloud”; in this case, the audience are encouraged to answer back as well.

As for poetics, there are some pleasant incongruities, and some of the puzzles build to a satisfying conclusion (massive breast / large bosom / sizeable mammary / big boob …. [everybody together now!]).

But the real poetics are, I suspect, in the readerly constraints. It’s not often that a poet tells you exactly how to respond to their work. It inverts our expectations. By refusing analysis, it provokes analysis in response. You want to ask; “but is it poetry?”

Isn’t this the quintessential response to the arts in our time?

An identical response might be levelled at Tom Cowin’s Static Gleanings. Subtitled “The History of our Polyphony Gleaned from EVP Recordings”; Cowin combines words heard in static with his own poetical structuring to produce a book sat uncannily between poignancy and garble.

Certain lines stick out as framing devices: “if you hear music or singing in the sounds / sometimes they are just random sounds / or a limited range of learned patterns”.

Our poet-guide leads us in.

Others read like the white-noise-words themselves: “when the rain stopped / it was like an unravelling / knots of almost territory / reclaiming voices like / nightingales”.

But mostly we find ourselves caught between. Are these the sounds Cowin heard, or are they his own? Or, which seems the case, are they a fusion of the two; messages from the void repurposed to act as a guide to hearing the void itself?

The void calls. The void beckons.

The poetics here are clearer; the answer to the puzzles less clear. Ambiguity. The abiding category of our contemporary judgement. Cowin’s work has it, far moreso than Terry’s. At least on the surface of things.

And yet, in its séance-like qualities, Cowin’s work also belongs perhaps to the “puzzling” tradition. The voices are on tape, an analogue phenomenon and therefore antiquated. It’s certainly no parlour game, but it gestures that way. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s what makes it so contemporary.

The world is interactive now. Not just videogames, but our friendships, our love lives, our careers and our experiences. We are given an active role, albeit a mediated one, a curated one. That our poetry grows more puzzle-like, more encouraging of interaction or replication, places it here among our lives; not as elevated, maybe, but more fun.

  • Joe Darlington