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.