Review: Antkind by Charlie Kaufman

Published in The Observer August 2, 2020

Antkind is the debut novel of Charlie Kaufman, the Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York film-maker, and its premise is incredibly, well, Kaufmanesque.

A film critic named B Rosenberg discovers an unseen stop-motion movie – a three month-long work of astonishing brilliance – and is sure it will change his life, the art of cinema, possibly the entire world. But it burns in a truck fire before he can save it. After waking from three months in a medically induced coma, B turns to hypnotism to reconstruct the film from memory.

From the start, the storytelling is unstable: details change, B’s exhaustive film nerdery is riddled with malapropian errors, fiction and reality blur. Antkind eventually embraces all-out chaos: by the end, the world is on fire, flying Trump robots are at war with a fast-food corporation, hospitals are staffed by clowns, ants time travel…

I could go on. On and on and on. Kaufman certainly does: Antkind is 706 pages long. It offers a maximalist satire of a contemporary America defined by fake news, corporate bullshit, vacuous pop culture and performative wokeness, but one so excessive, surreal and repetitive that it is itself tiresomely bloated and absolutely exhausting. If anything can happen without consequence, stakes are lowered. It’s absurdism ad infinitum.

Where Kaufman’s films are playfully mind-bending, they usually have real heart. But although Antkind is skippingly clever – saturated with comic allusions, puns, linguistic inventiveness and wildly unfettered imagination – it is sorely lacking characters you actually care about or any emotional narrative to cling to.

B is a bitter, humourless, arrogant, middle-aged, white man, who believes himself to be extremely culturally sensitive; he makes a point of stating that his girlfriend is African American and using the gender-neutral pronoun “thon”. In fact, B is relentlessly revealed to be a self-pitying, sleazy racist. Of course, Kaufman invites us to see through B’s self-delusion and hypocrisy – he doesn’t defend B. But when you demand readers spend that much time with someone, you are still, to use a phrase Antkind would sneer at, privileging that white-male-cis-het perspective above all others. There is something deeply wearying about Kaufman mocking woke culture while delivering 700 pages of tedious, white-dude inner life.

Besides, Kaufman’s own tone is one of tittering provocation: sending up tokenistic trans characters, queasily naming B’s daughter – a feminist who publicly renounces her father – Grace Farrow. These are Kaufman’s choices, not his character’s.

He does use B’s insecure voice to snipe at real-life film-makers and critics, however, from Christopher Nolan to Mark Kermode, which lends Antkind a certain gossipy frisson (who is really doing the trash-talking: B or Kaufman?). Plus it allows him to get extra-meta: whenever B is rude about the films of Charlie Kaufman, the author enacts a slapstick revenge on his own creation, sending B tumbling down manholes.

Antkind feels like a book that’s been indulged rather than edited; there’s a smaller, smarter novel somewhere in here, currently smothered in smug junk. One compelling section sees B meet his more successful doppelganger and tussle over their wildly different reconstructions of the film, throwing up enjoyably thorny questions about memory and interpretation, the purposes of comedy and what kind of talent and stories we value. But then Kaufman hurtles into the next surreal non sequitur, and the next, for another several hundred pages. You count them down, every one.

Where next?