Antkind by Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman is a visionary in his treatment of our complex, collective 21st century ennui. His films have been the narrative backbone of my entire creative life, beginning with the incomparable Being John Malkovitch released as I graduated high school, just as the writer’s ink on my chest growing in little inky sprouts of energy and electricity. Adaptation changed the game again, as did Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Human Nature, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Anomalisa. And while these are all incredible works of art, unparalleled in vision and structure, Synecdoche, New York is simply one of the greatest, most convoluted and fantastic of his efforts as a writer and director – and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance is just as once-in-a-lifetime as the film itself. Kaufman knows how to hold a mirror up to the human condition and the complexity of creating art and breathing and relationships. Alongside Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michel Gondry, Spike Lee, and sometimes regrettably, Quentin Tarantino and Lars Von Trier, I feel like we are living in an incredible time of impeccable cinematic philosophy that is unmatched in talent, scope, and introspection. Plainly, I respect the hell out of Kaufman’s work and consider him one of the living best, so of course, I was very, very excited for Antkind even though I didn’t even know it existed until a few weeks before its release thanks to our strange COVID existence.

I am going to have a difficult time encapsulating everything that is amazing about this book – as all amazing books tend to do. If you love cinema, you will love Antkind. If you love comedy, you will love Antkind. If you love philosophy, you will love Antkind. If you love Kaufman and would love a neurotic Kaufman on Kaufman, well beyond the bounds of (and definitely including) Adaptation, you will love Antkind. If you love a book that seemingly blurs genres: between academic study, Ignatius J. Reilly narration, science fiction, existential examination, humanistic religious essay, and pure laugh-out-loud comedic genius, this book will ensure many hours of entertainment and a dip-in-anywhere-and-go rereadability.

Antkind tells the story of R. Rosenberger Rosenberg (mostly), a film critic who is definitely not Jewish and wants you to know that along with the fact that his girlfriend is African American, as he is entrusted with reviewing a three-month-long film that took the writer-director his entire life to film. I am not giving away much when I tell you that there is only one copy, it is printed on nitrate stock, and Rosenberg is a bumbling unlikable idiot who burns it all up in an accident. There is one frame that survives, and through a series of stories-within-stories that are shown through a variety of hypnotherapy sessions that turn into side-first-person-narratives, his goal is not only to review it, but entirely recreate it from memory.

What happens over the following 650 pages is unlike anything I have ever experienced in a novel.

Kaufman takes us on a kaleidoscopic journey that is perhaps closest to experiencing one of my favorite authors Kurt Vonnegut (who is mentioned and nodded to in a variety of sendups in the novel). We are introduced to a cast of characters that bring us through not only the recreation of the film itself, but through the nature of film, identity, humanity, consciousness, the unreliability and dynamism of memory even when it is recorded on a medium such as film. Kaufman explores our government for the past century and today, Disney and its ilk, and many, many other stories that build into what I can only describe as a full orchestra playing a symphony of a novel. In fact, I can easily describe it as the indescribable characteristic explosion that is what a Charlie Kaufman film is. The medium of a novel, however, allows him to move more freely than he ever has before – not only referencing himself and his craft, but stretch his wings even further to not only tickle the keys of the form, but blow it completely out of the universe of what we expect from a novel.

There is a lot of writers honored in this book, and Kaufman is well aware that he is standing on the shoulders of giants in jumping into the literary world. I already mentioned Kurt Vonnegut, of course, but he also honors Plato – most notably a thread throughout the book that not only symbolizes but at one point directly references the allegory of the caves, and many, many other authors. He discusses the politics of our day that dedicates an army of “President Trunk” automatons to infiltrate every corner of our country and culture with varying levels of Multiplicity-derivative success. Identity and Gender are a constant motif throughout the novel as the narrator has an obsession with identity and gender, what it means, how its referenced, and how fluid it is as it changes through time and space. And early cinema is a constant throwback in this book, and it is combined with self-referential nods and callbacks to the buffer between radio and film with Abbott and Costello… and their clones…. and their murderous clones.

Ultimately, this is one of my favorite novels of the decade and one of my favorite novels of all time. It has everything I love in a great postmodern book, upending all expectations and leading the audience into a world that is completely unrecognizable from our own. Not in fantasy, but in a way that allows us to revisit the familiar in an unfamiliar fashion. The novel zooms in on many of my interests, from great writing, to narrative complexity, to modern and historical politics, to an intricate study of time and space and gender without making many leading comments about any of them, to film, to religion, to existence as a human, to existence as a living being, to the unwritten future, to nostalgia, to Charlie Kaufman himself. This is a perfect novel. While it is long, it is the perfect length for revisiting quotes, paragraphs, portions, and chapters as they are all incredibly short, numbering in the nineties.

I enjoyed every moment with this book. Every word. Every sentence. And my dear and patient lover had to listen to me spout off every portion that made me laugh out loud. Catherine laughed as well, and that is a testament to how brilliant the book is from beginning to end. I look forward to revisiting its pages again, and again, and again, and I look forward to when my favorite director-novelist brings me more art that enriches my existence as a skeleton that might be worthy of worship by the Antkind of the future.

 I am going to have a difficult time encapsulating everything that is amazing about this book – as all amazing books tend to do. If you love cinema, you will love Antkind. If you love comedy, you will love Antkind. If you love philosophy, you will love Antkind. If you love Kaufman and would love a neurotic Kaufman on Kaufman, well beyond the bounds of (and definitely including) Adaptation, you will love Antkind. If you love a book that seemingly blurs genres: between academic study, Ignatius J. Reilly narration, science fiction, existential examination, humanistic religious essay, and pure laugh-out-loud comedic genius, this book will ensure many hours of entertainment and a dip-in-anywhere-and-go rereadability.   

Antkind tells the story of R. Rosenberger Rosenberg (mostly), a film critic who is definitely not Jewish and wants you to know that along with the fact that his girlfriend is African American, as he is entrusted with reviewing a three-month-long film that took the writer-director his entire life to film. I am not giving away much when I tell you that there is only one copy, it is printed on nitrate stock, and Rosenberg is a bumbling unlikable idiot who burns it all up in an accident. There is one frame that survives, and through a series of stories-within-stories that are shown through a variety of hypnotherapy sessions that turn into side-first-person-narratives, his goal is not only to review it, but entirely recreate it from memory.  

What happens over the following 650 pages is unlike anything I have ever experienced in a novel.  

Kaufman takes us on a kaleidoscopic journey that is perhaps closest to experiencing one of my favorite authors Kurt Vonnegut (who is mentioned and nodded to in a variety of sendups in the novel). We are introduced to a cast of characters that bring us through not only the recreation of the film itself, but through the nature of film, identity, humanity, consciousness, the unreliability and dynamism of memory even when it is recorded on a medium such as film. Kaufman explores our government for the past century and today, Disney and its ilk, and many, many other stories that build into what I can only describe as a full orchestra playing a symphony of a novel. In fact, I can easily describe it as the indescribable characteristic explosion that is what a Charlie Kaufman film is. The medium of a novel, however, allows him to move more freely than he ever has before – not only referencing himself and his craft, but stretch his wings even further to not only tickle the keys of the form, but blow it completely out of the universe of what we expect from a novel.  

There is a great deal of writers honored in this book, and Kaufman is well aware that he is standing on the shoulders of giants in jumping into the literary world. I already mentioned Kurt Vonnegut, of course, but he also honors Plato – most notably a thread throughout the book that not only symbolizes but at one point directly references the allegory of the caves, and many, many other authors. He discusses the politics of our day that dedicates an army of “President Trunk” automatons to infiltrate every corner of our country and culture with varying levels of Multiplicity-derivative success. Identity and Gender are a constant motif throughout the novel as the narrator has an obsession with identity and gender, what it means, how its referenced, and how fluid it is as it changes through time and space. And early cinema is a constant throwback in this book, and it is combined with self-referential nods and callbacks to the buffer between radio and film with Abbott and Costello… and their clones…. and their murderous clones. 

Ultimately, this is one of my favorite novels of the decade and one of my favorite novels of all time. It has everything I love in a great postmodern book, upending all expectations and leading the audience into a world that is completely unrecognizable from our own. Not in fantasy, but in a way that allows us to revisit the familiar in an unfamiliar fashion. The novel zooms in on many of my interests, from great writing, to narrative complexity, to modern and historical politics, to an intricate study of time and space and gender without making many leading comments about any of them, to film, to religion, to existence as a human, to existence as a living being, to the unwritten future, to nostalgia, to Charlie Kaufman himself. This is a perfect novel. While it is long, it is the perfect length for revisiting quotes, paragraphs, portions, and chapters as they are all incredibly short, numbering in the nineties.  

I enjoyed every moment with this book. Every word. Every sentence. And my dear and patient lover had to listen to me spout off every portion that made me laugh out loud. Catherine laughed as well, and that is a testament to how brilliant the book is from beginning to end. I look forward to revisiting its pages again, and again, and again, and I look forward to when my favorite director-novelist brings me more art that enriches my existence as a skeleton that might be worthy of worship by the Antkind of the future. 

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