Article Thumbnail

Charlie Kaufman, Screen Maestro of Male Self-Loathing, Tries It on the Page

In ‘Antkind,’ the acclaimed screenwriter and director traps us with an unlikeable man for longer than a film ever could

Charlie Kaufman is not a writer of diverse interests but he is a writer of intense ones. His movies, and now his novel, Antkind, nearly all center on the psychological anguish of self-loathing white men. That territory, historically well-trod, is often made new in his hands through his bending of reality, his willingness to literally manifest what other writers leave metaphorical. Across the catalog of remarkable films he has written or directed (from Being John Malkovich to Adaptation to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), his characters travel into the minds of others to escape themselves, seek to erase the existence of a former loved one from their brain, create their world in miniature, constantly reproducing their own pain and sadness while they wither away, and more. He is always picking at the same scab, though he does so deftly and in new ways each time.

In Antkind, he continues exploring the terrible pain of having a brain and adds on anxiety wrought from having a body, something other people can perceive and make judgments about. His narrator, B. Rosenberg, is an impossible-to-stand film critic, a white man who writes under an initial to distance himself from his privilege and who invented his own gender-neutral pronoun (thon) which he deploys cynically. He speaks frequently in the opening pages of his nameless “African-American girlfriend,” an actress whose name he assures readers they would recognize, were he to share it. Another chief concern upfront, and throughout the book, is the question of his own religion:

“I’m not Jewish. … It has been my curse to look Jewish, it’s why I use my credit card whenever I can. … She’ll see my last name is Rosenberg. Not a Jewish name. Well, not only a Jewish name. … I have come across many people of various racial and ethnical makeups who have not known that Rosenberg is not a Jewish name, well, not only. I’ve assumed they knew. But later in conversation, they would bring up the Holocaust or dreidels or gefilte fish, trying to be nice, to connect.” 

Rosenberg, and Kaufman’s readers, can never escape such obsessive thoughts and the expression of them. These elements undergird the novel, which can (sort of) be summarized thusly: On a trip to Florida, he encounters an old Black man named Ingo Cuthbert who, he learns, has made a three-month long film. It nearly took Cuthbert’s entire life to produce, and B. watches the film, which has prescribed eating, bathroom and sleeping breaks. During the viewing, Cuthbert dies. Feeling strongly that it was the greatest film ever made and feeling extremely chuffed that he was, as yet, the only one to see it, he packs the film into a trailer and begins hauling it back to New York. When he stops for a burger, the film catches on fire and in his attempt to save it, he is badly injured and spends the next three months in a coma. He wakes up, remembering only that the film was a masterpiece, and sets out to reconstruct the entire thing from memory, with only a single surviving frame as his reference.

What ensues over the next nearly 600 pages is a madcap quest into and through the mind of a self-absorbed, loathsome man of questionable competency and even more questionable judgment. The sensation of reading it is like tumbling head over heels down a hill, feeling as your feet scrape the ground that you will maybe regain control, and then stumbling and continuing your perilous descent. Divergences that include a stint at Zappos and a world war between an army of Donald Trump robots and the fast-food chain Slammy’s only accelerate the pace. Rosenberg’s single-minded focus on reconstructing the film distorts what happens around him, making even world historical events seem incidental.

These elements greatly increase the scope outside of any of Kaufman’s prior work, but even in this context, his focus on himself remains essentially constant. Rosenberg’s least favorite filmmaker is none other than Charlie Kaufman himself. Rosenberg at one point describes Kaufman as “a pathetic narcissist on the scale of Adolf Hitler, or quite frankly, beyond, who the world is fortunate does not have any real power.” This comment and others like it appear at a steady clip throughout the book and draw an outsized amount of attention. Each mention is something of a signpost reminding the reader that Rosenberg and Kaufman aren’t one in the same, perhaps an anxious tick marking the separation between depiction and endorsement. 

In Rosenberg, Kaufman created an avatar of the cynical white ally, in it more for their perception of what it can do for their status in circles than they are for building a better world. Though Kaufman makes good sport of himself, Rosenberg lobs criticism that are often made of Kaufman by critics and could be made of this book — namely, that his work is too male and too white. Making a character who, despite himself, makes legitimate criticisms of your work seem unprincipled is perhaps self-serving, but it’s definitely an interesting, complicated feature of the book. In any case, Rosenberg’s betrayal of his supposed principles is a recurring theme throughout the story, as his single-minded pursuit of recreating the film leads him to treat nearly everyone he encounters transactionally, at best.

The only reprieve from the uncomfortable proximity to Rosenberg’s irritating behavior is when Kaufman takes readers further into his character’s mind, hoping to excavate the fossils of Cuthbert’s film. These alleged recollections of the film often center on Mudd and Molloy, a comedy duo trying to make it in the Abbott and Costello era. They struggle to agree on a strategy, eventually disagreeing on the fundamental nature of jokes, as one refuses to engage and instead offers “humor is two equals having a chat.” These anecdotes, as they do for Rosenberg, faded in and out of my mind as I read along.

In this way, the virtue of such a long book is that it gives Kaufman the opportunity to impose the type of confusion and amnesia his characters experience on the reader. Reading nearly 700 pages takes a long time, and when Kaufman’s characters are constantly reorganizing, misremembering and fabricating the details of their past — the details of earlier in the book — it can become difficult to keep track of what took place on the page and when. Readers are instead, like his characters, haunted by a memory of a memory. Recreating the unpleasant experience of having one of his character’s brains is an audacious and treacherous move.

Writer Elisa Gabbert tweeted recently that she likes when art “has unfixable flaws. Like something’s definitely wrong, but there is no way to remove or correct it without ruining everything else.” Kaufman’s debut novel is the epitome of that. Its indulgence, its repetitiveness, its near insufferability are all essential to its vulnerability, its comedy and its psychological rawness. There are hardly other novels like this because nobody wants to write one, and if they did, nobody would want to publish it. 

Perhaps that’s for the best. Other critics, maligning the book, have, in more sophisticated terms, described Antkind as an adventure up Kaufman’s ass. It’s difficult to disagree with that assessment. What I would venture, I suppose, is that up Kaufman’s ass isn’t such a bad place to be.