“See, I invented Kanye / there wasn’t any Kanyes / and now I look and look around / and there’s so many Kanyes! / I used to love Kanye / I used to love Kanye / I even had the pink Polo / I thought I was Kanye! / What if Kanye / made a song about Kanye / called ‘I Miss the Old Kanye’? / Man, that’d be so Kanye! / That’s all it was, Kanye / we still love Kanye / and I love you / like Kanye loves Kanye.”
-“I Love Kanye,” Kanye West
Here’s what being a writer is like: you have an idea, the most beautiful and meaningful and perfect idea you’ve ever had. You contact your editor and inform them that you’re pregnant with genius. If the fates be kind, they’ll bite and commission some work. You are then faced with the task of remembering the peerlessly brilliant idea you had earlier that day or last week or whenever, and worse, extracting the misty swirl of thoughts from your head for organization on the page. As you attempt to do this, notions that may have initially seemed crystal clear change shape and start to confound themselves. After you take long enough, you may see other writers publishing their (flawed, lesser) bastardizations of your concept. You experience some mission drift, perhaps doing other jobs to facilitate the completion of that first one. Following much anxiety and doubt and inward mental burrowing, you end up with a compromised expression of what once felt like the best, purest iteration of itself. You learn to make your peace with this.
Because the overarching project of Charlie Kaufman’s oeuvre has always been to reproduce the intimately internal processes of the mind in an external environment, the ordeal detailed above assumes fantastical terms when laid out in his debut novel “Antkind.” Filmmakers like to liken feature production to childbirth, but in the 700-plus pages of this monumental tome, it’s closer to designing several adjacent universes from scratch.
Our first-person narrator B. Rosenberger Rosenberg — film critic, pseudo-woke windbag, and plaything of what he believes to be a cruel and capricious author — doesn’t just come up with a pitch he feels good about. He happens upon the single greatest film ever made, three months in length, with a sprawling plot said to contain all of creation but mostly the misadventures of several Abbott and Costello knock-off comedy duos. He does not merely lose his grasp on this wonder of the cinematic world; it literally goes up in flames while he’s toting it back to New York from Florida, having stopped to buy a soda from the first of many Black characters that B. will embarrass himself in front of. He can’t just try to recreate it from memory, so to bring this masterpiece to a grateful people, he must visit a series of increasingly vindictive hypnotists who immerse him in his own subconscious through a toggle on the back of his neck.
Weighing in at over seven hundred pages, Kaufman’s entrée to the literary circuit contains a staggering volume of stuff. The effortful work of making sense out of the colossal vision expressed therein often feels like little more than sorting through this stuff. The grand metaphor of creative tribulation can account for multiple categories of stuff, with Rosenberg’s many mishap-strewn detours on his primary mission an analog for the absurd, possibly humiliating punch-up gigs and other side-work that make Kaufman’s own films possible. But that still leaves oceans of other stuff: clown fetishism stuff, findom stuff, oh so much Trump stuff, what certainly appears to be seething Judd Apatow resentment stuff, doppelgänger stuff, hyperintelligent ant stuff, and, of course, the requisite Kaufmanian meta stuff.
That final classification of stuff comes to the fore in the closing chapters, as Kaufman mounts something like a justification of his uniquely reflexive methods. What his detractors have perceived as self-involvement, he recasts first as self-flagellation and then as a part of the self. Rosenberg’s rambling inner monologue often makes a pit-stop to denigrate Kaufman and his filmography, one of many directors Rosenberg name-checks as talentless hacks. Whenever this happens, in existential slapstick fashion true to Kaufman’s origins in TV comedy (no overstating how frequently, generously hilarious this beast of a book is), he tumbles down an open manhole or gets hit by a plank of wood.
“I fall into a hole,” Rosenberg says in the last pages, having finally arrived at some facsimile of enlightenment about this compulsion. “It is dark and apparently deep, for I plummet a long time. I know…that this fall will not result in death or even serious injury; it is simply a thing that happens to me. Some people have eczema; I fall into holes.” At first, the pratfalls seem like Kaufman doling out comically petty punishment for Rosenberg’s deigning to challenge him. Only before parting does Kaufman recontextualize this device’s relationship to its subtext, likening his unyielding self-awareness a bad habit he knows he can’t kick. He cannot help but be like this, in the same punily human respect that we all cannot help but be whatever our own like this is.
Even before the text offers a trembling mission statement for Kaufman’s entire body of work, a sense of culmination hangs over the proceedings. He evokes the cranial invasions of “Being John Malkovich,” the tormented doubling of “Adaptation,” the experimental hurdles through memory from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” the all-encompassing quixotic art enterprise of “Synecdoche, NY,” the stop-motion nonreality of “Anomalisa.” This air of the ultimate is reinforced by the unadulterated auteurist purity of its execution; after several eternities of raw and uncut Kaufman, freed by the infinite possibility of a blank page without a visual referent, what could be left? I believe athletes refer to this as “leaving everything on the field.”
Nonetheless, he’ll get back on his beat in just a month, with his next feature “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” due in September via Netflix. Even the most dedicated fans may approach it with a new perspective, having digested the Künstlerroman-ish manifesto buried deep under all the puns and false recollections and half-dreams. Whether his constant psychological peccadilloes wear on the nerves after a while is beside the point, or the entire point, because they’re supposed to. This is a simulation of the hell-and-back journey that the creative process can be. This is being Charlie Kaufman.
“Antkind” is available now where books are sold.