August 2020

by Adam Rivett

‘Antkind’ by Charlie Kaufman
The debut novel from the screenwriter and director of ‘Being John Malkovich’, ‘Synecdoche, New York’ and more is the zippiest postmodern, self-referential doorstop you’ll ever read

The typical Charlie Kaufman screenplay? Exuberant invention constrained by feature film limitations. His first novel? An enormous thumbed nose at restraint. This review? Too short for a long book. More than 700 pages, but the zippiest postmodern self-referential doorstop you’ll ever read. Feels written in a joyous rush; should be consumed likewise. Antic spirit abounds – slapstick comedy, multiplying personalities, fracturing timelines. Plotholes and literal potholes.

Story? Insufferable film critic discovers unseen three-month-long film by unknown artist, accidentally incinerates it, then attempts recall of destroyed-but-for-one-frame film so it can be reconstructed/rediscovered via meditative/technological means. Narrator? B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, aforementioned film critic, whose voice is a grotesque parody of politically correct hectoring. A supremely off-putting but hilarious portrayal of bad faith modern existence, and strategically deployed.

What might be considered plot functions as a framework for a series of riffs: early film comedy, blogging, post-film Q&As, Trump, time travel, 9 to 5 jobs, erotic fixations. Some work better than others. Biggest laughs? Ingenious variations on famous Abbott and Costello routines. Lowlight? Trump material, given he’s already surreal, banal and self-satirising. Both pros and cons nonetheless display virtues of a kitchen sink approach: capturing “how we live now” better than most po-faced efforts.

The novel’s self-indulgence (e.g., narrator hates work of Charlie Kaufman) can be forgiven: you’re allowed to be a mess if you’re funny. Does all the game playing and Post-Postness work? Mostly. Accusations of self-indulgence feel obvious and oblivious to the bigger picture. Like his films Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa, narcissism is indulged to maximalist ends with the honest aim of dismantling the entire apparatus, and emerging with something newfound on the other side. Is that both weirdly vague and vaguely spoilerish? Absolutely.

It’s also a truly cineliterate novel, beyond easy echoes and namedrops: of and about cinema, its warping magic and tragic ends. No reductive zaniness here, ignoring initial appearances. Through a fog of invention, malapropisms and film-reference buffoonery a serious picture emerges, of lives and selves created and rearranged by cinema. Is this guiding philosophy reducible to clear argument or even a single line of inquiry? Thankfully not. The transgressions of Antkind (HarperCollins) are in equal parts freedom and punishment. Happy but sad, boundless but imprisoned, lost but endlessly found. Above all, capacious. Cinemas are closed but movies are still being made and remade. The Marx Brothers keep letting guests into their room. Margaret Dumont hasn’t knocked on the door yet.

Adam Rivett

Adam Rivett is a Melbourne-based writer. He has written for The Lifted Brow, The Age, The Australian, Island, Fireflies and Seizure.

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