Given the amount of time spent indoors or in relative seclusion, over the past few days I’ve been reflecting on the past year has been the time I’ve spent reading, and the books that have provided companionship over the course of the year.
These books do not reflect the totality of my reading for the year, but the books that have stuck with me, and some brief impressions of each.
I began this blog more than a decade ago exploring the nature of creative genius through the eyes of a college-aged student. If you allowed me to pontificate on my views on creative genius, informed by the books and movies I particularly admired at the time (David Foster Wallace, Dyostoyevsky, Kirosawa, Fellini, etc.), I believe that my response would have alluded to a belief in a god-given or supernatural ability to create plot, imagery, or language eluding those of us left to appreciate / marvel their work.
Charlie Kaufman was another of these ‘auteurs’ whose genius defied explanation. At that age, my brain latched onto Kaufman’s screenplays/movies like Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, and Synecdoche, New York (the last of which elicited a frenzied two-hour post-theatre dazed walk through a snowy State College, PA), and the type of mind that could produce such profound meaning through their art.
As I’ve gotten older, my perspective on creative genius has changed considerably. These days, I’m much more likely to cite the importance of iteration, collaboration, and effort to ‘manufacture’ genius, much more so than the image of the epiphany-induced solitary figure plugging away at a keyboard / typewriter / notepad/canvas.
My impressions reading Kaufman’s Antkind are almost certainly informed by this perspective, making me less referential to the author and thereby deferential to the art itself, and more open to examining it on its own merits rather than the mind behind it. To be sure, Antkind represents a continued fidelity to what makes Charlie Kaufman completely unique – an intimate, unfiltered first-person narrative experience touching on ego, masculinity, sexuality, art, and related topics that have a tendency to pass through one’s mind but few of us allow to escape our brains and make its way onto the page. For fans of Charlie Kaufman curious to see how his craft translated to a book, Antkind certainly checks all the boxes of what makes something unmistakably his.
Over 700 pages Antkind manages to explore crevices of Kaufman’s mind and ideas that would likely never fit into a 2-hour (or 3-hour!) movie, either due to their perversity (clown fetishism, sexual submission or a satirical stance towards race, gender, and other liberal norms that would subject him to pillory if not hidden within the pages of a book that most people won’t read) or impossibility of being portrayed due to the extent of the surrealist imagination.
In fact, Antkind’s plot actively thumbs its nose at ideas of film and film’s self-importance: the main character, B. Rosenberger is a nebbish film critic and academic whose expertise is movies that are unwatchable (Kaufman often self-referentially refers to his own films in this category), extremely obscure (mostly made up, though I never checked), or both, and whose opinions about films are confined to little-/unknown journals seemingly publishing these analyses out of sympathy, and the book’s plot centers around a several-months-long animated film that so perfectly captures the essence of art and the meaning of life that our intrepid hero spends the rest of the book trying to bring it to broader light. Through numerous twists and turns, all of which blur the lines between taking place in a dreamscape or in Kaufman’s imagined world, we follow Rosenberger’s descent into depravity, poverty, and insanity.
Antkind carries forward a concept most explicitly explored in Synecdoche, New York but present in all of Kaufman’s films – a blurring between one’s art and one’s life, reality and surreality, imagination and real life. The book is darkly comic, chock full of satirical but incisive cultural commentary on the state of our (pre-pandemic) world, full of witty references and allusions, most of which were likely lost on me.
If this sounds unnecessarily intense or overly absurd for a piece of escapist fiction, then you’re probably best skipping Antkind. However, for anyone curious to see how Kaufman’s work translates to the written page, you’re sure to be in for a maddening, surreal, intellectual experience.