Charlie Kaufman’s Antkind

Jessie Buckley and Charlie Kaufman on the set of I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

No one is having a good year, but if anyone was going to have a shot at a solid 2020 before bad turned to worse, it would have been Charlie Kaufman. Antkind, the first novel by the screenwriter who dreamed up Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), is being met with mixed reviews, though it has to be said that the substantial ones lean toward the positive. I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Kaufman’s second film as a solo director after Synecdoche, New York (2008)—Anomalisa (2015) was codirected with stop-motion animation specialist Duke Johnson—will premiere on Netflix on September 4.

Adapting Iain Reid’s 2016 novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Kaufman has cast Jesse Plemons as a young man driving his new girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) to a remote farm where she will be meeting his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) for the first time. Reviewing the book for the Chicago Tribune, Lloyd Sachs found that Reid, “a Canadian whose writing seems influenced by the great Toronto-based filmmaker David Cronenberg, is a master of tension—and more tension. Never does he release us from his unsettling grip.” When Tom Philip spoke with Plemons for GQ in November, he told him that he was curious and maybe even a little anxious to see what Kaufman has done with a novel that “really scared me in a visceral way.” Plemons laughed and replied: “Just wait. He Kaufman-ized it.”

Profiling Kaufman for the New York Times Magazine, Jon Mooallem calls Antkind “a book that’s a half-foot thick and absolutely synopsis-resistant.” The series of events that sets the convoluted story in motion, though, is relatively straightforward. New York film critic B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, far more obscure than he believes himself to be, heads south to do some research on A Florida Enchantment, an actual 1914 film directed by Sidney Drew whose story revolves around a vial of seeds that transform women into men and vice versa. Down in Florida, B. meets Ingo Cutbirth, an elderly Black filmmaker who has spent ninety of his 109 years working on a film that takes three months to see. That’s the running time, complete with scheduled breaks for eating and sleeping. Like Anomalisa, Cutbirth’s movie features stop-motion animated puppets, but Cutbirth has even gone to the trouble of making “unseen” puppets, characters who never appear on-screen but whose presence is felt nonetheless.

Cutbirth dies while screening his life’s work for B., who decides that the discovery of this masterpiece of outsider art will belatedly establish his reputation. B. packs the film and puppets into a U-Haul trailer, but on the trip back up north, the trailer catches fire. All that’s left of Cutbirth’s movie is a single celluloid frame. With the help of a hypnotist, B. is determined to reconstruct the lost film. It’s at this point that Kaufman really cuts loose. Antkind runs well over 700 pages, cut down from a first draft of around 900 pages. Mooallem notes that Kaufman found the prospect of writing without sparing a thought for budgets or test audiences liberating. “If he wanted to write about an army of animatronic Donald Trumps, known as ‘Trunks,’ or place a new mountain range in the middle of North America, he could,” writes Mooallem. “And if he wanted his protagonist to have sexual intercourse with that mountain range, he could do that, too. And more than that: He had to do it.”

At the A.V. Club, Alex McLevy argues that Kaufman “has disappeared up his own ass with this novel.” Antkind, stuffed with “one-joke premises, surrealist curlicues, superficial lampoons,” is “bloated and frustrating—less an embarrassment of riches than a dearth of restraint.” Writing for the New York Times, novelist and screenwriter Matthew Specktor agrees that Antkind is “an exceptionally strange book.” But it is “also an exceptionally good one, and though one is tempted to reach for the roster of comparably gnostic novels by contemporary (-ish) writers—not just [David Foster] Wallace, but Pynchon, obviously; John Barth; Joshua Cohen, perhaps—such comparisons inevitably collapse.” In the Washington Post, Jake Kline finds that “for all the absurd digressions and circuitous detours, Antkind remains propelled by Kaufman’s deep imagination, considerable writing ability, and bull’s-eye wit.”

In the Scotsman, Stuart Kelly offers Ignatius Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and Antony Lamont in Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew as examples of “truly dislikable” protagonists in ultimately great novels. “They are all bombastic, delusional, self-pitying, and egotistical,” writes Kelly. “But there is pathos in these characters, whereas it would take preternatural powers to be sympathetic to B.” Again, Specktor disagrees: “Pompous, opinionated, self-conscious, self-loathing, B. is an astonishing creation: a volcano of ridiculous opinions and absurd neuroses, a balding, bearded nightmare of a person whose involutions could practically carry a 700-page narrative by themselves because they, and he, are so riotously funny.”

Writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Anita Felicelli argues that if Kaufman, in Antkind as well as in his films, “winds up saying, over and over again, that the human condition is anguished, delusional, funny, yearning, solipsistic—we are meat puppets with an outsize belief in our own agency, seeing reflections of ourselves everywhere, and yet inextricably alone in experiencing life—he says it, nearly always, in a way that is recognizably marked by a feverish genius.” We can listen to Kaufman discussing Antkind briefly with NPR’s Scott Simon or delve deeper into the novel’s creation in an interview conducted by the Guardian’s Sam Leith, who notes that Kaufman is currently “writing—what else?—a script about a virus.”

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