YOU KNOW A Charlie Kaufman film when you see it. They’re absurdist and self-referential, driven by unadulterated zaniness and bizarre and energetic twists. They grapple with the self and consciousness, each demanding to know, while unable to answer whether the self is anything more than a meat puppet. Interpreted together, these films do not all answer this question in quite the same way, but each comes down to the loneliness of existence.
In Being John Malkovich, Kaufman’s feature screenplay debut, John Cusack plays Craig, a failed puppeteer who drinks a beer and says, “Consciousness is a terrible curse.” At a new job, Craig discovers that on one of the floors is a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich, played by himself. In addition to its comic pleasures, it’s also a rigorous artistic examination of an idea put forth by cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett. Dennett has argued that consciousness can be explained by science in purely material, physical terms (in contrast to the dualist view that science, evolution, and the brain alone, cannot explain consciousness). Cusack’s and Cameron Diaz’s characters keep a chimpanzee, which underscores the film’s thematic interest in evolutionary biology and consciousness.
The same themes and motifs recur in Kaufman’s next films with different effects. In Adaptation, a character jokes to a screenwriter character named Charlie Kaufman, who has a twin brother, that she’d like a portal into his brain. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is probably the most gentle and luminous of his films, addressing memory and consciousness again, but also attempting to address love, the imperfect meeting of two minds, two distinct consciousnesses that have evolved under different circumstances. In Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s bleakest film, a theater director is abandoned by his wife and child, but wins a MacArthur grant, which he decides to use to make a play about his life that he considers calling “Simulacrum.” The play goes on for more than 17 years, and gradually there are confusions between the actors and their real-life counterparts. Again, the film includes the artistic struggle to put all of consciousness and living into a single work. Kaufman’s last, Anomalisa, was a stop-motion animation film — a call back to Being John Malkovich, but with Kaufman as the puppeteer — that contended with human loneliness and the difficulty of connecting with another consciousness. The protagonist Michael Stone promotes his book at a convention and everyone sounds the same (the same actor voices everyone else and hell is other people), except one woman he meets at the hotel, Lisa. Her voice is an anomaly.
Like his films, Kaufman’s tremendous, bonkers first novel Antkind is an artistic consideration of consciousness, of whether our engagement in the world is truly just an engagement with our own minds, whether an escape from our own endlessly repeating preoccupations is possible. Although all of Kaufman’s signature themes appear in the novel, Antkind is also an interesting departure from his films. Where films are collaborative, allowing different aesthetics to merge to create the viewer’s experience — most notably in Eternal Sunshine, directed by Michel Gondry, a French film director whose aesthetic is more gently whimsical and less dire and urgent than Kaufman’s — the novel is a more singular art form. It’s the form that most allows us to engage with another’s consciousness, not necessarily or directly the author’s, but that of the author’s characters. Novels are an artistic form that serve in some ways as a Malkovichian portal into another’s mind, an effect that’s most clear when a novel is narrated in first person.
If it were a film, Antkind’s opening shot would be a film falling out of the sky. The next scene, titled “Herbert and Dunham Ride Bicycles,” features two boys conversing in 1896. They see a 20-foot-long white creature with four arms on the beach. One comments on the Old Testament story of Jonah and the big fish, suggesting that the sea monster might be the inverse of that story — a fish swallowed by a man and then spit up. In the story of Jonah and the whale, Jonah rejects God’s will that he be a prophet and goes on a sea voyage. To punish him, God sends a storm, and the sailors, realizing that Jonah is being punished, throw him overboard. He’s swallowed by an enormous fish who eventually vomits him onto dry land. Later on in the novel, we discover that the creature discovered in 1896 is the St. Augustine Monster or Globster. A 600-foot sculpture of the Globster is commissioned. The plaque explains, “Our interest in this mass of gelatin says more about ourselves than it does about any mythical sea monsters. We are, it turns out, an odd, delusional species, who search in vain for meaning. It must be noted that no entity other than the human being, including the universe itself, asks ‘why?’” We come back to the Globster in a later twist; as one character tells another in Synechoche, “the end is built into the beginning.”
The narrative cuts, like a film, to the first-person protagonist of Charlie Kaufman’s Antkind, a hapless, failed film critic traveling to St. Augustine, Florida, to research a little-known silent movie shot there in 1914, A Florida Enchantment. Any character who narrates roughly 700 pages to an imagined audience has to be a bit of a lunatic, and B. Rosenberg fits the bill. B. is short for Balaam, also the name of a wicked Old Testament prophet who rode a donkey. Simultaneously self-aggrandizing and full of contempt for himself, Rosenberg heads to a fast food joint, Slammy’s. He’s eager for the African American waitress at Slammy’s to know he has an African American girlfriend because he’s anxious: anxious about race, anxious about gender, anxious about being perceived as Jewish, anxious about being perceived as racist or sexist and therefore terrible. He wants us to know about his girlfriend, too, and repeatedly insists he’s not racist, sexist, or homophobic; it’s a repetition that’s simultaneously exhausting, comical, and tedious and also, notably, reflective of the preemptively defensive anxieties of our current age. It’s an obsessive protestation that tells us as readers, of course he is.
In his apartment building in St. Augustine, Rosenberg meets his neighbor across the hall. The neighbor is an elderly African American man Ingo Cutbirth who is in whiteface. Ingo claims to have been the little boy in A Florida Enchantment who was listed in credits as “Unseen Boy” and from whose perspective the film was told. He stood under the camera in every shot but wasn’t filmed. He remembers the future as well as the past and mentions a machine called Brainio that works like a television in the mind of its user: it feeds the user information that combines with the user’s thoughts to create a story.
Ingo has been working on a film for 90 years that, start to finish, takes three months to view, with predetermined bathroom, food, and sleep breaks. The idea is that
the relentlessness of the movie will cause it to enter your psyche and thus infect your dream life. It is a filmic experiment of sorts that posits an equal relationship between artist and viewer, in that the viewer will not, after viewing it in its entirety, be certain where the film has left off and his own dreams have taken over.
Nobody’s seen the film. Rosenberg’s excited, and imagines he’ll be able to market it as “anthropological gold,” as Henry Darger–like outsider art. As in Adaptation, there lurks a set of uncanny coincidences that raise the possibility that Ingo is Rosenberg’s double; he sounds like Rosenberg, and it’s a bizarre coincidence that Rosenberg is writing about A Florida Enchantment. Ingo’s film is a surrealist stop motion animation, and “seems to posit, inside each of our heads, we have personified emotions — joy, fear, rage — in essence at war for dominance.”
Ingo says that after Rosenberg views the film in its entirety, he will destroy it or if he dies, Rosenberg should destroy it. Rosenberg promises to do so after he watches it seven times, but while Rosenberg is in the middle of watching it, Ingo dies. Since there’s no next of kin, Rosenberg arranges the funeral and burial.
When Rosenberg is leaving Florida to head to New York with his truck full of Ingo’s puppets, props, sets, and the film, he stops at Slammy’s again. The truck catches fire, and only one still from the film and a donkey puppet survive. The rest of the novel features Rosenberg’s increasingly desperate and zany efforts to remember the film, lost to the fire, lost in the recesses in his mind. He visits a psychiatrist, a shaman who performs ayahuasca ceremonies, a hypnotherapist. He uses the Brainio invention. In these strenuous, wild efforts to remember Ingo’s lost film, the novel grows increasingly absurd. While it doesn’t lose its footing, occasionally the themes acquire an intricacy and complexity that don’t readily yield meaning. Fantastic scenes of a love affair with a clown, a robot modeled on Donald Trump, the multiplication of doppelgängers are stacked on top of one another, producing a persistent, hallucinatory ambiguity. You fall into a manhole — or as Rosenberg insists, a person hole — only to fall into another, and then another, and so on. Without spoiling the complicated, mind-bending mania of the novel, there’s an Old Testament–related twist.
As with the protagonists in Kaufman’s films, Rosenberg’s inability to see others is coupled with an interesting ability to see himself. However, unlike his films, we have direct access to his protagonist’s mind in the novel form. He’s trying to put all of consciousness into novel form. In a film, he’d need to do this through external drama: scene and dialogue. However, this is a voice-driven novel, and it’s Rosenberg’s self-observation that keeps you reading. He explains at one point that hypnosis “sends me swirling lazily around the drain of hebetudinousness.” But in spite of his compulsion to use $10 words where a $.01 like “dull,” would have done, his vivid and relentless speech is weirdly compelling. His voice is mesmerizing: awful and yet funny, magnetic, and oddly vulnerable in its bluster. Rosenberg sees himself at the novel’s midpoint, announcing, as if we don’t already know:
I have come to the conclusion that I am ridiculous. The mishaps. The open manholes. Even the fire that ruined Ingo’s film and my life. But perhaps more horrific are my thoughts. My thinking is silly. My memories are preposterous. My ideas are laughable. I am a pompous clown. I can, on occasion, become aware of this. There are moments of clarity that I find all the more humiliating because I can see myself as others likely do, but I cannot control any of it. The pathetic comical thought process continues, almost as if a script is playing out. Almost as if I myself am a puppet, defined by some external force, written to be the foil in some strange cosmic entertainment witnessed by someone somewhere.
Rosenberg’s voice is also what produces the novel’s compelling and excruciating anguish: about communicating the entirety of one’s experience to another, different consciousness with different references. And that anguish is only heightened by the flood of storytelling and film allusions, the way the novel begs to be deconstructed at every turn, asking, do you get it? He references not only “Danny Dennett” and Beckett’s Molloy — Kaufman’s style of despair is far more baroque and ornate than Beckett’s but similar in bleakness — but also a range of filmmakers, some with mangled joke names, including one Charlie Kaufman, deemed by Rosenberg to be an overrated and pretentious filmmaker. Ingo’s experimental film and the novel’s “Brainio” are the concrete symbols within the novel for Rosenberg’s central struggle to exit his own consciousness to connect with others. A reader’s ability to enjoy a self-consciously long, free-range “strange cosmic entertainment” of this intensity and loopiness, overstuffed in the manner of the 17-year-play in Synecdoche and Ingo’s film, is subject to what constructs the reader brings to it. If you don’t know half the allusions, the wordplay and the depth of references might be lost, as so much surface glitter. What you construct as the novel’s meaning will be quite different than what you see if you “get it.” But how could you truly get it? You have a different set of references. It’s a thrilling first novel trying to assume the form of consciousness itself, with all its digressions and delusions.
In Being John Malkovich, Malkovich enters the portal of his own mind and finds only himself there, where he’s reflected back to himself in his infinite buffoonery and charisma and pathos. The only thing everyone says to him is “Malkovich,” an odd but meaningful parallel to the conceit in Anomalisa that every voice, except Michael’s, is eventually the same voice. There is something deeply sad and absurd in this: the indispensable beauty of all of Kaufman’s work is his ability to reveal anguish and absurdity as two sides of the human condition. If he 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. Antkind is Kaufman pushing himself to every formal and social limit, no holds barred, bleak and devastating, yet marvelous.