I have done it! I have climbed the mountain that is Antkind and have lived to tell the tale. Truly, this novel can best be summed up using dialogue from the novel itself: When our main character is conversing with another character in the end, he asserts that “this feels nonsensical.” She replies, “Yet, you’re drawn to it.” That’s the truth. This novel is completely and utterly nonsensical but yet, for some reason, masochistic readers such as myself keep reading. Had anyone but the famous Charlie Kaufman written this book, I’m not sure it would have seen the light of day. He’s proven he can do whatever he wants simply because he’s Charlie Kaufman. And why not? He’s paid his dues and most of us know he’s weird. Everyone else can deal with it.
First, a warning. I do verge into spoiler territory in this review, as I found it a bit unavoidable. Usually, as a rule for my blog, I don’t want to ever give spoilers because I view my book reviews as intended for potential readers versus those who have already read a book, so I would never spoil the end. In this case, I find it impossible to review this book without giving my own theories into its meaning, so continue reading at your own risk.
Kaufman spends the entire first third of the novel begging us to hate his protagonist. B Rosenberger Rosenberg is everything detestable wrapped into one annoying package. He’s at once narcissistic and pathetic, a caricature of today’s obsessively woke CIS white male of privilege who is the exact epitome of what he claims to despise. He’s so obsessed with race that it’s all he sees. He’s especially obsessed with black people, stubbornly insisting on calling his black girlfriend African American despite her telling him she prefers the term black. He also constantly refers to her as “my African American girlfriend” to everyone he meets, turning her race into the most important factor of her identity and using her presence in his life as a badge of honor. “Look how progressive I am with my black girlfriend!” It’s purely about him and the image he can project to the outside world rather than the issue itself.
He professes to be an ardent feminist while exhibiting all of the worst qualities of the misogynistic mansplainer that he can fit into male form. He’s creepy and stalker-ish, developing strange attachments to women within seconds of meeting them, immediately sexualizing them in wild fantasies that are grotesque and cringeworthy. He generalizes about sex while being publicly obsessed with chosen pronouns, insisting upon the use of the dead “thon” in reference to people who prefer a nonbinary pronoun despite the fact that even these same people would prefer they/them. Pretty sure after listening to Rosenberg drone on about “thon” if I ever hear someone actually use it, I may not be able to stop myself from punching them. It’s the typical pretentious jabberings of someone who knows something once existed so they use it obsessively to put on a certain air of superiority. I’ve seen some reviews, some in major magazines, claiming that Kaufman created this pronoun for the book, that’s how obscure it is. Unlike them, I did my homework and verified that it actually existed in a bygone era.
He’s unbelievably egocentric, believing himself to be the most intelligent and impressive specimen of a man while saying things that are patently incorrect. Interestingly enough, however, this tends to get worse as the novel progresses and the plot becomes stranger. This begs the question, is he really this big of an idiot, is he spiraling into a dementia of paranoia and psychosis, or is he really experiencing some kind of alternate dimension convergence in which things are similar but not exactly the same?
I might add, Rosenberg is a caricature of the much-maligned movie critic, the ones detested by the average movie goer (and probably most filmmakers) because their snobbish opinions are typically the exact reverse of public consensus. It’s no surprise Kaufman writes Rosenberg to positively loathe the filmmaker, Charlie Kaufman, throwing a multitude of insults at him over the course of more than seven hundred pages. Strangely enough, Rosenberg has the exact opposite reaction to Judd Apatow, constantly lauding him with effervescent praise and adulation. It made me wonder if this was Kaufman’s way of flinging underhanded insults at Apatow or if it’s a little joke between friends who just happen to also be competitors in the same industry. Upon researching this question, thon finds *ahem* err… one finds… that Kaufman refuses to answer the question, encouraging readers to make up their own minds. Kaufman’s work has always relied very heavily on imagination and open interpretation, something I’ve always quite admired. He literally refuses to tell us his intent, instead viewing himself as the messenger of a story with no real set intent that can be interpreted differently when viewed from different angles. Some viewers, my own spouse included, just get pissed off when people do this to them. Some people want to be challenged and some want easy escapism. Both are valid and, thankfully, there’s plenty of entertainment out there for all of us.
As the novel moves along, it gets progressively stranger and much more disjointed. Readers aren’t at all sure what’s real or if any of it is real. B meets an impossibly elderly filmmaker, Ingo Cutbirth, who has been making the same film for 9 decades. The film is 3 months long, and B is the only person the filmmaker ever wants to see it. B, however, is convinced he has found the greatest achievement in cinematic history and, upon Ingo’s sudden death, he professes that he will deliver this holy grail of cinematic achievement to the public and will finally make a name for himself in Hollywood. Once again, it didn’t matter to him that Ingo’s dying wish was for the film to never go public, B did what he wanted to further his career. Except that the film spontaneously combusts in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant and all but one frame is lost. B must then set off on a journey of hypnotic self discovery to recollect every last second of the film as it exists in his brain so that he can recreate it in its entirety.
Our journey as we follow B jumps around from odd, rambling encounters in real life, in dreams, in hypnotic trances, in the movie, in history, in alternate dimensions, in the future, and God knows what else because I’m not even clear which was which. At times, I viewed him as being lost within the film, reality blurring with Ingo Cutbirth’s creative work. For instance, the fast food restaurant he was at when the film caught fire becomes a corporate overlord that threatens the fate of the world. President Donald J. Trunk (you read that right) finally gets to have sex with the one person he loves most in the world, himself. And thank you, Charlie Kaufman for giving the world the greatest gift you could, Donald Trump’s worst nightmare. For nothing could be more detestable to him than a future in which the world has forgotten his name and only remembers him for the narcissistic bloviating mess he truly is. I find myself digressing in a similar fashion to the novel.
Are we following B through a real life moment in which his eyes are opened by his introduction to a moving and riveting piece of art or are we following B’s spiral into a desperate psychosis from which he’ll likely never return? If I had to make a guess, I think we are supposed to see this in a semi-literal sense. B is warned that the Brainio technology is dangerous to tinker with, and he tinkers, which caused a further fracturing of a mind already in a fragile, tenuous place. I think, anyway. Seriously, some of it left me so confused and at one point I was listening at 2x speed which probably wasn’t a good idea. BUT IT WAS SOOOO LONG AND B WAS SO ANNOYING! Either way, whether you take things from a speculative fiction or psychological standpoint or somewhere in between, as I do, this is a truly wild ride. I can’t even fathom what’s it’s like inside Charlie Kaufman’s head. What a fascinating, nonsensical, but brilliant place that must be.
I’m very torn on a rating for this book. Upon reflection, I see the flashes of brilliance. However, it was simply so arduous to plod through, so much so that I thought he could have easily shortened it and still retained the meat of the story. I’m going to settle on 3 stars. Worthwhile but not exactly enjoyable.