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In Charlie Kaufman’s Novel, a Comic Hero Is Haunted by a Lost Film

ANTKIND
By Charlie Kaufman

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A man writes a novel, a very long novel full of recondite information and pop-cultural jokes, references spanning from Shakespeare to Hegelian philosophy to contemporary TV, and a plot that involves both omnipresent corporate sponsorship and the pursuit of a film of mysterious power, which exists only as a single copy.

This too-broad summation could describe “Infinite Jest” as easily as it does Charlie Kaufman’s debut novel, “Antkind” — but you only have to pierce the veil on “Antkind” to discern radical differences. After a brief preamble about a gelatinous sea monster, written in a faux 19th-century argot, we are hurled into the mind of one B. Rosenberg, a film critic driving through the Florida darkness, on the way from New York City to St. Augustine to research a book on gender and cinema. (“B.” is a man — or, to use his own iconoclastically devised pronoun, a “thon” — but sticks to the initial for the sake of gender neutrality.) 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.

B. stops for a hamburger at a chain called Slammy’s, worries about his various ailments, worries about his girlfriend — a former sitcom star who’s currently filming on location — pulls up at his rented apartment complex, and is summarily disturbed by a neighbor shouting what B. perceives to be an anti-Semitic slur. When B. knocks on that neighbor’s door, he discovers one Ingo Cutbirth, an elderly gentleman who claims to have appeared as an extra in the film B. has come down to research, a 1914 silent called “A Florida Enchantment.”

Anyone who’s ever seen a Charlie Kaufman film will recognize the landscape here: a loose-but-faithless representation of “reality” that ripples with psychedelic strangeness. The laws of gravity almost — but don’t quite — apply. Ingo claims to have been born in 1908 (later, he corrects himself: 1900), and to have nearly finished a film he has been working on for 90 years. Perhaps B. would like to see it? “This is too good to be true,” B. thinks: “ancient, reclusive, likely psychotic African-American filmmaker. Outsider art, undoubtedly.” Believing he has struck the film critic’s mother lode, B. dives in. (“Finally I can pry open the prudish legs of Cahiers du Cinéma.”) The film is a fever dream: a technologically advanced claymation tale of a lone twin named Bud Mudd who teams up in a comedy duo with a partner named Molloy. It is also three months long. When B. emerges from what he believes is a masterpiece, his life is forever changed. He calls his editor in New York, packs the film into a truck. When he stops at Slammy’s for a soda, he glances back at the parking lot to see — the truck has caught fire! His great discovery is lost.

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