Charlie Kaufman On His Strange New Debut Novel, 'Antkind'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Is Charlie Kaufman's debut novel a satire, a surreal confessional, a self-parody, an act of literary retaliation, or - it is massive.
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SIMON: More than 700 pages - listen to that - in which B. Rosenberger Rosenberg - who isn't Jewish, by the way, he wants you to know - a dull film critic, frustrated foiled filmmaker and paramour, stumbles upon a film he considers a prolonged act of genius that could change lives, including his own. But then tragedy strikes - or is it fate, or an unknown force that's just life? His new novel - "Antkind." And Charlie Kaufman, the acclaimed award-winning screenwriter of films that include "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation," "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" and "Synecdoche, New York," which he directed, joins us from New York, N.Y. Thank you so much for being with us.
CHARLIE KAUFMAN: No. Thank you for having me.
SIMON: Having the experience you do in the film business, what's the escalator pitch way to explain your story?
KAUFMAN: This particular one?
KAUFMAN: Boy, it's a long escalator, I'm hoping. The protagonist, who's narrating the book, is a film critic, and he's sort of a not very successful one. And he's on an assignment down in Florida, and he meets a man who appears to be very, very old and reveals to him that he's been working in secret on a stop-animation film for 90 years and no one's seen it. And the film is three months long, but it turns out to be a masterpiece, at least in his mind. And during the long process of viewing the film, the filmmaker dies, and he's left with the film and wants to sort of bring it to the world and hopes it will make his career. So carrying the film back to New York to show his editor, the film spontaneously combusts in the U-Haul, and he's left with nothing but a single frame and very little memory of it. The rest of the book is him trying to recreate the story of this film so that he can still use it for his purposes.
SIMON: The genius you're talking about - improbably aged genius of a filmmaker - is Ingo Cutbirth. B., your film critic, specifically doesn't like your films very much, does he, Mr. Kaufman?
KAUFMAN: He doesn't seem to.
SIMON: Why'd you make yourself the object of such a joke like that?
KAUFMAN: You know, I mean, the whole thing is about - the germ of this idea, I would say, started with me wanting to write about film critics, with whom I have a particular relationship based on what I do for a living. So, you know, it was kind of like a way for me to kind of get into the head of that person. And certainly, it's more interesting to get into the head of somebody who despises you than somebody who loves you, so I did that.
SIMON: Do you have to hold a three-month-long film in your head as you try and write about it in the voice of B.?
KAUFMAN: Yeah. I mean, the good thing about a three-month-long film is that I can keep changing what we witness because I can't write three months of a film in a book. So I keep - I get to add new things. I get to change things. And, in fact, the film changes several times within the book, which is part of the narrator's confusion about the world. But it's - I think it's a hard book to hold in your head, which is kind of maybe not the point of the book, but it is part of the feeling that I'm hoping for with the book.
SIMON: I have to ask you about some of the jokes you make about current political and social rhetoric in this country. You write about a sex-positive feminist clown collective called Circus Hercus (ph), who clown for female-only audiences. B. refers to himself as Mx - mix. Can you see why people who might want to be identified as nonbinary might find that an insensitive joke at their expense?
KAUFMAN: I think B. is a very completely outwardly defined human being, and he wants to be seen in a certain way. And by being seen in that certain way, he can see himself that way. And so this is what he is trying to accomplish, but it is only skin-deep in his case, and I think that's conspicuous. The joke certainly is not in my mind at the expense of any group that he is referring to but at the expense of B. and his inability to have any kind of sense of how to navigate the world because he has no sense of who he is.
SIMON: Did you end up liking B. any more than you did at the beginning?
KAUFMAN: Yeah, I think so. I think I have, and I'm glad about that because, you know, once I figured out who he was and how he was going to talk, there is a certain level of joke to him, but he's put through his paces in the book, and he really suffers. And some of the suffering is, you know, he causes for himself - I mean, probably most of it. But he's still a human being struggling, and he's kind of, in a way, a very empty human being. I'm sympathetic to that.
SIMON: What can a book do that a film can't, and vice versa, now that you've done both?
KAUFMAN: I don't know if there's anything that either of them can't do. I mean, I think that I had a freedom with the book because it doesn't cost anything to make something elaborate and expensive in a book. It costs a lot to do it in a movie. But my movies are very internal, which is...
KAUFMAN: ...I think something that you can do in a book. And I do that in movies anyway, and I utilize voiceover, which is obviously similar to what I'm doing here in a first-person narrative. So I just think that I feel like I have the freedom to be more eccentric in a book, or at least I did with this book.
SIMON: Charlie Kaufman - his novel "Antkind" - thank you so much for being with us.
KAUFMAN: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it.
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