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Charlie Kaufman went from lauded screenwriter to flop director. His new novel hits back

Writer-director Charlie Kaufman, on one of the sets of his movie “Anomalisa” at Starburns Studios
Writer-director Charlie Kaufman, on the set of his 2015 film “Anomalisa.”
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Is Charlie Kaufman OK? Not especially.

“I’m in a temporary apartment in New York — currently by myself. It’s lonely,” he said in a conversation late last month. “It’s stressful.” He paused to think for a moment, then added, “The world is a worrisome place.”

So it is, something Kaufman has been pointing out since before the turn of the millennium. He became famous as a screenwriter — “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — by staking out a signature spot in the borderlands between anxiety and absurdity. When he started directing his screenplays, the results grew only bleaker: first “Synecdoche, New York,” which the critic Carina Chocano called — in a rave — “achingly, achingly sad,” and eventually 2015’s “Anomalisa,” a witty, inventive, crushingly depressing work of stop-motion animation.

Kaufman has been walking a lot during quarantine, nine miles every day up and down 11th Avenue. He frets that not enough people are wearing masks though, and he’s having trouble reading a book from start to finish. At night, he watches one episode of “Hannibal” before bed.

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He has a new film coming out later this year, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” starring Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette and Jesse Plemons, and other projects in the works. But he seemed diffident about them when we spoke and finally admitted that since the pandemic began all of his carefully husbanded nervousness has been consumed by life rather than work. (“I don’t know how to care,” he said.) Still, there was one project that seemed to kindle a flicker of optimism in him during the course of our conversation, which lasted nearly two meandering, engaging hours. “I want to write another book,” he said.

The first comes out this week. It’s a novel called “Antkind,” presented as the 700-odd page narration of a wildly misguided — indeed possibly delusional — film critic named B. Rosenberger Rosenberg and his discovery of a reclusive elderly filmmaker who has dedicated his life to making a stop-motion movie three months long. If this sounds convoluted, please consider that it’s not the plot but the premise of this novel, disposed of in less than 100 pages, which allows Kaufman to get down to the serious business of, say, having B. Rosenberg stumble into a job in the executive suite at Zappos, or come across Donald Trump performing in the lobby of the Plaza, “now the Home Alone 2 Plaza,” seeming “exhausted and sad and very old.”

There’s something to add prophylactically here, since a specter hangs over people who parachute into fiction from more glamorous precincts: “Antkind” is a very strong debut novel, a long, anguished spill of a book, full of buried furies and nervy philosophical expeditions, constantly tossing off sparks of humor and imagination. It manages the difficult task of being at once surreal and highly readable. In tone, it has a postmodernist kinship with writers like Donald Barthelme and Karen Russell, less adept to be sure — its first-person narration is full of pinhole leaks through which another voice, presumably Kaufman’s, starts talking — but generally much funnier too.

Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman in "Adaptation," written by Charlie Kaufman.
(Columbia Pictures)
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Which is to say, “Antkind” isn’t a vanity project; Kaufman isn’t Ethan Hawke or Sean Penn or even (hard though it is to admit) Tom Hanks. But he might be Gwyneth Paltrow. By his own account, “Synecdoche, which was a financial calamity, was also a stark inflection point in his career. After he made it, he failed to find financing for his next movie, and the unbroken ascent of his collaborations with Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, which had made him the only living screenwriter many people knew by name (and by Nicolas Cage’s face, thanks to “Adaptation”), was over. In 2012 he finally signed a contract to write a novel, a project over which his control could be closer to total — Kaufman’s own version of Goop, a venture designed to win him independence from the vagaries of Hollywood’s esteem.

“Antkind” bursts at its edges with fury over the necessity of that shift. “I kind of set out to make a book that couldn’t be filmed,” Kaufman said. But more than that half-hearted defiance (you would have bet against him adapting Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief” by fabricating a twin for himself too), it’s the novel’s fusillades against the film business that stand out.

These come primarily via the ludicrous opinions of B. Rosenberg, who, Kaufmanesquely, hates Kaufman. He calls “Synecdoche” “an irredeemable, torturous, tortuous yawn. (He prefers the more successful Kaufman-lite picture “Stranger Than Fiction,” a “wonderfully quirky film starring William Ferrell and the always adorkable Zooey Deschanel.” Deschanel wasn’t in the film — one of his many glaring errors. That’s the sound of an ax being ground.) A professor (though, alas, “cinema studies is deemed a gut course in zookeeper school”) and reviewer (including “an experimental two-month stint as the film critic for the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog”), he holds Judd Apatow and Wes Anderson in particularly high regard, which gives you some sense of Kaufman’s own appraisal of the directors who supplanted him as mid-budget studio comedy darlings.

Rosenberg’s other obsession is the maximum refinement of his political awareness (“The assumption of male gender in hobos has hindered the dreams of more female hobos than I as a white male can imagine”). Neither Kaufman nor his editor at Random House, Ben Greenberg, seemed eager to comment on this dominant theme of the book, perhaps with good reason; “Antkind” mines the competitive allyship of certain liberals for good jokes, but this is also an uneasy moment for a hard-edged satire of wokeness.

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Rosenberg’s false erudition on film and race eventually converge on the figure of Ingo Cuthbert, the Black genius he finds in Florida, a man so dedicated to his gesamkunstwerk that part of his near-century of labor has included the painstaking creation of “the unseen” — hundreds of stop-motion characters he never even films.

I asked Kaufman if the notion had arisen from his own unfilmed projects. He said he’d never thought about it. “I feel like I’ve changed a lot in the last 10 years,” he said. “I don’t have the same kind of bitterness or ambition. I don’t feel the frustration of not being able to force my stuff to be made.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard in the movie "Synecdoche, New York."
Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Synecdoche, New York,” Kaufman’s directorial debut, which fizzled at the box office despite critical raves.
(Sony Pictures Classics)

Kaufman is 61 now. Beyond saying that he has one child, he declines to talk about his family — “the more I do, the less and less I have” — or his move to New York from Pasadena, where he lived until recently. He grew up in Connecticut and Long Island during the ’60s and ’70s, the heyday of Barthelme, Pynchon, Gaddis and other avant-absurdists who feel present in “Antkind.” (A random assortment of names from the book: Melliflua Vanistroski, Euridice Snaptem, Ocky Marrocco, Romeo Quinoa, Esther Mercenaire.) He also has a particular tenderness for Kafka, a writer of unforgiving desolation who sometimes had to stop his own readings because he was laughing too hard.

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In retrospect what seems remarkable is not that Hollywood should have shuffled such a cerebral writer out toward its edges but that he should ever have been part of its mainstream. I asked him how he looks back on those days. He won an Oscar for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” one of his four nominations; surely that was a great moment. But no. “It felt like nothing,” he said. “It did nothing.” Couples still come up to him and say they stayed together because of that movie — a questionable interpretation of its story, Kaufman thinks, but he always wishes them well.

The creation of the preposterous B. Rosenberg seems valedictory, Kaufman’s unfond farewell to an industry that only treated him like a genius as long as him being a genius was remunerative. “For better and worse, ‘Synecdoche’ was me,” he said. It’s easy to forget, looking at its box office numbers, that Roger Ebert called it the best film of the 2000s.

For a while, as the conversation advanced beyond the polite ask-and-answer rhythm of most interviews, we talked about how fame and critical regard had surprised him. His nervy, melancholy time in quarantine seemed to hover in his silences. At last he found the words for what he wanted to say about success: “It solves nothing whatsoever.”

It was a bracingly definite answer from such a careful thinker. Anyone who’s happy right now isn’t paying close enough attention, he seemed to be implying — seems to have been implying for a long time. It was also — whatever triumphant renaissance his film career may have in store, whatever the chances are that he actually writes fiction again — the first time that he’d sounded, to me, like the specific sort of person who discovers that there are no answers and then sets out to look for them alone: a novelist.

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Finch’s novels include the Charles Lenox mysteries.


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