When Charlie Kaufman was seven years old, he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. He knows because he went as far as to write it down. “Actor, doctor or fireman,” he says, and laughs. He ended up being, at least briefly, one of those things – but he’s best known as the screenwriter and/or director of some of the trippiest and most metafictional films in recent history: Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York.
Now, with the publication of his first novel, Antkind, he’s also the author of a trippy and metafictional book. This isn’t some sort of Hollywood big-name vanity project of the sort on which Sean Penn lately came unstuck: Kaufman wrote the book, he says, because he couldn’t get work in the movies. “I got the contract to write it in 2012,” he says. “The movie and TV business wasn’t really working out for me at the time.”
What? The Bafta and Oscar-winning Charlie Kaufman? The guy whose directorial debut was described by Roger Ebert as the best movie of the decade? The neurotic screenwriter “Charlie Kaufman” as adorably characterised by Charlie Kaufman in Charlie Kaufman films? That Charlie Kaufman?
“My films don’t make money,” he says. “In 2008, the first movie that I directed, Synecdoche, New York, came out, and it lost money. And at that time the movie industry, coincidentally, fell apart because of the economic crisis and studios stopped making movies and started making superhero franchise things. The sort of mid-budget movie that I’ve been working on, there was no outlet for it any more. It just didn’t exist.”
He’s not the sort of writer who could suck it up and make an Iron Man flick as the cost of making his passion projects possible? “I thought about it,” he admits. “But I’ve never gone past thinking about it. I don’t think I could get that kind of job. No one would hire me for that. And if they did hire me for that, I think probably I would end up giving them something that they didn’t think was usable, because my mind doesn’t work that way.”
When we talk, Kaufman is in a fairly Charlie Kaufmanish situation. He’s alone in lockdown on the west side of Manhattan (his wife and child, for reasons he won’t go into, are back on the west coast): “I’m sort of stuck in a sublet apartment in New York. I don’t know where I’m going to end up, but it’s not my place, not my things. Not my books, you know, not my bed. I spend almost all my time in this place because, you know, there’s nowhere to go and I’m very anxious about getting ill.” And he’s writing – what else? – a script about a virus.
His novel, too, is an extremely Charlie Kaufmanish proposition. It begins with a description of the discovery of the real-life “St Augustine Monster” – an unidentifiable mass of organic material, or “globster”, washed up on a beach in Florida in 1896. It then takes 700-odd pages to tell the story of B Rosenberger Rosenberg, a bald, lavishly bearded and very thwarted film critic who, relatively early on, encounters an eccentric elderly man called Ingo Cutbirth. Ingo has spent the whole of his long life making a stop-motion puppet movie with a running time of three months. But Ingo abruptly dies of old age, and his masterpiece is destroyed in a fire leaving only one frame – from which B now hopes to reconstruct the film with the aid of a succession of hypnotists.
Then it gets properly strange. B is shrinking. He ends up sleeping in his psychiatrist’s sock drawer. He constantly falls into manholes. He has his nose reconstructed against his wishes. He spends a great deal of time in hypnotic or hallucinatory or comatose states, and reconstructs a number of different versions of the movie. He has an unsuccessful career in shoe retail. A meteorologist (or “meaty-horologist”) discovers a means of predicting the future. We spend time with a fictional 1940s comedy duo called Mudd and Molloy, who survive a murder attempt by Abbott and Costello. A war is fought between the Slammy’s burger chain and an army of android versions of President Donald Trunk (sic). The Block Theory of the universe, the Kentucky Meat Shower, time-travelling clones and clown fetishism also feature. And that’s before we get to the hyper-intelligent far-future ant who may or may not have accidentally invented a virus that travels backwards in time.
The way Kaufman describes the process, the novel sort of grew and mutated as it went. The germ of it, he says, was that “I wanted to deal with time travel in many different forms – all of them mutually exclusive.” It reads, sometimes but not always in a good way, like the work of someone who has spent an awful lot of time with John Kennedy Toole and Thomas Pynchon (and we’re talking the Pynchon of Against the Day rather than the Pynchon of Inherent Vice); with, in the chimerical-movies department, perhaps a glancing acquaintance with Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
Did his editor, I ask as tactfully as I can, not say words to the effect of: “What the hell?” Apparently not. “He was open to ... he liked the book.” He told Kaufman that a 900-pager (the manuscript was longer) would be a hard sell, so Kaufman cut it back as far as he could without compromising it – “I think they wanted it to be 500 pages” – and the editor pronounced himself satisfied: “Actually, at that point, having read it again. I think he felt like he understood it better.”
The book is stuffed to its mad gunwales with gags and ideas and scattershot erudition, and my strong hunch is that readers will find it ... challenging. But if anything, its comic sensibility is what will pull them through. Kaufman says that looking for the funny has been a constant in his work since he played a rooster in a school play at the age of 10. “I was a very shy kid, but somehow I managed to make my way into this production,” he says, “I played a character who was funny and I got laughs from the audience – and I was just hooked.
“Being funny and having people laugh makes me feel validated as a human. And it’s very black and white in my estimation. If you write a scene in a movie and people laugh in the audience, it’s worked.”
The book’s intellectual range of reference – from phenomenology to Jungian psychology to quantum physics to Beckett and Pirandello – is dizzying. Kaufman says that he “read a bunch of popular physics books when I was young ... but I was frustrated because I didn’t have the mathematical background to do the actual reading so it was all in translation – but I loved it. I love things that make me think about the universe in a way that is different from my perception of it. It’s very helpful in my work and in my life – it takes me out of myself. It makes my frame of reference larger and more complex than my concerns with my own issues.”
That willingness to pull focus makes Kaufman an intellectual pleasure but, it should be said, a slightly frustrating interviewee. He is scrupulously genial and polite, and happy to talk about theories of spacetime, but extremely reluctant to say anything on the record about the book’s more sublunary themes and ideas.
For instance, B is a sort of parodic extreme of film-nerdery – forever drawing up top-10 lists consisting of ultra-obscure experimental foreign-language films and inveighing against rival critics. Do critics bug Kaufman? “I’m interested in film criticism, and I’m certainly interested in film critics who have been very hostile to my work,” he says, “And this was an opportunity to do something that I don’t get to do – which is respond. But ... that sort of fell by the wayside. It isn’t what interests me any more about the book … That’s just kind of like a vestige of some sort.”
Vestige or not, B really really hates Charlie Kaufman (“Kaufman is a monster, plain and simple ... Kaufman is Godzilla with dentures, Halloween’s Mike Myers with a rubber knife, Pennywise the Clown with contact dermatitis from living in a sewer”) and really loves Judd Apatow – the only mainstream director who ever appears in his lists of great works.
This Apatow thing is hard to read. Is he a great friend of Kaufman and B’s enthusiasm for his work an affectionate in-joke? Or is it chosen because Apatow – as seems equally possible – represents everything Kaufman detests about modern cinema? “I’m not in a position to explain B or what he’s thinking,” he says primly. “It is what it is. You can take from it what you want. I’m not gonna comment one way or the other.” All right then: do you like Judd Apatow’s work yourself? “I don’t think that’s relevant,” he says, and then with a gentle note of reproach: “I feel like you’re asking the same question in a different way.”
Then there are the cultural politics of the book. B thinks of himself as progressive – a slightly wearisome running gag has him using “thon” as a pronoun – while at the same time being heroically crass (he prides himself on his girlfriend’s African American identity no less than he vaunts himself on having gone to Harvard). The pronouns issue is a particularly hot topic. Was Kaufman worried that it would look as if he was making fun of trans rights? “Oh, yeah. I’m worried about everything. You know, always worried about everything but it is what it is.” Well, OK, does he feel that some people who are punctilious about being politically correct in their language are covering up some rather more unworthy things?
“I’ve made a practice throughout my career of not explaining my intent,” he says. “I feel like, I mean, I feel like it’s irrelevant. I’m not writing an essay about race relations or virtue signalling, I’m writing a novel, and I have a character in it, and the character has this personality. And that’s the book.” I venture that this character is kind of unlikeable. Kaufman declines to address the question. “I don’t think in those terms,” he says. “I tend never to care if a character’s likeable. It doesn’t interest me as an idea.”
To be fair to Kaufman, the novel’s central preoccupations are a lot more abstract than that line of questioning would suggest in any case. Like his films, it gleefully unravels any sense of a stable reality. “That which the mind creates,” one character in it declares, “is also real.” Perhaps there’s even a timeline in the quantum universe where Charlie Kaufman is a fireman.
I mention Michael Pollan’s recent book on psychedelics, and Kaufman expresses interest but says he’s never had much truck with drugs himself: “Mushrooms a couple of times when I was young ... I couldn’t do LSD. It scared me too much.
“Part of it for me may just be that I always try to think past the original idea,” he says. “So that if I have, for example, a portal into John Malkovich in a story, then I have to think of all the iterations of that, and I come to: what if John Malkovich goes into his own portal? This thing that people say is my style ... is just the way my brain works. I do have an OCD kind of quality to my thinking.”
Does he feel as though reality, then, is a stranger and more fragile thing than most people imagine?
“Jesus yes!” he yelps.
• Antkind is published by 4th Estate (RRP £18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.