Events

Conversations: Two Screenwriters Talk About Their New Novels—Utopia Avenue and Antkind

Screenshot, Madeline Miller and David Mitchell in conversation.

It was just serendipity that the Chicago Humanities Festival scheduled two screenwriters with hot new novels two weeks in a row for their livestream show. Well, serendipity and the fact that the release dates were a week apart (July 7 and 14).

Last week, it was Charlie Kaufman (Anomalisa; Synecdoche, New York; and Being John Malkovich) with his first novel, Antkind. This week, it was David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks and eight novels) with his latest novel, Utopia Avenue.

This article is not a book review, but a report on the hosts’ conversations with two talented and idiosyncratic authors.

David Mitchell: Utopia Avenue

David Mitchell’s conversation with author Madeline Miller (her novels are Song of Achilles and Circe) turned out to be a mutual admiration fest. Miller did succeed in turning the conversation to Utopia Avenue and Mitchell’s other writings, but he came armed with a long list of questions, he said, about Miller’s two novels drawn from classic mythology; he flourished copies of both books to the video camera as he talked. Mitchell said he’s a big admirer of Miller’s novels and so there was a lot of conversation about how Miller got interested in the classics (her mother read her The Iliad when she was 5 or 6), the longevity of myth, and the power of poetry in Homer’s writing.

Utopia Avenue is about a fictional British band in the 1960s (named Utopia Avenue after they decide against naming themselves The Way Out), and the four musicians who come together to make music  and money. The band is formed under the guidance of a manager, Levon Frankland, who is a decent guy, not the stereotype evil dealer. There’s Elf (Elizabeth Frances), the keys player, vocalist and songwriter, who comes from the folk scene. Griff, the drummer, is a jazzer. Jasper is a virtuoso guitarist and songwriter and Dean is a talented, self-taught bassist and songwriter and former member of a band named Battleship Potemkin. (Jasper and Griff were with a sub-subpar band named Archie Kinnock’s Blues Cadillac and Elf just broke up with her duo partner/boyfriend.)

The ‘60s were the early days of rock and roll and there were plenty of eclectic influences as bands began. The Stones were already well-established and enviably rich.

Mitchell, Lancashire-born and now living in County Cork, Ireland, has written a book larded with musical references, musical jargon, famous bands and track titles. Jasper meets a still-unknown David Bowie while leaving the band’s management office. There are cameo appearances by famous musicians like Syd Barrett, Jimi Hendrix and Leonard Cohen.

When Miller asks Mitchell about works that influenced this book, he names the Canadian band Rush because of their “high register vocabulary,” Dr. Who and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series .And one more thing: the children’s book series, Flat Stanley. As Flat Stanley found, upon becoming flat, “a curse is a blessing and a blessing is a curse.”

Mitchell isn’t a musician but he admires the instant feedback loop that musicians have in live performance. I’m jealous of that, he said, and commented that music is important to us from the womb on (when we are conscious of “the bass track of our mother’s heartbeat”) and then in adolescence, when “music is a tribal identifier.” We have a “primal relationship with music throughout our lives.”

The musician’s intention is changed by the listener, who adds personal  meaning to the musician’s work. And a novel can’t make the reader hear the music, Mitchell acknowledged, but it can show its effect on human beings.

His descriptions of the band’s early gigs are realistic, with the musicians terrified and their audiences in turn bored or insulting—and later their audiences become adoring fans. The band members play off each other; they are strangers at first and become a unit. They start by playing in grungy, mostly empty college halls and rural bars. They travel in a decrepit van they call the Beast. It barely runs but it carries all their gear, amps and Griff’s drum kit.

Miller commented on the interconnectedness of Mitchell’s novels: characters or incidents in one novel appear in others. He does that, he says, “because it pleases me to do it…. My characters get away and may have a future in another book. I’m sometimes thinking three books ahead,” he said.

Screenshot. Greta Johnsen and Charlie Kaufman discuss his book.

Charlie Kaufman: Antkind

Antkind, the quirky, circuitous story of a film critic, and Kaufman’s other writing were the subjects of his conversation with Greta Johnsen (WBEZ and the Nerdette podcast) last week.

In Antkind, B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, the not-Jewish film critic, drives through Florida, trying to keep his windshield bugfree and stopping at a Slammy’s for a biggy cola and paper towels. He has an African American girlfriend (you would know her name), a relationship of which he’s inordinately proud. He’s headed for the St. Augustine Film History­­ building, the architecture of which recreates the head of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, filmed nearby.. (The vault is in the chin; the screening room is in the left gill.) B. is there to do research for a monograph on a Black filmmaker.

The film critic serves partly as Kaufman’s opportunity to lampoon film critics (“they can write about you but you can’t write about them”). B. is a jerk, Kaufman says, has a deep need for approval, and hates the work of Charlie Kaufman. The book is often self-referential and in current argot, meta.

Mitchell explains the musician’s intention being completed by the listener’s experience and emotional state. Kaufman says a piece of work is “completed by the reader—it goes into your brain.”

The main plot line of Antkind concerns the ancient outsider filmmaker that B. meets who has been working for 90 years on a stop-motion animation film with an army of puppets. Watching the film takes three months. B. decides this masterpiece could be the greatest discovery in the history of cinema plus it could save his foundering career. His attempt to bring the film to cinema royalty is the main story thread among many.

Kaufman is being interviewed from his temporary New York apartment. Johnsen asks him if he knew where he was going when he started writing the book, which, by the way, runs 720 pages. Not at the beginning, he says. I like to explore, sort of free form….I didn’t know if it would be funny or something else…. I tried writing in third person, then first person. (It’s written from B.’s perspective, in B.’s voice.)

Johnsen asks him when he knew he was done. He worked on the book for five-and-a-half years, Kaufman said, and after about five years, he knew where he was going—but that’s by design. “Everything is anxiety-inducing for me,” he says, “so I just add that to it (the anxiety).”

“Are there books that Antkind is in conversation with?” Johnsen asks. “Like Kafka, David Foster Wallace, Pynchon….” He acknowledges that Kafka has been a big influence on his life and on his thinking. And “I used to read a lot of Philip K. Dick, but not recently…. Everything feels very of the moment.”

“Do you ever have writer’s block?” Johnsen asks the standard issue question to a writer. Well, if I do, “there’re always things percolating even when you don’t know they are.” (So we might think of writer’s block as a different form of creativity.)

Charlie Kaufman has a thing for hirsuteness. He begins Antkind with a first-person homage by B. to his beard.

“My beard is a wonder. It is the beard of Whitman, of Rasputin, of Darwin, yet it is uniquely mine. It’s a salt-and-pepper, steel-wool, cotton-candy confection, much too long, wispy, and unruly to be fashionable. And it is this, its very unfashionability, that makes the strongest statement. It says, I don’t care a whit (a Whitman) about fashion. I don’t care about attractiveness. This beard is too big for my narrow face. This beard is too wide. This beard is too bottom-heavy for my bald head.” And on and on. It’s what he calls his beard monologue.

In a 2015 photo of Kaufman from some film festival, his beard is thick, longish (not a goatee) and dark although not unruly. He’s also definitely not bald. Thick dark curly hair. So I’m a little surprised when he Zooms onscreen to converse with Greta Johnsen. His hair is moderately cropped and ruly and he’s beardless, but has a big old porn-star mustache.

The Books

As to the books themselves, I’ve read the first 100 pages of Utopia Avenue and a little less of Antkind (in e-galley versions from the publisher). Utopia Avenue is immediately engrossing, as Mitchell introduces the band members and the London music setting of the late 1960s. I can tell by the smart and funny dialogue among the musicians, as well as hints of what’s to come, that I’m going to love Utopia Avenue. I know that it’s at least partly because I’m smitten with the pop/rock music scene and that’s why UA immediately appeals to me.

Antkind feels as if it will be a novelized version of some of Kaufman’s quirky films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich. I didn’t find the first section that I read as appealing as the other book, but I’ve always felt you should read 100 pages of a book before deciding if you want to finish it or not.

Finally, I just want to say something about longggggg books. Mitchell’s is 574 pages and Kaufman’s is 720 pages in print. Now I’ve always been a devoted reader and I’ve read my share of 700-page doorstops. I’m looking at you Ron Chernow with your eye-opening Hamilton biography and David McCullough’s John Adams—or Simon Schama’s glorious Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution at 900 pages! But those are all nonfiction. Of course, there’s Ulysses (no, I’ve never finished it) and Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, which I devoured every word of. But what’s wrong with a nice 300-page novel? I like a book that fits in my bag when I’m commuting or traveling and that doesn’t turn my arm numb when I’m reading in bed. (Yes, I do read on a Kindle, but I prefer a real book.)

Maybe the pandemic is the time to finally read Ulysses from cover to cover.

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