It’s not really any kind of insult to suggest that Grand Central Publishing – the subsidiary of Hachette formerly known as Warner Books – has an eye for a sellable hook. A quick look at their front page finds such self-explanatory titles as Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter , such sure thing authors as Nicholas Sparks and David Baldacci and such attention-grabbing celeb coups as Shaquille O’Neal and Lady Gaga. They’re crowdpleasers, is the point, unashamed and very good at it to boot, which is why it’s so confounding to hear that they’ve bought the rights to the debut novel by revered screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.
Kaufman has an undeniable talent for a catchy hook too. It’s just that his hooks give way to devastating examinations of love, loss, mortality, life, the universe and everything in ways that don’t resolve neatly, and that his hooks take longer to explain than some novels take to read.
There was his brutally honest study of fatalistic romance in which a man ventures into his own head to stop his memories of his newly ex-girlfriend being erased by a company whose equipment looks like it was inspired by a stoned viewing of The Outer Limits. And his paralleling of collaborative creative processes with natural adaptation and evolution, in which Nicolas Cage plays Kaufman himself, as well as his fictional twin brother Donald, and Meryl Streep plays Susan Orlean as a drug-addled harridan. And his enquiry into the artistic impulse in which a theatre director creates a Russian nesting doll of plays within plays within plays that encompass and replay every facet of his existence. And his take on the old fifteen minutes of fame chestnut which sees people literally enter the head of John Malkovich for a quarter of an hour before being spat out onto the New Jersey turnpike. He’s not really a crowdpleaser, is the point.
And now, God help us, he’s writing a novel: a form unrestrained by such quibbling concerns as budget or filmability. If the above is the kind of thing he was able to get released to your local multiplex, with all the compromises inherent in a medium as collaborative as filmmaking, just imagine what he’ll try to pull when he doesn’t have to please anyone but himself. Seriously, try it. You can’t, because you’re not Charlie Kaufman, and Charlie Kaufman is the only person alive with a mind that works like that.
Of course, the fact that Kaufman is turning to literary fiction is enough of a hook in and of itself to sell Grand Central more than a few copies of whatever he turns in. It’s destined for critical adoration, for one thing, and Kaufman’s sure to bring a substantial number of his existing fanbase with him, if only out of curiosity. The really interesting part, though, will be sitting back and watching while Grand Central try to figure out how the hell they’re going to punt it to everyone else.