- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2003

Martin Amis, the British novelist, once speculated about when his father, the late Kingsley Amis, quit reading the son's novel "Money: A Suicide Note."
It was when a character called "Martin Amis" was introduced, the younger Mr. Amis surmised.
Pere Amis, himself a celebrated comic novelist, had no truck with postmodern literary devices the stories within stories, "unreliable narrators" and other deliberately confounding tricks meant to toy with the conventions of the traditional realistic novel.
In "Pale Fire," for instance, the Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov invented a long poem about which his narrator, the neighbor of the fictitious poet, writes a loony commentary.
The Argentine master of short fiction Jorge Luis Borges wrote from the perspective of a librarian in "Labyrinths," a series of footnotes to imaginary books.
"Money" itself came out in 1984, and it wasn't the first novel in which an author inserted himself into a narrative. By then, postmodern techniques already had pretty much become a new set of literary conventions.
That hasn't stopped Hollywood from collectively swooning at the feet of Charlie Kaufman, a 44-year-old screenwriter with a mere four movies and, come tomorrow night, possibly an Oscar to his credit, for his work on "Adaptation," an acclaimed movie starring Nicholas Cage as … Charlie Kaufman. Or is that "Charlie Kaufman"?
After studying film at New York University, Mr. Kaufman, of West Hartford, Conn., and later Long Island, N.Y., started writing for TV shows such as "Get a Life" and "Ned and Stacey."
It wasn't until 1999 that he made his screenwriting debut with "Being John Malkovich," to the head-scratching delight of a small but enthusiastic audience.
Now, the enigmatic Mr. Kaufman is in the running for a best-adapted-screenplay award for the nested narratives of "Adaptation," directed, like "Malkovich," by Spike Jonze. Although inspired by a book by Susan Orleans called "The Orchid Thief," "Adaptation" is more about Mr. Kaufman's anguished attempt to interpret and adapt his source material than about that source material itself.
In a further po-mo twist, Mr. Cage also plays an invented twin brother of Mr. Kaufman's named Donald. The screenwriter and Mr. Jonze are mischievously suggesting that he's for real: "Adaptation" is credited to both Charlie and Donald Kaufman.
Many film critics greeted "Adaptation" and "Being John Malkovich" as the arrival of something special, something new under the Southern California sun.
If that's true, Hollywood lags a good 50 years behind the literary-fiction community.
How been-there-done-that is Mr. Kaufman's self-referentiality? Recall, for starters, the furor over Edmund Morris' official biography of President Ronald Reagan, 1999's "Dutch."
So "inscrutable" and "elusive" was the former president that Mr. Morris resorted to inserting himself as well as a couple of characters invented from whole cloth into "Dutch" in order to place Mr. Reagan's enigmatically aloof personality in proper context. However indefensible in moral and historical terms, playing these games with narrative perspective is considerably more "edgy" in a nonfiction biography than in a fictional screenplay.
Maybe a movie about the creation of a movie is a little more novel? This would have come as news to Federico Fellini and Francois Truffaut, the directors of, respectively, "8" and "Day for Night."
Or maybe Mr. Kaufman's originality lies in his screenplay about the search for inspiration for a screenplay? Rent Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels" and see how a master handles the somewhat ingrown subject matter and still makes you laugh and weep and root for Veronica Lake.
"My decision to put myself in the script … was made more out of desperation than calculation," Mr. Kaufman told the Guardian, a London newspaper. "It came out of the struggle of trying and failing to do a faithful adaptation. It was simply a way in."
Mr. Kaufman's confession reveals a rather significant difference between the originators of literary postmodernism and himself. The original postmodernists didn't abandon conventional narrative because they found it too difficult to master. They abandoned conventional narrative because they found it too easy: It bored them to tears.
Novelist John Barth called it the "literature of exhaustion." Surveying a literary world exhausted by the exhausted possibilities of the traditional novel (Mr. Barth used the term in both senses) in a 1967 essay in the Atlantic Monthly, Mr. Barth archly wondered if it "might be conceivable to rediscover validly the artifice of language such far-out notions as grammar, punctuation … even characterization. Even plot!"
Mr. Kaufman collides with an analogous form of this artistic "exhaustion" and retreats into himself. It's the writer's equivalent of throwing in the towel, calling your subject "elusive" or a book "unadaptable" and writing about the thing you know best, yourself.
In an attempt to rationalize his failure, Mr. Kaufman pokes fun at the tired old three-act formula of the typical Hollywood movie, as taught by Robert McKee, author of the screenwriters' bible, "Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting."
"When the characters in a work of fiction become readers of the authors of the fiction they're in, we're reminded of the fictitious aspect of our own existence," Mr. Barth wrote. The point, he continued, is to "disturb us metaphysically," an effect for which Mr. Kaufman strains by placing the lonely screenwriter in the dizzying perspective of human evolution in an opening montage that arcs from amoeba to reptile to a fat, balding guy sweating a deadline at his typewriter.
One problem posed by all this reality-fiddling is how to bring it crisply to a satisfactory end. Mr. Amis ended "Money" with an epilogue written in italics, signaling that the main character had escaped the clutches of his author.
Mr. Kaufman stop here, if you haven't seen "Adaptation" yet ends things with one big wink at the audience: a succession of car chases, shootouts and other cheesy conventions of commercial filmmaking at its worst.
By ending his involuted tale with a parody of crowd-pleasing cinematic storytelling cliches, Mr. Kaufman adds one more layer of irony to a movie already thick with it.
But, as Mr. Amis himself has said, when you wrap a cliche in quotation marks, you still utter a cliche.
A cliche: that's what postmodernism has become. Only in Hollywood could it be mistaken for originality.

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