Review

The Autograph Man

by Zadie Smith

After dazzling readers with her debut novel WHITE TEETH, Zadie Smith found herself in the spotlight. Smith had all the trappings of a publicist's dream-come-true: she's attractive, young, multiracial, sassy. The native Londoner traveled the book-tour circuit, granted numerous interviews, and, in short, lived up to the hype of her book, a sprawling narrative she dubbed a "loose, baggy monster."

Such intense scrutiny from the international book community can suffocate a young writer, and Smith was no stranger to this phenomenon. She found it difficult to begin her second novel, eventually hiding away in the Italian countryside before again finding her literary voice.

Here at Bookreporter.com we frequently receive questions from readers about when the next title of an author will be released, and we've noticed the anticipation runs pretty high when waiting for that second book. And when anticipation runs high, so do expectations.

We thought it would be fun if we had four reviewers check out Zadie Smith's long-awaited sophomore effort, THE AUTOGRAPH MAN. You can see for yourself --- the results from our reviewers are mixed. But, most importantly, what do you think?

Let's all just agree, right now, that we hate Zadie Smith. I'm sure she's a very nice person --- BUT. Come on. She's brilliant, she's beautiful, she's four years younger than me and she's published two gorgeously written and widely praised novels. Anyone who even subconsciously holds to the prevailing theory of jealousy --- i.e., that there is a finite amount of talent and glory to be divvied up among all the world's aspirants --- simply has to hate her. But that doesn't mean we can't love her books.

Her award-winning debut novel in 2002, WHITE TEETH --- which is currently hitting the small screen in Britain --- might not have been completely flawless, but was epic and audacious enough to survive not just the judgment of critics but the expectations created by their hyperbolic praise. THE AUTOGRAPH MAN, her second, is equally uproarious and deftly written. But it does allow us to hate her a bit less; this novel at least has a couple of flaws. Smith may, after all, be human.

THE AUTOGRAPH MAN follows Alex-Li Tandem, son of a Chinese father and a Jewish mother, and his three best friends from childhood. Or rather, the three people closest to being what you might, by default, refer to as Alex's friends --- he isn't really the best-friend-having type of guy. (Therein lies the book's main problem; but more on that later.)

There's Adam, the formerly pudgy and now svelte, handsome, weed-smoking black Jew; Rubinfine, the halfhearted rabbi; and Joseph, the mysterious, oddly wise eternal nerd. Alex-Li's father orchestrated their youthful bonding during a trip to see a live professional-wrestling match; that same day, the brain tumor he'd been keeping secret killed him. The boys' shared experience of this tragedy seems to have held them together well beyond the point at which they might otherwise have naturally drifted apart.

One other thing holds them together: autograph collecting. When Alex met Joseph at the wrestling match, the small, quiet boy sparked his interest in (or obsession with) the hunt for prized autographs of famous people. For Joseph, it remains a hobby; but when we meet Alex in young-adulthood, we discover that collecting and trading in autographs has become his career, and in one way or another it has bled into the lives of his friends as well.

Most of the book takes place in the very blah London suburb of Mountjoy. The action centers on Alex's years-long quest to secure the autograph of one Kitty Alexander, an obscure actress whose most famous role was in a 1952 film called The Girl from Peking, the greatest film ever made according to Alex. The novel's chapters are structured around the Kaballah, but you get the sense that it's merely a device, not inherently important to the story. Even Adam, who seems to believe he's profoundly devoted to his religion, is equally passionate about his love for marijuana. Perhaps the point is that, given the casualness with which these young men embrace their religion, it might as well be something as crass as obsessive autograph trading, founded on the culture of celebrity. But the result is that Judaism becomes a mere fashion accessory, spiritual wallpaper in the characters' world.

Throughout the book, Smith touches on the human tendency to put things in categories: For example, Alex is constantly gathering notes for his years-in-the-making book on goyishness vs. Jewishness; characters are mostly multiracial or multicultural; even the autographs young Joseph collects are separated into files for wrestlers, movie stars, etc. If you aren't sure what you want, the book seems to say, at least you can sort what you have.

Another related theme that keeps cropping up is authenticity. Is the Kitty Alexander signature he finds in his possession the real thing? Do autographs become less authentic, less valuable, if taken out of context? Is Alex a real Jew? Is Adam more or less Jewish than Rubinfine? And does Alex love his girlfriend less because she's real, a verifiable presence in front of him, rather than a one-dimensional persona like Kitty or, more accurately, a piece of paper with Kitty's signature on it?

These are fascinating issues to explore, and Smith does so beautifully --- but there are flaws. Relying too heavily on the Kaballah as a device is one. Also, she distracts needlessly with clever conceits and verbal tics, such as the repetition of autograph-catalogue phrases like "the popular musician Leonard Cohen" or "the popular actress Bette Davis," or "the International Gesture" for this and that. It's cute at first, but soon becomes annoying --- especially after she's lamented the fact, early in the novel, that slogans have replaced clichés in kid-speak these days.

But the greatest flaw in the book is within Alex himself. You want to like him, but he doesn't let you in. His technique of deferring grief by surrounding himself in a haze of dulled emotions is understandable, realistic and sympathetic, but impossible to break through. Early on, after a bad acid trip, Alex is wracking his brain to recall what happened: "He remembered the sleep. Deep, padded. But the night before this, the night in question, this was a shut door with its wood warping from some unseen fire, smoke squeezing through. He could not open it. He didn't dare." The novel's main problem is that door never opens. You get a kick out of watching the smoke dance around in nimble and unpredictable ways, but you never see the fire.

Still, all that means is we can read Zadie Smith's novels and enjoy them unreservedly. Because, if she maybe hasn't written the Ultimate Most Perfect Novel in the World just yet, well then we don't have to hate her after all --- and more importantly, maybe she'll keep writing these merely NEAR-perfect books.

In my days in college (days I refer to as "Jonathan's Odd Epoch") I would write letters to companies and famous people in hopes of free stuff. I wrote to Hidden Valley Ranch and told them that not only did I find the valley, but I also found the hidden ranch and asked for a T-shirt to ensure silence. I wrote to the Pope and asked him where he kept his big hat when he slept. I wrote to Harrison Ford asking him why he didn't make more movies starring Ewoks. I liked collecting the responses and putting them into binders, a collection of odd popular culture artifacts --- a Spam magnet, a Jiffy peanut butter bumper sticker, Burgess Meredith's autograph. That's why I could relate somewhat to Alex-Li Tandem, the autograph man, the main character in Zadie Smith's new novel and follow up to her stunning award-winning WHITE TEETH.

With WHITE TEETH, Smith lacked much of a plot but gave us a bizarre compendium of characters like dorks and Jehovah Witnesses, waiters and geneticists, and we didn't mind that we traipsed and bumped along through the book, because the people in the book we were traipsing and bumping along with were so much fun and so interesting. Now, with AUTOGRAPH MAN, Smith gives us plot, but doesn't quite give the richness to character that she did in WHITE TEETH.

Alex, half-Jewish and half-Chinese, is an autograph trader from London who is obsessed with getting the autograph of Kitty Alexander, an old movie actress who starred in the 1952 film The Girl from Peking, and will search far and wide for an original (and not a forgery). Along the way he has conversations with Alex, a friend obsessed himself with Jewish mysticism, and continues to have a relationship with his girlfriend, Esther. He goes to New York to seek out Kitty Alexander and they meet, and that meeting is the apex of the book.

Smith writes with a keen eye towards dialogue and odd setups and smart jokes and off-beatedness, yet while she does this magnificently, it doesn't work as well as it could because the characters involved in the dialogues and odd setups aren't worthy of Smith's tremendous skill. It's not that we don't like Alex and his friends, or at least try to like them, but we just can't easily wrap our loving arms around self-absorbed compulsive cynical 20-somethings who do nothing more than have puffy conversations about religion and autographs and popular culture and trivial minutiae, all the while puffing on weed.

Smith is a wonderful writer and just by reading any paragraph of THE AUTOGRAPH MAN one can see sharp glints and warm glimmers in her writing, her turn of phrase, her word choice, her skewed thoughts on this or that. But those turns of phrase, those choices of words, and those thoughts melted into a book that wasn't as sharp as Smith can undoubtedly write (just read her first novel to remove all doubt in that regard). And just as undoubtedly, if she ever comes to Seattle for a reading, I'll go with THE AUTOGRAPH MAN under my arm for her to autograph. It'll probably be worth something soon.

Some books you just have to read to believe, and THE AUTOGRAPH MAN is one of those books. Zadie Smith's second novel is laugh out loud funny, bittersweet and really quite serious. It is such a pleasure to read that its depth and magnitude sneak up on you. It is the story of one young autograph man, Alex-Li Tandem, and his journey of self-realization. Alex-Li is an English Chinese Jew. And, as one can easily imagine, Alex-Li is struggling with ideas of identity. Yet, it is not as simple as ethnicity. Alex-Li's struggle is more universal in scope and thus despite his unusual job and multicultural background, it is easy to relate Smith's tale of a man losing himself in the profane then, with a little help from a motley crew of friends, the memory of his father, and a very expensive autograph, finding himself, and the sacred, again.

An autograph man is, just as it sounds, someone who deals in autographs of the famous and infamous. For Alex-Li Tandem the business of autographs began the day that he made the acquaintance of Joseph Klein (young autograph collector) which also happened to be the day his father died. For Alex-Li, the quest for a small piece of fame (the signature) and the loss of his father become so tangled up that years later he is consumed with one autograph to the exclusion of almost all else, including maintaining healthy relationships.

Obsessed with the ultimate autograph --- the rarely penned Kitty Alexander --- Alex-Li is in pursuit of something almost unreal, some elusive trait found in certain moments in Alexander's films, instead of concentrating on the life that is happening (and falling apart) around him. But Alex can only deny the realities of his existence for so long and it becomes nearly impossible as his girlfriend undergoes surgery and the anniversary of his father's death approaches. It takes a disastrous acid trip, a visit to NY, a friendship with an infamous prostitute, and Kitty Alexander herself to motivate Alex-Li to begin to look honestly at himself and to perform the one ritual that will ease his heart, ease his mind and help him come to terms with his identity. With the Kaddish (mourner's prayer) for his Chinese Father, Alex-Li can begin to find comfort in his identity as a Jew, as a man, and as his father's son.

Smith's inventive jumping off point for THE AUTOGRAPH MAN is her own version of kabbalah as filtered through Lenny Bruce's famous division of Jewish and goyish, a preoccupation shared by Alex-Li. Without any explicit reference to identity issues, identity is the driving force in the novel. Thus, what would be the story of a stereotypical cynical 20-something guy coming to terms with commitment, adulthood and even religion has a more poignant undercurrent. THE AUTOGRAPH MAN is hysterically funny and still exhibits a depth rarely evident in popular literature. Smith writes with uncommon clarity and shows much respect for even her most ridiculous of characters.

From the jealous and unstable Max (in many ways Alex-Li's alter-ego), to the defeated and dying autograph man Brian (also in many ways Alex-Li's alter ego), from the patient young Esther to the wise old Kitty Alexander, the characters around Alex-Li each have a lesson to teach and yet Smith's tone is never preachy.

Spiritual and spunky, THE AUTOGRAPH MAN confirms the promise shown in Smith's debut novel. It is a story that escapes easy description and classification. It is at once a comedic coming of age story and a meaningful exploration of enlightenment. This novel is superb in its own right and undoubtedly heralds the coming of many great works from Zadie Smith.

   --- Reviewed Sarah Rachel Egelman

I wrote a few letters years ago. To whom? Authors, of course. I am not an autograph man, but rather a sincere fan of authors. A reader for life, bibliophile, and bookseller, yes, but not an autograph man. My first response came in the form of a short note with a return address from Cavendish, Vermont. Noble laureate Alexandr Solzhenitsyn urged me to toss out all previous editions of ONE DAY and read the new translation. He thanked me for my note, and was glad I enjoyed August 1914 as much as I had. When I read the note, my heart raised to the heavens knowing I had connected with one of my heroes, and I had the signature to prove it. My next arrival was from the author of EXODUS, Leon Uris. His note, very private, was both touching and personal. I cherish the short sweet letter. I often wondered, why has he been overlooked for higher awards? I've been seeking signatures for as long as I can remember and now number numerous inscribed books in my collection. I guess I am an autograph man.

Enter into my life a quick blurb about an upcoming novel by Zadie Smith entitled THE AUTOGRAPH MAN, which I identify with, and need to read. The book is Smith's second novel. Her first, WHITE TEETH garnered strong reviews and the anticipation of a long and successful career.

This story revolves around one Alex-Li Tandem. The prologue takes place at a wrestling match in merry old England. Li-Jin, Alex's father, has taken his son and a group of his friends to see the match. While at the match, he dies thus bonding these friends over a common tragedy. Here begins Alex-Li's obsession, and his desire to finally track an elusive autograph that of a former film star. He is determined not to stop until he has her signature. The story runs from London to New York, perhaps quest-like, but lacks the depth required to pull it off.

Dear reader, I could go on and explain the rest of the story, but I won't. I should have followed Dorothy Parker's lead and tossed the book against the wall, instead of into my heap of discards. I read a third of the story and found myself not caring about any of the characters. Twenty-seven years old, coming awake from an acid trip, not really concerned about anybody but himself, I found Alex-Li an irritant. Am I becoming an old fart? His cast of friends are so very contrived: Adam, the best friend mystical black Jew, Esther, the girlfriend (Adam's sister), Alex-Li himself, a Chinese-English Jew, Honey Richardson (ripped from recent memory tabloid material), the rabbis, the city, the quest. After a while I found myself caring less and less!

Yes, I did finish the novel. I found myself in a hospital room with my mother as she convalesced from surgery. If ever you have found yourself in this situation, you may know the only thing one can do in this situation is read. And so I brought with me THE AUTOGRAPH MAN, hoping to be hooked. On occasion I was smitten, but for the most part, I dreamt of sleep. This writer uses asides and cute drawings to fulfill my imagination, instead of a good story. What could have been a great narrative became forced.

So, as I conclude this, I walk to my autographs and read the letters attached to them. Their signatures talk to me, as I wished this novel would have. A close friend asked me what was missing from the novel, and I replied that this story tried to be quirky and funny, deep and moving, but was filled with whining. Forgive me for saying this, but I am so tired of whining.

Reviewed by Tony Parker on January 21, 2011

The Autograph Man
by Zadie Smith

  • Publication Date: September 13, 2012
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 037550186X
  • ISBN-13: 9780375501869