Book Review: Autograph Man: A Novel about Growing Up with a Jewish Mother and a Chinese Father

The Autograph Man, Zadie Smith, Random House, New York, 2002, 347 pages.

Those of us who are interfaith children must navigate two cultures. We navigate externally, as we interact with a society that often mislabels or misinterprets, assumes or excludes. And we navigate internally, as we absorb and integrate or compartmentalize our two cultures. Few interfaith children have written extensively about this process. But recent literature by mixed-race children provides powerful parallels and metaphorical insights that I find relevant to interfaith children.

Zadie Smith is a young British novelist (English father, Jamaican mother) who garnered great critical acclaim for her first novel, White Teeth, the ambitious saga of an interracial family. For her second novel, Smith has chosen a protagonist with a Jewish mother and a Chinese (non-Jewish) father. While Smith is not Jewish, clearly her multiracial background helps her to imagine the struggles and the wry humor inherent in the life of an interfaith child. When this second novel won the 2003 Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction in England, there was some backlash against the way that Smith appropriated everything Jewish, from the Kabbalah to Lenny Bruce. One British critic called her use of Jewish material “essentially inauthentic.” But I found her use of Jewish characters and philosophy to be affectionate, relevant and ultimately insightful. From my point of view, Smith may not be Jewish, but she is “essentially authentic” as a voice for the intercultural.

Alex-Li Tandem identifies himself as a Jew, is educated as a Jew, and grows up with a motley crew of mainly Jewish friends (one of whom is black). In his late twenties, Alex-Li is still trying to make sense of the loss of his father, who died when Alex was twelve. He is alienated from Jewish practice, but one of his best friends is a rabbi, and another is a deeply spiritual student of the Kabbalah. His friends repeatedly rescue and try to help Alex as he takes psychedelic drugs, crashes his car and injures his girlfriend, gets repeatedly and profoundly drunk, and becomes involved with questionable, madcap business capers in his chosen profession as an autograph dealer. He is obsessed with getting the signature of an elderly and reclusive screen star named Kitty Alexander. Kitty is of Italian and Russian extraction, but “passed” for Chinese in her most famous movie.

One of Smith’s themes here is celebrity as a commodity–a theme she evidently needs to work out after experiencing life as a celebrity since the publication of her first novel. A more profound theme is tikkun olam–repairing our broken world. Alex is still working through his father’s death, trying to heal this broken part of himself, but in the process he goes crashing through his life, damaging those around him. Alex may be a bit old to be coming of age, but his behavior is annoyingly reckless and immature through most of the novel.

And yet, I empathized with Alex, and could almost understand the patience of his long-suffering friends and girlfriend. Smith’s language, funny and tremendously clever, pulls the reader through a series of rather implausible plot turns. Almost all of the characters here are blessed with great comic timing, erudite word play, and a hip sensibility (even while Smith describes them as essentially a bunch of nerds and geeks).

But the most relevant quality of The Autograph Man, for me, was the insight Smith has into the state of dual identity, and into how this effects Alex’s ambivalent relationship with Judaism. Smith tells us that Alex’s “instinct was to detest grouping of all kinds–social, racial, national or political; he had never joined so much as a swimming club.” Many intercultural children, whether we are interfaith or mixed race, will recognize this allergy to grouping (especially when we cannot choose our own group) and to clubs (which by definition exclude). While Smith’s second novel may have disappointed some fans of White Teeth, it is essential reading for her insights into the reality that more and more of us are living, as children of more than one culture.

Susan Katz Miller is an “interfaith child” and a former Newsweek reporter living in the Washington, DC area. She is writing a book on raising interfaith children.


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