Book Review: Autograph Man; An Elusive, Whimsical Autograph

Zadie Smith. The Autograph Man. Random House, 2003.

Zadie Smith’s first novel, ”White Teeth” (2000), was one of the most remarkable debuts in recent years: a riotous multicultural drama that spanned some 150 years of history and that proved to be as entertaining as it was ambitious.

A tale of two World War II veterans (an unassuming Englishman and his best friend, a Bengali Muslim) and their highly dysfunctional families, the novel began as a rollicking, often hilarious romp through the streets of London and opened out into provocative meditation on personal and public history, on immigration, exile, postcolonialism, roots and rootlessness, and the contradictory yearnings for freedom and connection. In short, a stunning novel that attested to its 24-year-old author’s astonishing storytelling gifts and narrative reach.

Ms. Smith’s latest novel, ”The Autograph Man,” is similarly ambitious — in this case tackling such sprawling themes as the consequences of fame, the hunger for religious faith, the tension between the symbolic and the mundane — but it’s a flat-footed, grudging performance. Dour where ”White Teeth” was exuberant; abstract and pompous where ”White Teeth” was brightly satiric; tight and preachy where ”White Teeth” was expansive.

The plot, involving the half-Chinese, half-Jewish hero’s quest for an elusive autograph, manages to be simultaneously schematic and messy, propelling its protagonist on willfully whimsical adventures, including encounters with a midget rabbi, a black hooker seemingly modeled on Divine Brown (the call girl who achieved fleeting celebrity with the actor Hugh Grant) and a teenage superstar who bears more than a passing resemblance to Britney Spears.

In ”White Teeth” Ms. Smith discovered an idiosyncratic voice entirely her own that enabled her to satirize her characters’ vanities and self-delusions while at the same time sympathetically limning their inner lives. This time around, however, she has opted for a more detached approach, and her characters feel papery thin; there is nothing immediately palpable about the texture of their day-to-day lives or the geography of their souls. Instead, they often seem like collections of attributes and eccentricities: representative figures (standing for things like faith, narcissism or family devotion) rather than multifarious individuals. Mountjoy, the London suburb where they live, a place where people have ”based their lives on the principle of compromise,” similarly suffers from a fuzzy, generic quality.

The book’s hero, Alex-Li Tandem, lacks the charm, bravado and vulnerability of the people in ”White Teeth,” and he turns out to be too much of an annoying sourpuss to sustain this lengthy bildungsroman. A 27-year-old ”autograph man” and perpetual adolescent, he has turned his teenage hobby of collecting celebrity signatures into a thriving business, but he lives in a limbo of self-absorption.

He cheats on his longtime girlfriend, Esther, fails to show up at the hospital when she is having an operation and exasperates his devoted friends. ”Not everything in the world has to turn into the Tandem road show,” his friend Adam says. ”You are not the world. There are other people in this film we call life.” Alex, however, thinks of himself as ”the greatest, most famous person you never heard of,” a personage who must ”defend himself from both slander and obscurity.”

Since he was 13, shortly after his father died prematurely, Alex has been obsessed with obtaining the autograph of his idol, Kitty Alexander, an old-time movie star, as beautiful and elusive as Garbo. For years he has been sending a weekly letter to her fan club in New York, but while he has never received a response, he persists in his quest for this, his holy grail.

Then, miraculously, one day after a very bad acid trip, Alex finds himself in possession of a Kitty Alexander autograph. His friends suspect that he has forged the signature, that his obsession has turned to delusion. They intend to deal with the situation with an extreme application of ”tough love,” while Alex, meantime, plans a trip to New York to try to meet Kitty, a trip that succeeds beyond his wildest expectations and turns him briefly into a celebrity himself.

As in ”White Teeth,” the narrative of this novel depends heavily on the long-term interactions of the characters’ friends and family members, but in this case Alex and company fail to support the weight of Ms. Smith’s languorous story. Alex not only tries our patience with his selfishness and self-pity, but the people around him are too sketchily or too briefly drawn to provide emotional ballast. His late and adored father clearly has left a hole in Alex’s heart, which he presumably has been trying to fill by collecting other people’s signatures, but after an appearance in the book’s splendid but all too short prologue, Dad largely vanishes from the narrative.

And while Alex’s old friends, who are constantly goading him to grow up, are a potentially engaging crew, they are accorded little onstage time. There’s Adam, a ”fat weird freak black Jew kid” who ”lurched from one ill-fitting ‘identity’ to another every summer going through hippiedom, grunge, gangsta lite, various roots-isms” before finding God in the mysteries of the cabala. There’s Joseph, who first turned Alex onto autograph collecting and has a dreary job with an insurance firm. And there’s Rubinfine, who became a rabbi, just as his father wanted, less out of a sense of religious calling than because he ”was simply, and honestly, a fan of the people he had come from.”

As for the weighty ideas and themes that these characters and the rickety plot of ”The Autograph Man” are supposed to support, they are delineated with none of the verve that the author displayed in ”White Teeth.” Religious debates take the form of Alex’s mechanically trying to divide the world into things goyish and things Jewish (he considers the stapler and the pen holder Jewish, and the paper clip and the mouse pad goyish) and dense, enigmatic exchanges in which people say things like ”beauty, real beauty, is the realization of the divine on earth” or ”we fear each other as symbols of one thing or another.” The meditations on fame and its limitations are thoroughly clichéd, and its ruminations about mortality and grief feel oddly secondhand.

Perhaps ”The Autograph Man,” with its insistent perusal of celebrity, was a kind of response by Ms. Smith to the sudden renown she achieved with ”White Teeth,” a book that instantly put her on the literary map. Unfortunately this new novel is a pokey, pallid successor and a poor testament to its author’s copious talents.


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