The AUTOGRAPH MAN
By Zadie Smith.
347 pp. New York:
Random House. $24.95.
Reading Zadie Smith’s gloriously undisciplined first novel, ”White Teeth,” was like going to a rip-roaring party where you met so many great people it didn’t matter that at 4 a.m. the beer suddenly ran out — and some drunk knocked over the stereo. Before crashing to earth with its abrupt, tie-everything-together-in-knots ending, Smith’s comic novel, published in 2000, soared higher than any other fiction debut had in years.
The narrative strategy of ”White Teeth” was one of compulsive character generation. A hilarious overture about the bungled suicide attempt of Archie Jones (a charmingly defeatist doofus who suggested a British Homer Simpson) flowed into a satirical sketch of Archie’s Jamaican bride, Clara Bowden, a Jehovah’s Witness desperate to flee the family cult; this riff then prompted a wicked digression about Clara’s cockney ex-boyfriend, Ryan Topps, a self-styled rebel whose scooter, alas, ”didn’t do more than 22 m.p.h. downhill.” And that was just the opening pages.
So what if she lacked a plot? Smith simply kept on going, crowding her stage with resentful Bangladeshi waiters, smug Jewish geneticists, adulterous music teachers, self-doubting Muslim separatists. All of these inventions were amusing; some were among the wittiest caricatures since Dickens. Moreover, because the novel’s true subject was the improvised patchwork of North London, its sprawling structure became an accidental virtue. ”White Teeth” wandered all over — but in so doing, it brilliantly captured a sense of place.
The novel made Smith deservedly famous. Even she knew, though, that ”White Teeth” lacked the shape of a masterpiece. She publicly disowned her firstborn, calling it the ”literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing 10-year-old.” Now the 26-year-old author has delivered a slimmer follow-up, ”The Autograph Man,” that offers a corrective to the excesses of her debut. It may be, however, that Zadie Smith wasn’t meant to behave. ”The Autograph Man” is more entertaining than lots of novels, but it doesn’t come close to the divine mess of ”White Teeth.”
In an apparent effort to button down, Smith has settled on a clear protagonist: Alex-Li Tandem, a half-Jewish, half-Chinese (and half-depressed) autograph trader from North London. Smith even gives Alex a plot, an amiable quest narrative. Her 27-year-old hero travels to New York to look for Kitty Alexander — a reclusive 1950’s starlet who has finally mailed Alex her signature, after years of failed entreaties. Alex reveres Kitty’s old films; her frozen beauty is a ”sacred thing,” arousing deeper feelings than sex with his girlfriend, Esther.
His unusual ethnicity aside, Alex is a safe choice for a character. He is the prevailing stereotype of his generation, the pop-culture-addled trivialist. When not selling autographs on the Internet, Alex rents videos. (”You watch too many films is one of the great modern sentences,” Smith cleverly writes. ”It has in it a hint of understanding regarding what we were before and what we have become.”) The only unusual thing about Alex’s immersion in cinematic imagery is that it’s a deliberate emotional strategy — a way of suppressing grief for his dead father.
Tracking down Kitty breaks Alex out of his Hollywood prison. Kitty, it turns out, is no Norma Desmond, clinging to faded glories; she’s a sensible woman comfortable in her dying skin. Meeting her jolts Alex awake from his fantasies, inspiring a belated sense of engagement with the people around him.
It’s satisfying to witness Alex overcome his intimacy issues. Yet Smith can’t hide the fact that she’s spinning a rather pat tale about a self-absorbed man who, soon after his sperm count starts dwindling, realizes he wants to be ”in the world.” This is the same laddish parable Nick Hornby spent most of the last decade polishing.
Coming from Smith, this theme feels disappointingly myopic. After all, ”White Teeth” was the first book in ages by a 20-something novelist who didn’t write exclusively about mopey 20-somethings. It wasn’t solely the length of ”White Teeth” that evoked ”Middlemarch”; it was Smith’s understanding that young people are only part of the story. ”White Teeth” abounded in jaded, confused youths, but Smith wisely forced them to interact with older people who saw the world differently.
Perhaps that’s why ”The Autograph Man” feels so lightweight during its first half, in which Alex defends his celebrity obsession to his equally callow London friends. Most of these conversations simply float away, like the marijuana smoke often accompanying them. Smith tries to fill the emptiness of this chatter with jokes; explaining the laws of spliff-fueled dialogue, she drolly plays Moses: ”The one who is more stoned shall have the right — for the period during which he is more stoned — to tell the other man exactly what his problem is.”
If only these exchanges were so direct. In one typical chapter, Alex spars with Adam, a friend fascinated by cabala, the Jewish mystical tradition. Between tokes, Adam intones murky slogans: ”The godhead is incomplete. He needs us.” Alex is unimpressed: ”That’s a big job, my friend.” Adam rightly criticizes Alex as shallow, but he’s not exactly on a higher plane; whereas Alex seeks transcendence in a celebrity’s inky scrawl, Adam hunts for ”shards” of God in ”six chosen letters” culled from the Torah. Both are fixated on symbols. This comparison is interesting, but Smith fails to develop the idea. Adam remains a static quote machine, and Alex never truly listens to him.
The book springs to life, however, when Alex arrives in New York. Smith clearly relishes focusing her eye on a fresh city. An analysis of the symbiotic relationship between Poles and Brooklyn hipsters is hilarious. And she expertly deadpans that a gentrified Manhattan hotel looks ”dazed at its own sudden respectability, like a dissolute grandfather forced into a suit and dragged to a wedding.”
The novel’s best moment describes Alex and Kitty sharing a quiet Brooklyn evening soon after meeting. An intimate exchange between young and old, it’s like watching Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz curl up and chat over coffee. Together they watch a video of Kitty’s 1952 film, ”The Girl From Peking”; Alex sees magic, but his idol sees a silly movie. ”I look as Chinese as my shoe,” she concludes. Refreshingly, Alex pays attention to Kitty’s observations, and Smith subtly charts his transformation from fan to friend.
Such connections are rare in this novel. Whereas ”White Teeth” expressed an almost naïve confidence that people from different backgrounds could communicate, ”The Autograph Man” is too often cynical. Although Smith clearly loves pop culture herself — she spiritedly alludes
to ”Poltergeist,” ”Star Wars,” Hugh Grant’s sex scandal — she mocks her characters for being brainwashed by it. ”Men who don’t want to go home go to a bar,” Smith writes. ”Alex knew this because he’d seen it in the films.” Alex’s friends parrot ”awful movie phrasings.” (A character relaxing in a limousine exults, ”Ah, this is the life.”) And they rehash shopworn ”International Gestures,” from the ”Jewish shrug” to the ”meaningful look.” It’s troubling to see a writer whose first novel taxonomized a dazzling array of humankind portray her characters as homogenized drones.
Some readers may attribute this shift to Smith’s unexpected fame — as if she were the literary equivalent of Madonna, whining about the oppressiveness of stardom. That’s unfair. As the devout Muslims (and devout scientists) of ”White Teeth” proved, Smith is genuinely attracted to true believers. The problem is that celebrity worship is harder to take seriously. Although Smith strains to do so — Alex, she writes, finds Kitty’s projected image as wondrous as ”the stained-glass window in a church” — she understandably can’t hide her contempt. Next time, she’d be better off dwelling on characters whose preoccupations elicit more respect.
If ”The Autograph Man” ultimately sinks, it is nearly saved by Smith’s buoyant prose. In ”White Teeth,” a character describes Archie’s daughter Irie as someone who ”swallowed an encyclopedia and a gutter at the same time.” That’s an apt description of Smith’s own voice, one still audible in ”The Autograph Man.” Nowadays, she laments, someone in mourning is likely to be tagged with ”Excessive Grief Syndrome.” With slangy brutality, she renames death ”the infinity slap.” But Smith can do more than make wisecracks. In one sentence, she sums up the sadness Alex and his mother still feel over his father’s passing: ”Every time they met, they felt it afresh, as if they had planned a picnic, Alex arriving with all the cutlery, Sarah with the mackintosh squares — where was the food?” This is a writer who can still tap-dance; she just needs to find her rhythm again.
Daniel Zalewski is an editor at The New York Times Magazine.