From the Publisher
“Intelligent. . . . exquisitely clever. . . . an ironic commentary about fame, mortality, and the triumph of image over reality.” —The Boston Globe
“The same bracing intelligence and salty humor that distinguished her debut. . . . Smith scatters marvelous sentences and sharp insights on nearly every page.” —LA Times
“A lovely surprise. Zadie Smith . . . has come out with a second book that is actually better than its predecessor: its dialog funnier, its language even more plugged in, more wired.” —Esquire
“A preternaturally gifted . . . writer [with] a voice that’s street-smart and learned, sassy and philosophical all at the same time.” –The New York Times
“Savvy, witty and exuberant.” –New York Daily News
“Smith is young and smart, and . . . she proves to be an amazingly gifted writer.” –Washington Post Book World
“Smith writes sharp dialogue for every age and race–and she’s funny as hell.” –Newsweek
“[Zadie Smith] possesses a more than ordinary share of talent.” –USA Today
“Absolutely delightful.” –Alan Cheuse, Chicago Tribune
“Smith’s clever, aphoristic observations and snappy dialogue are so delightful they tend to become addictive. . . . [The Autograph Man is] always entertaining.” –Elle
The Barnes & Noble Review
After a remarkable debut with White Teeth, Zadie Smith returns with an equally remarkable novel that reaffirms her talent, intelligence, and impressive literary range.
The eponymous Autograph Man is Alex Li-Tandem, an Anglo-Chinese Jew obsessed with the "Jewish/Goyish" dichotomy he sees everywhere around him. We first encounter Alex at age 13, attending a wrestling match with his father, Li-Jin, and discovering the arcane world of the autograph collector. Shortly afterward, Li-Jin dies from a wildly metastasizing brain tumor. Both events exert a powerful influence on Alex.
Fifteen years later, Alex is a professional autograph collector, leading a disorderly existence in the London suburb of Mountjoy. He's still haunted by Li-Jin's death, is perversely unfaithful to his girlfriend, and is obsessed with a retired, largely forgotten B-movie actress named Kitty Alexander. Convinced that he carries the same lethal cancer gene that killed is father, he stumbles through the "broken world" of contemporary London, collecting and selling celebrity autographs, which are to him potent symbols of a spurious immortality. Over the course of several hectic, drunken days, he travels to America, encounters the aging Kitty Alexander, makes a killing in the autograph market, and confronts his deepest feelings for his father.
The Autograph Man is stylish, witty, surprising, and erudite. Smith writes with wisdom, compassion, and uncommon grace about an odd corner of the world and the eccentric men and women who inhabit it, confirming her reputation as an original, highly observant writer with enormous gifts and virtually unlimited potential. Bill Sheehan
If The Autograph Man were Zadie Smith's first novel, it would likely win praise for being smart, funny and provocative, though perhaps overly familiar in its selection of subjectthe commodification of celebrity. Smith's tale of an autograph dealer named Alex-Li Tandem and his quest for the holy grail of signatures is both a breezy read and an ironic allegory on how celebrity has become a religion. Yet in comparison with Smith's 2000 debut novel, White Teeth, the multicultural, multigenerational epic that made such a deserved splash, her follow-up feels slight. If the order were reversed, The Autograph Man would be promising, and White Teeth would be a promise fulfilled. Even so, you couldn't flip-flop the thematic progression, because it was White Teeth that turned Smith into a literary supernova, and The Autograph Man is her meditation on that fame.
As grist for the journalistic mill, Smith arrived practically made to order: young (twenty-one when she wrote her first novel; twenty-four when it was published), gifted and multiracial, photogenic and outspoken. Reviews almost invariably compared her with Salman Rushdie (who loved White Teeth), as if any "outsider" author exploring London's ethnicities were a member of the same exotic tribe.
As in her first novel, Smith's panoply of indelibly crafted characters shows her ear for diverse dialect and her eye for the telling detail. The book invokes a litany of cross-cultural references that extend from religious mysticism (the novel's first half is framed as Lenny Bruce–inspired commentary on the Jewish Kabbalah; the second half deals in pop Zen) to one-liner takeoffs on Allen Ginsberg and Vladimir Nabokov. Thoughfolk poet Leonard Cohen plays a minor but pivotal role, the touchstone the novel recalls most stronglywhether consciously or notis Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, a book that similarly examines the existential malaise through a protagonist's tunnel-vision obsession.
"You watch too many films is one of the great modern sentences," writes Smith. "It has in it a hint of understanding regarding what we were before and what we have become. Of few people has it been more true than Alex-Li Tandem, Autograph Man extraordinaire."
Smith's protagonist is a twenty-seven-year-old London suburbanite who carries a business card that reads "Tandem Autographs: More Stars than the Solar System." Though he is the son of a Chinese surgeon who died young and a Jewish mother, Alex is Smith's English Everyman, his ethnicity more matter-of-fact than life-defining. It's no big thematic issue, for instance, that one of Alex's best friends (and the brother of his girlfriend) is "black as peat," or that another has become a wisecracking rabbi. In Smith's fictional world, the purebred WASP is the dinosaur of stereotypes.
Beyond a series of fairly static set pieces, from the philosophic to the slapstick, what little narrative momentum there is concerns Alex's pursuit of a rare autograph from a reclusive and fading film star, his relationship with his girlfriend as she recovers from a car accident that happened when Alex was driving while on hallucinogens and the attempts by a group of rabbis to have him mourn his dead father with the traditional Jewish Kaddish (his father wasn't Jewish, and Alex doesn't practice). It's no surprise that the novel fails to tie such disparate strands together, for Smith is less concerned with what Alex does than with what he thinks. And what he ponders incessantly is the pursuit of the celebrity autograph.
"Autograph collecting, as Alex is not the first to observe, shares much with woman-chasing and God-fearing," writes Smith. "A woman who gives up her treasure with too much frequency is not coveted by men. Likewise a god who makes himself manifest and his laws obvioussuch a god is not popular. Likewise a Ginger Rogers is not worth as much as one might imagine. This is because she signed everything she could get her hands on. She was easy. She was whorish. She gave what she had too freely. And now she is common, in the purest meaning of that word. Her value is judged accordingly."
Thus, Alex chooses to worship his inscrutable god in the form of the obscure American actress Kitty Alexander, whose signature would be worth thousands of dollars if only she ever deigned to sign. His pilgrimage eventually takes him to New York, where he teams up with a former celebrity prostitute named Honey Smith (whose notoriety echoes the Divine Brown–Hugh Grant incident and whose name suggests that of a certain novelist), who has become an autograph hound. She has a heart of gold and a germ phobia, though hating to be touched must have been a hazard in her previous occupation.
Alex has long recognized that "autographs are a small blip in the desire network." But what happens when he finds his every desire fulfilled? After spending his life feeding off celebrity, Alex becomes one, if only briefly and by association. From the other side of fame's great divide, he confirms what he had long suspected: "Groupies hate musicians. Moviegoers hate movie stars. Autograph Men hate celebrities. We love our gods. But we do not love our subjection."
In comparison with the deeper, broader truths of White Teeth, which turned Smith into a brand-name commodity, the author risks belaboring the obvious in her musings on celebrity and the ambivalence it elicits. It's as if White Teeth were such an all-encompassing triumph that she didn't want to risk repeating herself with a second novel of similar scope and scale. Smith remains a virtuosic master of voices, a stylist who can be both playful and profound, but here's hoping that the aftermath of her sophomore effort provides richer fodder for novel number three.
Smith's eagerly awaited second novel begins with a bang, but rapidly loses momentum, slipping from tragicomedy to rather overdetermined farce. The introductory set piece is panoramically sock-o in the best Martin Amis tradition, taking us from Doctor Li-Jin Tandem's outing with his son's friends to see a wrestling match in Albert Hall to his sudden death from a massive stroke. Fifteen years to the week later, Li-Jin's son, Alex, is being pressed by his friends, Adams Jacobs and Joseph Klein, to say Kaddish for his dad. Alex is an autograph trader and obsessive egotist. Over the course of the week, he wrecks his car on an acid trip, goes to New York in quest of the legendary retired actress Kitty Alexander, frees her from her mad manager (who promptly announces her death to the papers, thus inflating the value of her signature) and gets his girlfriend Esther, Adam's sister, angry enough that she suspends their relationship. Smith paints portraits of a very multiculti Judaism: Adam, for instance, is a black Jew, while Alex is a disbelieving Chinese one. Adam's kabbalistic interests are supposed to operate in Smith's text the way Homer's poem operated in Ulysses, giving it a mythic dimension, but the big theme of Jewishness feels tacked on, like a marquee advertising a former attraction. Smith's pen portraits of the shabby, yobbish autograph trading circle are intermittently funny, but her prose is so busy being clever that the laughter never builds. This is disappointing but, even with its faults, the novel points to a literary talent of a high order. (Oct. 8) Forecast: Smith's second novel should sell very well on the strength of her reputation alone, though it may not be the smash hit White Teeth was. Eight-city author tour. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Smith's spectacular and sprawling first novel, White Teeth, seemed to spring from a greater reservoir of life experience than any 24-year-old author could reasonably be expected to possess, so the release of this follow-up will be closely watched for signs that Smith is a spent force. She is not: The Autograph Man is, if anything, more knowing and assured than Smith's first work. It tells the story of a young half-Chinese, half-Jewish autograph trader named Alex-Li Tandem who achieves a trade-specific form of enlightenment by tracking down the reclusive aging actress Kitty Alexander, whose extremely rare signatures are the envy of collectors everywhere. However, Alex's journey is more spiritual than commercial, shaped by the Kabbalistic guidance of a black Jewish friend and leading to a reconciliation with Alex's deceased father. But if Jewish mysticism and the collectibles market don't entice you, not to worry: the novel's real pleasure lies in the masterfully crafted characters and the small insights that capture something so true of the world that they make the reader sit up in startled recognition. Recommended for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/02.]-Sean Rocha, New York Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
The follow-up to Smith's smashing debut success (White Teeth, 2000, film rights recently sold to Miramax) is an uneasy mix of Sunset Boulevard, J.P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man, and James McCourt's fey romantic comedies about dementedly self-absorbed beautiful people. The arresting, promising prologue describes a day trip to London's Royal Albert Hall to attend a pro wrestling match, undertaken by 12-year-old Alex-li Tandem (son of a Jewish mother and Chinese father) and two young friends-during which Alex-li meets a younger boy passionately devoted to autograph-collecting, and loses his father, a 30ish surgeon, to a heart attack. Alas, it's all downhill thereafter, as Smith zooms ahead to focus on her protagonist at age 27; his frustrated romantic relationship with a young woman (Esther), who's also cardiacally challenged; his search for religious certainty among the arcane minutiae of Jewishness, "Goyishness," and Zen Buddhism; and his career as a collector, "verifier," and marketer (and sometime forger) of celebrity autographs. The real love of Alex-li's insular life is reclusive former screen beauty Kitty Alexander, and the quest for her rare signature takes him to conventions and auctions, misadventures with a host of walk-on weirdos (a trio of rabbis, commenting like a Borscht-Belt Jewish Greek chorus; importunate celeb-hunter Brian Duchamp, and others too numerous-and arbitrarily bizarre-to mention); and a trip to New York City to attend an Autographicana Fair, following which "the most famous whore in the world" assists his discovery of the now-moribund Kitty, living in Norma Desmond-like seclusion, guarded with Cerberus-esque ferocity by her p.r. manager Max Krause. It's even lessappetizing than such summary sounds, because all the characters are brash, opinionated cartoons, and the loose texture is repeatedly stretched to accommodate interpolated jokes, faux parables, lists, diagrams, and whatnot. Shrill, labored, and boring. Unless this is actually Smith's first novel, it's a disappointing step backward.
Read an Excerpt
You’re either for me or against me, thought Alex-Li Tandem, referring to the daylight and, more generally, to the day. He stretched flat and made two fists. He was fully determined to lie right here until he was given something to work with, something noble, something fine. He saw no purpose in leaving his bed for a day that was against him from the get-go. He had tried it before; no good could come from it.
A moment later he was surprised to feel a flush of warm light dappled over him, filtered through a blind. Nonviolent light. This was encouraging. Compare and contrast with yesterday morning’s light, pettily fascist, cruel as the strip lighting in a hospital hallway. Or the morning before yesterday morning, when he had kept his eyes closed for the duration, afraid of whatever was causing that ominous red throb beneath the eyelids. Or the morning before that, the Morning of Doom, which no one could have supposed would continue for seventy-two hours.
NOW OPTIMISTIC, ALEX grabbed the bauble that must be twisted to open blinds. His fingers were too sweaty. He shuttled up the bed, dried his left hand on the wall, gripped and pulled. The rain had come in the night. It looked as if the Flood had passed through Mountjoy, scrubbed it clean. The whole place seemed to have undergone an act of accidental restoration. He could see brickwork, newly red-faced and streaky as after a good weep, balconies with their clean crop of wet white socks, shirts and sheets. Shiny black aerials. Oh, it was fine. Collected water had transformed every gutter, every depression in the pavement, into prism puddles. There were rainbows everywhere.
Alex took a minute to admire the gentle sun that kept its mildness even as it escaped a gray ceiling of cloud. On the horizon a spindly church steeple had been etched by a child over a skyline perfectly blue and flatly colored in. To the left of that sat the swollen cupola of a mosque, described with more skill. So people were off to see God, then, this morning. All of that was still happening. Alex smiled, weakly. He wished them well.
IN HIS BATHROOM, Alex was almost defeated by the discovery of a sequence of small tragedies. There was an awful smell. Receptacles had been missed. Stuff was not where stuff should be. Stepping over stuff, ignoring stuff, stoic Alex turned to the vanity mirror. He yanked it towards him by its metal neck until its squares became diamonds, parallelograms, one steel line. He had aged, terribly. The catch in his face, the one that held things up, this had been released. But how long was it since he had been a boy? A few days? A year? A decade? And now this?
He bared his teeth to the mirror. They were yellow. But on the plus side, they were there. He opened his Accidental eyes (Rubinfine’s term: halfway between Oriental and Occidental) wide as they would go and touched the tip of his nose to the cold glass. What was the damage? His eyes worked. Light didn’t hurt. Swallowing felt basic, uncomplicated. He was not shivering. He felt no crippling paranoia or muscular tremors. He seized his penis. He squeezed his cheeks. Present, correct. Everything was still where it appears in the textbooks. And it seemed unlikely that he would throw up, say, in the next four hours, something he had not been able to predict with any certainty for a long time. These were all wonderful, wonderful developments. Breathing heavily, Alex shaved off three days’ worth of growth (had it been three days?). Finishing up, he cut himself only twice and applied the sad twists of tissue.
Teeth done, Alex remembered the wear-and-tear deposit he had paid his landlord and shuffled back to the bedroom. He needed a cloth, but the kitchen was another country. Instead he took a pillowcase, dipped it in a glass of water and began to scrub at the handprint on the wall. Maybe it looked like art? Maybe it had a certain presence? He stepped back and looked at it, at the grubby yellow outline. Then he scrubbed some more. It didn’t look like art. It looked like someone had died in the room. Alex sat down on the corner of his bed and pressed his thumbs to his eyes to stop two ready tears. A little gasp escaped him. And what’s remarkable, he thought, what’s really amazing, is this, is how tiny the actual thing was in the first place. This thing that almost destroyed me. Two, no, maybe three days ago he had placed a pill on his tongue, like a tiny communion wafer. He’d left it there for ten seconds, as recommended, before swallowing. He had never done anything like this before. Nothing could have prepared him! Moons rose, suns fell, for days, for nights, all without him noticing!
Legal name: Microdot. Street name: Superstar. For a time it had made itself famous all through his body. And now it was over.