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Alex-Li Tandem sells autographs. His business is to hunt for names on paper, collect them, sell them, and occasionally fake them—all to give the people what they want: a little piece of Fame. But what does Alex want? Only the return of his father, the end of religion, something for his headache, three different girls, infinite grace, and the rare autograph of forties movie actress Kitty Alexander. With fries.
The Autograph Man is a deeply funny existential tour around the hollow trappings of modernity: celebrity, cinema, and the ugly triumph of symbol over experience. It offers further proof that Zadie Smith is one of the most staggeringly talented writers of her generation.
About the Author
Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW and Swing Time, as well as a novella, The Embassy of Cambodia, and a collection of essays, Changing My Mind. She is also the editor of The Book of Other People. Zadie was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002, and was listed as one of Granta's 20 Best Young British Novelists in 2003 and again in 2013. White Teeth won multiple literary awards including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian First Book Award. On Beauty was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for Fiction, and NW was shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. Zadie Smith is currently a tenured professor of fiction at New York University and a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Date of Birth:October 27, 1975
Place of Birth:Willesden, London, England
Education:B.A. in English, King's College at Cambridge University, 1998
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.
Reading Group Guide
“Intelligent. . . . Exquisitely clever. . . . An ironic commentary about fame, mortality, and the triumph of image over reality.” —The Boston Globe
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Autograph Man, Zadie Smith’s remarkable novel about life, death, and the search for the ultimate signature.
1. The text of The Autograph Man is interrupted by drawings, unusual typography, diagrams, lists, boxed jokes, and other features not normally found in novels. What do these add to the story? How do they change the texture of the book? What do they indicate about Zadie Smith’s attitude toward her story and toward the conventions of the literary novel?
2. What emotional impact does his father’s death have on Alex Li-Tandem? In what ways does it determine much of what he does and does not do during the rest of the novel? Does he achieve an acceptance of his father’s death and undergo any sort of healing process by the end of the story?
3. Brian Duchamp tells Alex, “Women are the answer. They are. If you’ll only let them into the story. Women. They are the answer” [p. 144]. Why does he say this to Alex? Is he right? In what sense do women turn out to be “the answer” for Alex?
4. When Kitty Alexander discovers that Alex is the author of the letters she has found so moving, she says, “it worries me that you write these. Why did you write? You are really too young even to remember my last film, no matter my first…. There is no girlfriend, or she is not effective. There is a lack somewhere. I think this must be true” [p. 240]. Why does Alex write so many letters to Kitty? Why is he so fixated on her? Is Kitty right in pointing to Alex’s less than happy love life as a reason?
5. Throughout the novel, Alex and other characters make international gestures for any number of things, from “He’s crazy” to “shut up,” and usually these have a comic effect. But near the end of the novel, when Alex suggests that the Kaddish ceremony is “nothing more [than] a gesture,” Adam asks: “What’s more important than a gesture?” [p. 340]. In what ways are gestures both comic and seriously communicative in the novel? In what ways are they significant?
6. Alex grows hysterical observing autograph collectors at the convention in New York. “As if the world could be saved this way! As if impermanence were not the golden rule! And can I get Death’s autograph, too? Have you got a plastic sheath for that, Mr. Autograph Man?” [p. 207]. What function does collecting and selling autographs serve for Alex?
7. When Honey and Alex find Kitty’s apartment, Alex thinks it’s too easy. “This just doesn’t happen that I want something and then it’s just there. With no effort,” to which Honey replies, “Baby, that’s exactly how it happens.” Later she adds, “The plan is no plan.” [p. 226]. Is Honey the most “Zen” character in The Autograph Man? Why would Zadie Smith make a prostitute perhaps the wisest figure in the book?
8. The Autograph Man doesn’t have a conventional plot, where unfolding actions drive the narrative. What elements create and sustain the reader’s interest in the absence of a strongly defined plot? Can The Autograph Man be considered a postmodern fiction?
9. What kinds of relationships does Alex have with his friends? With Esther? What do they all, at one point or another, try to tell him about himself?
10. What does The Autograph Man suggest about the role that race, ethnicity, and religion play in shaping personal identity? To what extent do the characters in the novel define themselves along these lines?
11. When Alex fills out the hotel questionnaire, he offers a pithy, one sentence summary of his philosophy of life: “Regret everything and always live in the past” [p. 247]. Is he merely joking, or does this statement reflect the way he sees and lives his life?
12. Why is Alex writing a book that divides the world and everything in it into the categories of Jewish and Goyish? How do his friends regard this endeavor?
13. During a fierce argument near the end of the book, Alex says to Esther, “it’s like you think I have, like, the morals of a sewer rat, or something,” to which Esther replies, “Let’s not talk about morals. Let’s not do that” [p. 331]. What is the cause of Alex’s shabby behavior towards Esther? Is it a moral issue?
14. In what ways can the novel, as a whole, be read as a critique of modern western culture? How do the characters, in the way they live their lives, exemplify this critique?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Well-written but not as good as White Teeth. Besides Kitty Alexander, the book is full of apathy. Still worth the read for the literary value.
O.o My shocked face, for when I read something totally AMAZING!!!!!!! :3 ~Aero
In response to ellis grey- in a society of mediocracey, is clerverness really a bad thing? I have read this book, and It really is brilliantly written. Smith blends many genres, and references clasics such as Ulysses and Sunset Boulevard seemlessly, creating a very round and dynamic set of characters and plot. Not only is this book extremely intellectual, it manages to be such while also being completly amusing and heart-changing, bypassing the snobishness that usually follows an intellectual read. i whole-heartedly suggest this to anyone looking for an original read.
I really liked how Ms. Smith has incorporated all these different kinds of races and characters into her books. I have also read White Teeth, and I actually like this book a bit better than the first. I suppose because it was a shorter and much easier to digest in a reading session. It was funny in some places and the first page that was cited - about how some things are Jewish and some Goyish - hilarious. I commend her writing and I hope to read more of her books in the near future.
this book reminds me of theavocadopapers -- for all the attention that that website has gotten recently, most of that attention doesn't focus on what reviews of smith's new book have also not focused on: for the first twenty or so pages, you're like "what the..." then things start to come together. totally original, completely subversive (and yet you're aware in some way of being subverted, and you don't mind), mind-bending (but it's not painful), and perhaps all, wholly engrossing. I'd have given it five stars, but for the fact that smith hasn't yet figured out that she doesn't need to hide behind quite so much "cleverness."