Autograph Man Paperback – Feb 3 2004
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In her second novel, The Autograph Man, Zadie Smith has set herself the unenviable task of following up a certain segment of recent literary history. Her first novel, the bestselling, award-laden and much-hyped White Teeth wore its ambitions lightly: an exuberant comic foray into the lives of three disparate families living in suburban north London, it dealt simultaneously--and deftly--with wider multicultural and political motifs.
The Autograph Man has a similar ebullience and an equally dazzling panoply of characters. Its hero Alex Li-Tandem is "one of this generation who watch themselves", a Chinese-Jewish north Londoner who is first introduced as a child accompanying his father to a wrestling match between those two larger-than-life scions of 1970s Saturday afternoon television--Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. When Alex's father dies in the pandemonium surrounding the pursuit of Big Daddy's autograph, the twin themes of the novel are launched--one is the bereaved Alex's search for a replacement to fill the gulf, the other his obsession with tracking down, buying and selling autographs. Alex seeks one autograph in particular and seemingly in vain--that of Kitty Alexander, a fading film star. The route he follows in his search has much to say about the nature of celebrity and the privacy of souls, of fantasy and reality--all narrated in Smith's breathless prose.
The Autograph Man plays on many strands and clever observations--in particular Jewishness, goyishness and Zen Buddhism. Smith is a superbly assured writer whose images stick in the mind; for example, Alex's girlfriend Esther has "hair plaited like a puzzle". The dialogue is vivid and there is much humour but at times the convoluted plot threatens to spill over into anarchy and the humour can be self-conscious. Though this does not diminish the entertainment value of The Autograph Man, it does--frustratingly--make it appear insincere. --Catherine Taylor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
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.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Alex, the main character, is written with all the years of pain and confusion and neediness that comes with losing a loved one. And his friends, the other brilliant characters in this book, revolve around him as satellites, all trying to help in their own way. Captivating from the start, if you liked White Teeth, you should definitely read The Autograph Man.
Fast-forward nearly 30 years, and the 4 boys are still friends. Joseph has gone into insurance sales, but Alex is now a professional "autograph man", selling people's scribbles for money. He has a 10-year relationship with Adam's younger ill sister esther (she had a pacemaker implanted as a child) and the elusive goal of procuring the autograph of the reclusive American movie star of the 1940s, Kitty Alexander. Alex also has head problems and drug problems that lead him to wreck his own car.
As Alex messes, then rights, his own life, it becomes evident that this search for an autograph is really to distract him from other things in his life. The book is captivating with its multiracial cast in modern London, all with the problems of most people and none of the Bridget Jones clones. It is refreshing to read this, it is a work of substance.
(1) Alex Li-Tandem's character wasn't developed enough, to even make the reader care about his trail of destruction.
(2)The book simply wasn't humerous, and I expected humor, after reading White Teeth which I loved.
I know Smith is coping and trying deal with the themes of celebrity in her sophomore novel, but she she has come up short with the Autograph Man.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
It's not good. In fact, it's pretty bad. If you wanted a textbook example of the literary sophomore slump, here it is. The story concerns Alex-Li Tandem, a half-Chinese, half-Jewish (Tandem... get it?) dealer in autographs. The main plotline concerns his obsession with the fictitious old film star Kitty Alexander and with obtaining one of her ultra-rare autographs. The central theme, however, concerns Alex's inability to ever deal with the sudden death of his father. This death occurs in the excellent prologue, which forms the first tenth of the book and is really the only part worth reading. Covering Alex's childhood visit to a wrestling match at Albert Hall, complete with interesting digression into the venue's history, this section would have made an excellent standalone short story.
Alas, it is followed by 300+ pages of muddled prose populated by characters that are dreadfully flat and uninteresting. Alex is whiny loser, who is unable to connect with the people around him, seeking solace in the bottle, or in his obsession for autographs. He's not particularly likeable (not that this is a prerequisite of good fiction), but no matter how awfully he acts toward them, his friends and acquaintances (everyone he meets in the book, really), are incredibly (in the strictest sense of the word) tolerant and forgiving of him. The reader is given no glimpse whatsoever of what might make Alex worth having as a friend, much less the long-term boyfriend of one gorgeous woman and the occasional lover of another gorgeous woman. None of the supporting cast is written with any distinction, although there are momentary flashes of interest to be had from the legendary prostitute Honey Richardson, fellow autograph men Lovelear and Dove, and most of all, the thug turned milkman.
The story mostly follows Alex's attempt to locate Kitty Alexander, while a parallel story concerns the plans for some kind of Jewish mourning rite for his father. The first offers Smith the chance to try to make some points about celebrity. But this is never explored with any depth or from a new angle, and there are already scores of books which have done this much much better. The second plotline allows Smith to try and say something about religion, or more specifically Judaism. Again, she never commits to this thematic line with any seriousness, and the result is a mish-mash of Kabbalah, confusion over cultural identity, and semi-comic rabbis. Novels about Judaism are a dime a dozen, as are novels about the search for faith, and Smith has added nothing of interest to either realm. The result is a book that's shockingly dull, and written in an embarrassing self-consciously clever style which is rarely (if ever) as witty as Smith so painfully obviously intends it to be. This is an unfortunate work that reads as if Smith was locked in a windowless room, handed the merest shred of a premise, and then told she couldn't leave until she'd written 400 pages. As Alex-Li would say, "Ugh."
I have decided to sell it to a bargain book shop in the hope that someone can appreciate it more than I have.
After loving her first book, I was deeply hurt by this one. Nothing, absolutely nothing motivated me to continue reading this book and I have finished some real doorstops in my time.
Sorry Zadie but I just didn't like it at all.
The narrative framework of this novel appropriates philosophical systems from two traditions. The first half of the novel adopts the Kabbalistic tree of life, its ten sefirot or spheres. In case the too-obvious symbolism doesn't make an impact on you, Smith makes its patently simple by naming each chapter after each sefirah. If even that's too difficult, Smith provides several Kabbalistic diagrams, which look like they were photocopied from Madonna's notebook. Believe me, Smith's knowledge of Jewish philosophy is about as deep as the red-strings those Hollywood stars wear around their wrists.
The second half of the novel (highlighting the main character's Chineseness) derive its titles from the 'Riding the Bull' sketches, made famous in the west by beatnik Buddhists in the sixties. Following the same old mistake that Buddhism and 'Zen' are synonymous, our Chinese hero (who strangely uses Japanese vocabulary to discuss religion) learns to transcend self, with a lot of slapstick along the way.
The split-framework is intended to highlight the divided heritage of the Chinese-Jewish main character, whose hybrid background allows for endless quips and innuendoes about purity and providence in determining one's political/racial identity. On this theme, Smith is glib rather than insightful. This to me is the most disappointing part of the work: considering the heated debate about intermarriage in Jewish culture, and considering the authoritarian ways that Han Chinese maintain their ethnic dominance in China, and considering that mixed race is a natural, intriguing reality of human evolution . . . there's potential here for some really insightful studies about how collective identities aren't all they're supposed to be. Smith takes the easy route of the comedy of manners, however, and leaves little lasting and rewarding by doing so.
Secularists will no doubt delight at the many jokes made at religion's expense. I enjoy funny humour as well, even if it means taking down spiritual pretensions a few notches. But it's clear Smith's understanding of both Judaism and Chinese culture are woefully superficial. Call it the zeitgeist of the 21st century, but now people feel confident in appropriating thousand year old philosophies after a couple of Google searches. It's embarrassing gimcrack. Smith won't get into trouble for it . . . not many can be bothered to call her bluff, and mimicry now readily passes for authenticity . . . or maybe people just don't care anymore. Perhaps these novels seek to show that tradition is, really , fragmented to pieces -- and all that's left is us is to use the shards as punchlines. But I still think it's silly. I. B. Singer, who actually had a command of this stuff, brilliantly wove humour and piety together -- substantially and memorably. Smith's Judaism reads like a Seinfeld skit. The 'Zen' stuff reads the same way. Flimsy, fluttering, forgettable.
The comedy keeps coming, however. Our hero likes to collect autographs, and he enjoys sex, so you can see where that'll end up. Each autograph he collects links to an aspect of the Kabbalah. Again, if you weren't clever enough to detect that, Smith provides a handy chart on the inside cover so you can appreciate how brilliant the overall design is. And so he collects more autographs, and has more funny moments about his Chineseness, etc, etc. The missing crown of Kether relates to the dead father of the protagonist. It's easier to collect pen scratches of the famous than to connect to our flesh and blood. OH, I GET IT. THANKS.
NOTE: Three books which, in a far more informed and ingenious way, used puzzle-like structures to enhance plot mechanics:
Milorad Pavic: 'Landscape Painted with Tea': based on crossword puzzles.
Arturo Perez-Reverte: 'The Flanders Panel': based on a visual art piece as well as chess. BRILLIANTLY DONE.
Pearl Abraham: 'The Seventh Beggar': based on an allegory by R. Nachman of Breslov. Here, actually knowing a lot about the Jewish faith and its customs makes all the difference.
Compared to these works, this book read like a last-minute science project, put together in haste with minimal research.
As a final note of sincere caution, and some of you might know where I'm coming from on this: Smith liberally uses the Hebrew name of ha-Shem throughout this work in casual and haphazard ways. Don't take the book into the toilet with you, if you know what I mean. Most Jews won't raise a fuss about this rather cheap and lame experiment with Hebrew fonts; Smith can be grateful that she didn't riff on certain other religions, who get very upset if you use their sacred name for God so casually.
The opening is spectacular, a superlatively funny and sad miniature that taken as short story far outshines the long novel that follows -- exactly the sort of leap forward one might hope for from the author of White Teeth.
Unfortunately, then comes the rest of the book, focused on Alex-Li, a boy in the prologue, now an aimless young man. The novel seems to intend itself as a comedy of self-loathing: Alex and his friends are cinema-addled, emotionally stunted boy-men incapable of separating media fiction from reality, of connecting to flesh and blood women. While not particularly original, this is a vein that's been successfully mined for decades, and there's plenty of peculiar color in the worlds of autograph men and multicultural British Judaism.
The problem, finally, seems to be that the author identifies not with Alex, but with the put-upon (and predominantly off-stage) women in his life. So the tone is not one of self-loathing, but just, well, loathing. The hectoring feel of the narrative collapses our sympathy for Alex. He's presented as a big loser, no more no less. Eventually we cease to care about him, and all the jokes in the world can't help that.
By it's end, the novel disintegrates into pure, frantic farce -- a big disappointment from such a distinctive writer -- but it won't stop me from reading the next one.
So I go to the Bookstore on the day of the Autograph Man's release here in North America and wait for 10 minutes before they open (Okay, I was desperate!), grab the book and start reading it. The Prologue holds amazing promise. I'm delighted. Then the first chapter starts, then the next, then the next...and pretty soon, I'm forced to wonder if Smith didn't get someone else to write for her. I had to stop to scratch my head and wonder just what the hell had happened? The characters weren't even cardboard thick-I didn't give a damn about them throughout the whole thing. Then there's this really boring plot which is not as funny as Smith promised us("It's funnier than White Teeth!")and frankly, it doesn't really go anywhere - although they do travel to NY but you know what I mean.
The thing isn't so much that I'm angry at her - no, I'm more disheartened than anything else. Because when you pick up a book in the intent of savouring and enjoying it late at night on a stormy night or something, you get really disheartened when you sadly realized it's not what you thought it was.
Now, for all those who haven't read it yet, please don't be shaking your heads thinking, poor guy, he put her on too high a pedestal, because that is NOT the case. I actually read about 12 reviews before it was available, and I'd say about 10 of them were negative, yet I failed to be stopped in my mission to read her new novel as quick as I could. And no, I'm also not complaining because its the norm to hate a second novel by a sensational new author. What it comes down to is this: I really wouldn't recommend it to anyone else, and although I probably will read her next novel, I'll approach it with caution.
One more thing: Only the Prologue's worth reading...so if you want to read it, read the Prologue and throw out the rest.