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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.
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.