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Autograph Man [Paperback]

Zadie Smith
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Zadie Smith's first book, White Teeth, published to international acclaim two years ago, was a sprawling, multigenerational, multicultural, lively, and frequently brilliant comic novel about modern London. The novel began with a bold stride, began to stumble about midway through, then fell flat on its face at the end. I read the first half of that novel grinding my teeth with envy. In Archie Jones, the despairing yob ("A man whose pleasures were English breakfasts and DIY. A dull man, an old man. And yet … good."), and his endlessly tested, endlessly tempted friend, Samad Iqbal, Smith had brought forth two characters with bottomless comic potential. The absurdly inflated shape of Smith's narrative was on loan from Salman Rushdie, the Oxford-wiseass prose style from Martin Amis, but that's of little consequence with a new writer—Rushdie and Amis themselves owe their early books to Gunter Grass and Kingsley Amis, respectively. Anyway, no great writer's first book has ever been perfect, just look at Joyce (Chamber Music), Nabokov (Mary), or Larkin (The North Sea), three more deities in Smith's literary universe. You write your first book so that you can write your second. What was important was Smith's verve, ambition and undeniable skill, all of which made the novel's slow descent into dull, didactic farce all the more frustrating. By the time White Teeth dragged itself to its ridiculous, self-immolating climax, I was disappointed but not disillusioned—Zadie Smith is a very good writer, I thought, and it won't be long before she writes a great book.
I still feel that way, but The Autograph Man (doomed to be called Smith's "follow-up" novel) isn't it. This is a novel primarily concerned with the search for the authentic in a world dominated by the artificialities of image, celebrity, and pop culture. If your eyes started to roll during that last sentence, it gets worse. Imagine a novel in which the main character, Alex-Li Tandem, is a twenty-something, half-Chinese, half-Jewish autograph collector whose father fell over dead while twelve-year-old Alex-Li was off trying to get a wrestler's autograph. This same bi-cultural autograph man is obsessed with a reclusive, 50's film starlet named Kitty Alexander, whose greatest film was The Girl From Peking, in which the young Russian actress plays a poor Chinese girl who comes to America to become "the toast of Hollywood"—ironies upon ironies! Oh, and did I mention that Alex's best friend is a black pot-head who's into the mystical end of Judaism? Or that another friend is a reform rabbi with a thing for Harrison Ford? Or that Alex-Li is writing a book in which everything he can think of, under such headings as "Food", "Clothes", "The Nineteenth Century", and "The Lyrics of John Lennon", is divided into two categories, Jewish and Goyish. This comes from a famous extended riff by Lenny Bruce ("Balls are goyish. Titties are Jewish.") quoted at the front of The Autograph Man. Or that the novel is separated into two sections—"Mountjoy: The Kabbalah of Alex-Li Tandem" and "Roebling Heights: The Zen of Alex-Li Tandem". I probably shouldn't mention that before he died, Alex's father signed a pound note for his son and each of his friends—giving them autographs, in other words. Or that the novel takes place just before a very reluctant Alex is scheduled to say Kaddish for his father.
In the world of The Autograph Man, the two fundamentals are films and Jewishness; these are the primary colours used to paint everything—"the story of the [The Girl From Peking], essentially, was the progress from the picture on the right to the picture on the left. You had to read the video case backwards, like Hebrew." Alex's obsession with Kitty, then, is a yearning for a God. In case the point is missed, Kitty is described as being "as awkward and invisible as Jehovah. She was aloof. The public hated her for it." And again: "A man wavers against awe and rage at the very famous, as he does at the idea of God."
While The Autograph Man desperately piles on the ironies and poignancies, its central character does little more than slouch around, feeling ambivalent about everything. As a result, the novel manages to feel simultaneously manic and half-asleep. It also feels incredibly dated—it is baffling that Smith would choose such a hoary old bugbear as film to set against spirituality, especially since Walker Percy did the very same thing in his 1961 novel, The Moviegoer. Besides, television long ago surpassed Hollywood as the main medium of fame. Smith's vision of movie stars-as-gods is fairly obsolete. If many of us still look to celebrities as gods, we have become not merely pantheistic, but hylozoistic, making celebrity gods out of everybody. And no novel trying to make a point about fame this late in the day should be reduced to creakily invoking both Andy Warhol and Elvis Presley.
Like a grumpy old man, The Autograph Man is constantly pointing out how inauthentic everything has become—characters are always making the "International Gesture" for this-or-that. On the subway, three woman demonstrate "what three women having fun look like." Even the interiors of passenger jets are shown up as fraudulent—"Nothing on this plane has anything to do with flying, just as his desktop doesn't have anything to do with the processing of information. Pretty pretty pictures." Human behaviour and society has always been a mix of the authentic and the inauthentic, the "truth" and the "story"—for a self-absorbed, Holden Caulfield-esque character like Alex-Li to suddenly notice this is defensible, for a novel to do so is not. There is further small irony in getting lectured about this sort of thing by a book that reads uncannily like Money-era Martin Amis, attempting the same cross-Atlantic, ketchup-on-curry clash of America and Britain. Again, a new writer can be forgiven for showing her influences a little too clearly, but Smith will have to forge a voice and sensibility that is undeniably hers before she can go on at us about being inauthentic. Smith can do better than this. There is a profusion of good lines here—my favourite, when Alex-Li looks at his ageing face in the mirror: "The catch in his face, the one that held things up, this had been released."—but there is so much here that is simply beneath her, so many of the jokes and ideas (in a comic universe, jokes are ideas) are simply obvious and banal. And good lines don't add up to a good book. In fact they can easily add up to the opposite, something Smith is well aware of:

Aesthetic failures are failures of truth. They're untruthful to the souls of people. That's a bit wishy-washy language, but that's what we're dealing with. If you turn a joke because you just want to show how clever you are, and at the expense of that a character loses something, that's a lie. It's a metaphysical lie, it's an aesthetic lie, and it's a terrible mistake. (from an interview, 2002)

The very fact that she can point this out makes me hold out hope for Zadie Smith's next book.
Nathan Whitlock (Books in Canada) -- Books in Canada

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Most helpful customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Looking For Spirituality in All The Wrong Places Nov. 11 2002
By "tyuro"
Format:Paperback
Zadie Smith's latest is a subpar Coupland-ish tale of a young man avoiding relationships and meaningful spiritual fulfillment through frivolous pursuits and binge drinking - sort of like most mid-twenty-somethings. There are a few good moments and a few witty lines in the book, but ultimately the tale just doesn't have much ooomph. Coupland's last book just came out in paperback and it's a better read. If you can get your hands on a copy of Dave Eggers latest book it's even better. If you are interested in young voices and you've already read those, you might still want to check out this quick read.
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Amazon.com: 2.5 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars very fractured Oct. 16 2005
By maryzeus - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Audio Cassette
After reading 50 pages and restarting every so often in case I missed something prior, I gave up. Makes no sense, no connection, seems to be just a series of rambling unrelated phrases, sentences. I hope to read "White Teeth" and hope it will be more interesting.
4.0 out of 5 stars The quest for the holy Grail Oct. 22 2004
By Matko Vladanovic - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Audio Cassette
What is wrong or good with this book. What are the relations between main character, what is the main plot, or any of the other subplots, what is that that Zadie smith is trying to do. Questions, which vary in answers. Depending on the viewpoint of person who writes them. I'll do my best to try and summarise it shortly. Alex Li-Tandem, jew and chinese in same person. Weehaw, that, you could think, presents an excellent starting point for a story about hate, rasisim, justice that is no justice at all and standard post-modern pro-cultural prose. But, what we actually find here is, I do not know how to phraze it, but something which bears much resemblance with a intimate search fore onself. Lookin ag the religion as just some sort of gest, Aley li Tandem, finds his religion in much more mundane thing, autograph collecting, with Kitty Alexander in a role of her life as Jehova. Neglecting anything but that, his "social" and/or intimate relationships suffer greatly.

With few excurses with a jokes, or anegdotes, with pictures now and then that helps to break boredomness of every written text, Smith's managed to write very compelling story, and much thought provoking one.

Maybe somwhat too playfull for a matter that it tried to bring up to the light of day, this book stands for itself as a beacon to every young writer or independent thinker out there (sorry about typos, i have a very bad keyboard here :))
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Looking For Spirituality in All The Wrong Places Nov. 11 2002
By "tyuro" - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Zadie Smith's latest is a subpar Coupland-ish tale of a young man avoiding relationships and meaningful spiritual fulfillment through frivolous pursuits and binge drinking - sort of like most mid-twenty-somethings. There are a few good moments and a few witty lines in the book, but ultimately the tale just doesn't have much ooomph. Coupland's last book just came out in paperback and it's a better read. If you can get your hands on a copy of Dave Eggers latest book it's even better. If you are interested in young voices and you've already read those, you might still want to check out this quick read.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Hard work Nov. 14 2005
By Flotte Lotte - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Audio Cassette
Reading the first book of "The Autograph Man" is most of the time very annoying. The protagonist of the story, Alex-Li Tandem, a half chinese half jewish autograph man gets drunk and stoned every day, consequently there is no real action. In the secon part of the book there is some kind of a plot, the story beginns to develope and so it gets more interessting for the reader. The open ending is a bit disappointing because the reader doesn't know how the life of Alex will go on. All in all the book contains too much unimportant details and the protagonist is a kind of a person you can't identify with nor you can like him anyway. If you have the power to finish the book you really can be proud of you!!!
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