Quick links: my home page my blog Choosing My Confessions

The Autograph Man, by Zadie Smith (Random House, 347 pp, ISBN 0-375-50186-x)

Review by Nicholas Laughlin

First published in the Trinidad and Tobago Review, November 2002

Let’s get this out of the way: Zadie Smith was just twenty-four when White Teeth was published, two years ago, and much of the excitement propelling that first novel’s success was fired by the sheer unexpectedness of such smart, confident, scintillating writing coming from an unknown youngster. Smith had a brain in hyperdrive, a wicked tongue, and a heart thumping with affection for her characters — a motley bunch of north Londoners, white, black, Pakistani, Caribbean, Irish, Jewish, Muslim, Jehovah’s Witnesses, clamouring in every conceivable accent, bound together by unlikely ties of blood and friendship. This was a riotous and eminently optimistic macrocosm of the city and the world, but also a family epic, throwing itself at the big issues of love and identity and forgiveness and history.

If White Teeth trailed off unsatisfactorily in the end, if the plot finally got away from its author (just as the mouse gets away on the last page — oh, read the book), this seemed the symptom of an imagination unwilling to let go of what it had passionately created. There was every reason to think that, next time around, a dose of a little experience would result in a work of happier balance but equal effervescence. There was lots for us to look forward to.

Next time around turns out to be The Autograph Man, another beguiling read, not as big or as baggy as White Teeth (Smith’s own adjectives, those), but in its way just as ambitious — and, in its way, falling just short of satisfaction, like its predecessor. The new book is again set in north London, in the fictional suburb of Mountjoy (an ironic Bunyanesque fillip of a name). The Autograph Man himself is Alex-Li Tandem, half Chinese, half Jewish, son of Li-Jin and Sarah, twelve years old when we meet him in the prologue. These first thirty-odd pages are Smith at her most incandescent, presenting the love between father and son with spendthrift verve and careful emotional economy. Li-Jin takes his boy to a wrestling match at the Albert Hall. When Big Daddy, the favourite, wins, Alex-Li makes his way up to the ring to ask for an autograph (his first ever):

Alex whips round, delighted, and jumps up looking for Li-Jin so he can show it to him, and Li-Jin jumps up too and tries to wave, but he is too small to get above a crowd like this and Alex’s crumpled forehead is the last thing Li-Jin sees before his knees crumple beneath him and his head hits the floor.
Li-Jin dies in a few quick sentences, killed by the brain tumour he’s been concealing from his family.

The story jumps ahead fifteen years. Big Daddy’s casual scrawl triggered off a lifelong obsession, it seems: Alex-Li is now a professional autograph dealer, trading in little slips of paper that the chance of a signature has transformed into relics of celebrity. All is not well in Alex’s world. He wakes from a three-day drug hangover (“Street name: Superstar. For a time it had made itself famous all through his body”) to find his person wrecked, his car (he crashed it) smashed, and his girlfriend Esther (she was the passenger) prepared never to talk to him again.

His friends (Adam, the pious black Jew seeking enlightenment through ganja-led contemplation of the ten holy spheres; Rubinfine, the former bully turned rabbi; Joseph, the former autograph man turned insurance salesman who has given his life to misery) are trying to persuade him to say Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) for his father on the anniversary of his death. And to complicate things a little further, an autograph of Kitty Alexander, the reclusive 1940s Hollywood actress who Alex vainly idolizes (for ten years he has sent her weekly letters, oblique as poems, faithful as prayers), turns up pinned to his front door, and everyone thinks he forged it while he was high.

Smith sets Alex-Li up for a spiritual quest, its two strands unwinding from his dual, Jewish-Goyish nature: a search for reconciliation with the fact of his father’s loss, and for the truth about his Kitty Alexander signature (where did it come from? is it a fake?). And the structure of this quest, it seems at first, is derived from the Kabbalah, the tradition of Jewish mystical thought studied by Adam.

On the wall of Adam’s flat are painted the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and beneath them the words “the world is broken.” This refers to the tsimtsum, one of the Kabbalah’s basic concepts, the act by which God, the perfect everything, withdrew part of himself into himself to make a space for the world of finite creation. The world is thus now incomplete, just as Alex-Li’s world has “broken” since the death of his father; it is the duty of believers to restore the world by good actions, and the son’s task to surmount his father’s disappearance.

Hence the repetition, throughout the novel, of the tetragrammaton, the four-letter symbol of the unpronounceable name of God. It is an unspeakable word for a concept beyond comprehension, just as the all-important fact of Li-Jin’s death is the unspeakable presence Alex-Li carries everywhere with him (symbolised by his “note,” a pound note with Alex’s name written on it which Li-Jin gave him on the day he died).

This may sound fearfully theological — in addition to some longish didactic passages in which Adam, through a marijuana haze, explains these ideas to his friend, the Kabbalah references are often tipped in heavy-handedly — but it doesn’t obstruct the headlong dash of the story, as Alex tries to make something coherent of the odds and ends of his life. He’s an autograph man rifling through a box of scraps, trying to separate genuine treasures from the rubbish and the ersatz, slowly accepting the hollowness of the pursuit of celebrity.

Smith’s bold, even impudent prose certainly helps; though, in what feels like her haste, she is capable of awkward missteps (“All of a sudden they run at each other once more and if you have a better phrase than like thundering elephants insert it here [       ]”), and her style is perturbed by a few recurring tics betraying cleverness for its own sake. Yet she can also, with a flick of the pen, execute in a couple of lines a gentle vivisection of the tormented human heart:

He felt that mad cold one sometimes feels upon seeing an absent loved one, a kind of dysrecognition: Is this really her? Are we really lovers? Is this where I put all of my life? Does she know me?
Her grab-bag sensibility weaves jokes, historical tidbits, fragments of urban legend into the richly digressive narrative. To Smith’s ears, a PC’s startup melody sounds like the Rhine-daughters’ song as recalled by T.S. Eliot (“Weialala leia”); a schoolgirl called out to on the street replies, “Piss off, Humbert.” Alex and his generation have grown up seeing and reacting to the world through a filter of slogans, famous movie scenes and “International Gestures.” The most real experience seems only partly real, partly recollected from some pop-cultural source. There’s more than a touch of the post-lapsarian in this recognition:
You watch too many films is one of the great modern sentences. It has in it a hint of understanding regarding what we were before and what we have become.

The sudden rediscovery of an airplane ticket finds our hero across the Atlantic, attending an autograph convention in New York, and using the opportunity at last to track down Kitty Alexander in the obscure Brooklyn neighbourhood where she hides from the world’s curiosity. This epiphany arrives almost too easily. Alex doesn’t seem ready to take any real enlightenment away from the event, and in its aftermath he finds himself in deeper spiritual trouble than ever. Back in London, with the demands of the world relentlessly pressing in upon him, he goes on an abecedarian drinking binge (absinthe, beer, cointreau, draft beer...), and I’m afraid as he starts to fall apart, so does the story.

Zadie Smith still has trouble with her conclusions, and she leaves Alex-Li adrift, short of the moorings of any kind of satisfying resolution. He never loses my sympathy, but I don’t know how to take his final position:
He wanted to be in the world and take what came with it, endings local and universal, full stops, periods, looks of injured disappointment and the everyday war. He liked the everyday war. He was taking that with fries. To go.
Is this a sort of moral triumph, a brave acceptance of the imperfection and imperfectability of the world, or a surrender to the lassitude that insulates the individual from the need for spiritual effort? Is there any need for spiritual effort at all?

In the end, Alex-Li agrees to say Kaddish for his father. The epilogue is given over to this ceremony, with all his friends in attendance. This is the ending the plot has seemed to want and need, but the three-page scene is the most puzzling in the entire book. Alex recites the ancient Hebrew verses; interspersed among them are mundane observations of his friends, blinking, yawning, swinging their feet. The effect is fatally flattening. There is no real sense of reconciliation. I can’t make up my mind about this: is it a shortfall of the novelist’s imagination, or a deliberate attempt to prove that these ritual words, like all the novel’s other symbols (autographs, clichés, movie lines, alphabets), are inadequate to the sheer fullness of the everyday world, its chances and choices and losses and wins? Is Smith pointing to a moral void between symbol and truth?

“There’s no other good but feeling good,” says Alex. “It’s not a symbol of something else. Good has to be felt. That’s good in the world.” +