The Autograph Man, by Zadie Smith (Random House, 347 pp, ISBN 0-375-50186-x)
Review by Nicholas Laughlin
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.
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.
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?