Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

I'm doing pretty well on my solitary Book of the Month club. It's appears to be the only resolution that I've been able to follow through on. Other than eating plenty of peanut butter, which we all know was pretty much a given...I chose this novel by Zadie Smith because I was blown away her first novel, White Teeth. Well, just about everyone who read White Teeth was blown away by the 24 year-old's debut. Given the numerous awards and subsequent hype following the release of White Teeth, it's little wonder her follow-up, The Autograph Man deals with the dark side of celebrity.

Smith writes of Alex-Li Tandem, her eponymous half Jewish/half Chinese protagonist, "He deals in the shorthand of experience. The TV version. He is one of this generation who watch themselves." The book also deals with themes of faith and religion--the novel being broken into two parts of ten chapters, each headed with reference to Kabbalah (in part one) or Buddhism (in part two) as a nod to Alex's multi-cultural heritage. But mostly it deals with our fear of death, our quest for immortality. Alex's fills the hole in his soul left by the premature death of his beloved father, Li-Jin, by collecting autographs--selling them, trading them and occasionally faking them. But it's not so much autographs and celebrity as the process of collecting things, as Smith shows us with another character in the book, a friend of Alex since his childhood:

"Rabbi Mark Rubenfine had a patio and a wife, curtains and carpets, a power shower and a twelve-seater dinner table...He had collected things in his life, which is what you're meant to do, placing them carefully between you and death, as on an obstacle course."
The things Alex collects create not only an obstacle course between him and death--but between him and his closest relationships as well: Adam, his best friend--a video store owning, Kabbalah spouting pothead, Joseph, his other best friend--whose childhood autograph preoccupation inspired Alex to take it up as a full-time occupation, and Esther, Adam's sister with whom Alex has had an on and off love affair for the last ten years. The most sought after item for Alex's collection is an autograph from 40s B-movie star, Kitty Alexander. On his quest to retrieve it, he travels to New York and is aided by a germaphobic ex-hooker named Honey Smith.

Smith excels in creating eccentric and quirky characters--full of feeling and flaws. The Autograph Man, however, pales in comparison to White Teeth--partly because the odd-ball assortment of characters and heartwarming story of family shone so brightly. And it still dazzles in comparison to works by many other authors. By focusing mostly on Alex in The Autograph Man, telling the story completely from his point-of-view, Smith sacrifices the depth and breadth found her first novel. It certainly doesn't help that Alex-Li is a self-absorbed, substance abusing, sullen sourpuss. But she manages to give an engaging and credible account of the workings of the human mind and the inner life of self-imposed "outsider"--even amongst his closest relationships. Alex's obsession with the categorization of things as either "Jewish" or "Goyish" (based on the famous George Carlin comic routine) reflects the human need to pigeon-hole people and things into clearcut labels.

Alex is also fascinated with gestures--the shortcuts we take with shrugs and eye rolls to say in a second what words cannot convey. Oddly enough, his attachment to these small signs and statements comes into conflict with his reluctance to perform a Kaddish for his late father when he tells Adam, "To me it's a gesture, you know? Nothing more." To which Adam replies, "What's more important than a gesture?" Ultimately, the book is a coming of age story of the perennially adolescent Alex. As he is able to mourn the loss of his father, he finally opens himself up to loving, and eventually losing, the other people in his life.

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