Tuesday 1 January 2002

The Autograph Man

Zadie Smith

Alex Li-Tandem, the Autograph Man, is one of those romanticised losers you often encounter in novels. His self-absorbed, haphazard lifestyle, complete with adolescent job, is endured by his friends, who all, through oversights or mistakes on Alex’s part, are made in some way to suffer for it.

Alex is overweight, he is a drunk, he spends his evenings getting high or watching old films; his flat is no better kept than a student’s. Yet his friends would move mountains for him, he has a beautiful girlfriend (whom he cheats on), he owns a sports car (which he totals while on acid) and he is able to jet off to New York at the drop of a hat without giving it a second thought. People like this only exist in novels; they wouldn’t last a day in the real world, but we like reading about them nonetheless.

The Autograph Man follows Alex though some kind of early-to-midlife crisis towards a resolution of sorts. Alex’s heart isn’t in it: the resolution being offered is more a product of an intervention on the part of his friends than any growth or epiphany on Alex’s part. Alex rather likes his haphazard life. That’s what life is, haphazard, he concludes, there is no need for resolution, for growth.

For all of the above, Alex as a character, as a man, isn’t as bad as I have made out: he is capable of acts of compassion, of selflessness for the sake of it, not for the recognition; and all this is portrayed well by Zadie Smith. The portraits of Alex’s friends, his girlfriend and all the other minor characters that Smith populates her novel with are interesting, lifelike, and as such elicit our empathy. We can be moved by the situations they find themselves in and by their actions, decisions and thoughts, even if they pass out of the novel in the space of a few paragraphs and are only slightly glimpsed. Above all this is what Zadie Smith is famous for, or should be famous for: she can draw people.

This, however, is why I only managed the first half of Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth. Plenty of great characters that simply run out of steam and don’t do anything particularly interesting. The Autograph Man has a larger fault, however. In many ways it is a good novel, in many ways it is a ridiculous novel.

White Teeth was hailed as a great tale of multicultural London, told by a young multicultural woman. Overnight Zadie Smith became a celebrity. The Autograph Man is clearly a response to the stereotype of Smith’s first novel, and of Smith herself. The themes of multiculturalism and fame are amateurishly tagged onto The Autograph Man.

Alex Li-Tandem is half-Chinese, half-Jewish. His friends consist of a progressive rabbi, who in is youth was caught sleeping with a Hindu girl; a black Jew, who is learning Russian; and a little man who seems to be half-German, and who is gay. His girlfriend is black. His idol, Kitty Alexander, a half-Russian half-Italian American 1950s movie star, in Alex’s favourite film plays a young Oriental girl seeking stardom in the most multicultural of all cities, New York.

It is fair enough for Smith to react in her second novel against the pigeon-hole she was forced into after publishing White Teeth, but it would have been admirable rather than merely understandable, if she had risen above such considerations. Her reaction is amusing at first, then a little tiring, then just plain annoying, serving only to get in the way of her characters and her story.

The second tagged on theme is that of celebrity. Under the dust-jacket, like a little private joke for everyone to share in, in large gold type are the words: ‘Fame! I’m gonna live forever!’ Alex himself chases after autographs, the ultimate abstraction of fame, merely the name itself, not attached to a person, an achievement, anything said or done. Again, nice gag. Zadie Smith writing about celebrity, get it? The truth is Alex could have been doing any job that the average teenager might dream of and The Autograph Man would have been much the same novel, just lacking one joke.

Zadie Smith’s strength is in her characters - which is a rather nice strength to have as a novelist - and not just the ones that walk and talk. The descriptions of London, the trains, the streets, pubs and hospitals all point to what Smith might still accomplish: they are felt rather than merely described; they take on their own character. Her storytelling is lacking, however. In White Teeth it was almost nonexistent, or maybe just drawn out and placed in the last 200 pages of the novel. In The Autograph Man, it is ruined by a childish desire to tag on some point, as if her characters and story were not enough.


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