The Autograph Man is set in a fictional north London suburb called Mountjoy. The novel opens with a prologue in which the young Alex-Li Tandem attends a wrestling match with his father, Li-Jin, and his two friends, Mark Rubenfine and Adam Jacobs. They meet Joseph Klein, who introduces the boys to autograph collecting. At the end of the prologue, Alex’s father collapses and dies of a brain tumor just at the moment the boys are rushing forward to get the autograph of the wrestler Big Daddy. Throughout most of the novel, the inability to face the death of his father and escaping reality by collecting autographs are Alex’s predominant character traits.
Book 1 is set fifteen years later in Mountjoy. Alex has become a professional autograph dealer. He especially desires the autograph of 1950’s Hollywood film star Kitty Alexander, to whom he has written weekly for thirteen years. The four boys of the prologue are still close friends. Alex has a girlfriend, Adam’s sister Esther, but lives a superficial life and seems unable to connect with other people. His friend Adam, a black Jewish mystic, urges him to read the mourner’s Kaddish on the anniversary of his father’s death, but Alex resists the idea. Book 1 presents Alex’s obsession with the cult of celebrity and the brittle shallowness of this life with satirical and sometimes ribald humor and ends as he finally receives his desire, Kitty Alexander’s autograph, in the mail.
Book 2 is set in New York, where Alex is attending an autograph fair and trying to find Kitty at her return address in Brooklyn. When he finds her living in genteel poverty he persuades her to return with him to London, so he can make her rich by auctioning some of her rare autographs and letters. After a television news story wrongly reports Kitty’s death, Alex makes even more money than he imagined. Throughout book 2, Alex grows in self-knowledge, and he gives his commission on the sale of Kitty’s letters to a dying fellow autograph man as evidence of his character development.
In the final scene of book 2 and the epilogue, Alex places his father’s autograph in the place where he had contemplated placing Kitty’s and recites the mourner’s Kaddish in the synagogue with all of his friends present. He finally acknowledges his connection to his father, a living hero, and elevates him above the artificial heroes of Hollywood films.
Like White Teeth, The Autograph Man observes and satirizes the subcultures of north London’s multicultural inhabitants, but Smith’s second novel is both narrower in scope and deeper in exploration of character than her first. It is inventive in form and clever in its wide range of references to both popular and literary culture. Irony and metaphor abound. Alex-Li Tandem, the autograph collector, is repeatedly unable to sign his own name, but in the touching moment when he gives his commission from the sale of Kitty’s letters to the dying Brian Duchamp, he clearly signs his name to the check, taking possession of his identity in compassion. Alex-Li Tandem has taken a journey from substituting celebrity for reality to compassion and self-knowledge. However, the novel moves quickly back into vulgar humor as Alex follows this act of compassion by getting roaring drunk. One must never forget that Smith’s work is funny; humor is always an important component of her commentary.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic Monthly 290 (October, 2002): 143.
Booklist 99 (October 1, 2002): 276.
Esquire 138 (October, 2002): 40.
Library Journal 127 (October 15, 2002): 95.
The New York Times, September 25, 2002, p. B1.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (October 6, 2002): 13.
Publishers Weekly 249 (September 30, 2002): 47.
The Times Literary Supplement, September 27, 2002, p. 21.