When, in her mid twenties, Zadie Smith wrote the sprawling, Dickensian, multiracial London novel White Teeth (2000), she found herself a best-selling novelist praised by the critics as a hot new voice of the twenty-first century. Written in the comedic vein of Salman Rushdie with hip-hop-influenced cultural savvy, her first novel combined a lively immigrant cast showcased by two oddball middle-aged friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, as they weathered mutinying teenage children, suicide attempts, the seeping loss of their cultural heritage, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Islamic political movements, and a genetically enhanced mouse, among other things. Smith herself characterized the novel as the “literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired, tap-dancing ten-year-old,” but her fictional debut, begun while she was attending Cambridge University as an English major, is assured, funny, and polyphonic, blending the voices of disparate generations and cultures in a distinc tively British potpourri. With the novel’s success in both Great Britain and the United States, Smith found herself famous and obliged to fulfill the second half of her publisher’s two- book contract.
Smith’s next novel, The Autograph Man (2002), differs from its predecessor in its scope, its themes, and in its intended audience. A more narrowly focused study of one young man’s career in autograph dealing, the novel is also darker in tone. While White Teeth embraced multiple generations, Autograph Man is chiefly concerned with youth, specifically people in their twenties. Thematically, the novel revolves around Jewish mysticism and the insidious effects of fame on modern life. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly magazine, Smith claimed that the novel grew out of her year-long attempt to write a rabbi joke as well as a comment by actor Marlon Brando in the Guardian newspaper about being famous: “I haven’t had an honest moment with a person in forty-one years.” That comment struck a chord with Smith, since she had already felt the dislocations and vertiginous effects of being instantly renowned. Her youthful good looks, exotic lineage (her father is white and British while her mother is a black Jamaican), and Bret Easton Ellis-style savvy about youth culture made her a marketer’s dream, and The Autograph Man reflects her disenchantment with both the machinery of fame and the slavish hero-worship that it breeds in consumers.
The book begins with a flashback prologue set in 1986, when the protagonist, Alex-Li, was twelve years old. He is traveling to the Royal Albert Hall with his father and two friends, Rubinfine and Adam, to a professional wrestling match starring a wrestler called “Big Daddy.” While the children talk the esoteric language of television shows and wrestling trivia, Smith’s narrator reflects upon the de-evolution through the years of the Royal Albert Hall from an arts and sciences center celebrating the love of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria to its manifestation as a scene for a wrestling bout. The evening’s canned entertainment summarizes many of the elements that Smith finds deplorable in popular culture: The spectacle is visually crude, preprogrammed, and geared primarily for children. Li-Jin (Alex’s Chinese father) and Alex meet Joseph Klein, an autograph-collecting boy who resembles Franz Kafka, and his appropriately philistine father Herman Klein, a dealer of fancy-goods for women (Joseph Klein subsequently leads Alex-Li into his career as an autograph collector and dealer). After the wrestling bout, they all go backstage to ask Big Daddy for his autograph; in the crush of the crowd Li-Jin suffers a seizure related to cancer that causes him to collapse and die amidst the throng. As Smith concludes the chapter: “He [Li- Jin] sees people. Many, many people. Nobody famous, though. No one familiar or...
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friendly. No one to help. No one he knows.”
From this point on, Smith’s rhetorical agenda becomes clear. Beginning with Li-Jin’s death, the novel explores the destructive effects of fame, both in the way it distorts and corrupts human relationships and in the way it feeds the popular imagination with images of “stars” who both substitute for religion and fuel resentment for those who benefit from fame’s often arbitrary largesse—its ability to cheat death through electronic substitution, magnification, and repetition. Those who are not famous live acutely conscious of fame’s effects in a bereft, secondhand world of gestures and phrases derived from movies and television. Alex-Li grows up both a worshiper of obscure screen idols and a dealer in the “tinny, cheap, reflected light”of fame through autographs. After the prologue, the novel jumps to a twenty- seven-year-old Alex-Li recovering from an extended acid trip during which he wrecked his car, hurt his long-standing relationship with his girlfriend Esther, and mysteriously received a rare signed picture of his favorite 1940’s screen idol, Kitty Alexander. As Alex-Li meanders around London, one gets an idea of his listless, rather passive lifestyle, running into Rubinfine (who has now become a rabbi), getting stoned and discussing Jewish mysticism with Adam, dealing autographs, and masturbating to pornography on his computer. He finds that he has absentmindedly booked a flight to New York for an Autographicana Fair during the time when Esther will be undergoing surgery for the installation of a new pacemaker, and much of the latter half of the novel concerns his quest to finally meet his idol—the aging screen star Kitty Alexander, who lives in semireclusion in New York.
As a send-up of the emptiness of fame, the novel succeeds handsomely, but it has difficulty getting the reader engaged with the characters. For one thing, Smith often fails to generate much suspense, preferring a whimsical sense of plotting that often as not immediately satisfies Alex-Li’s desires without much conflict. For a time, the shift to New York City energizes the novel. At the Autographicana Fair convention Alex-Li befriends Honey Richardson, an African American autograph dealer clearly modeled on the real-life prostitute who earned a moment of fame when she was caught having sex with film star Hugh Grant. Her role emphasizes the arbitrariness of celebrity, since she enjoys her fifteen minutes of fame, visits the various talk shows, works on a film deal, and then immediately drops out of the public’s attention. She realizes that her autograph is only worth something when it is surreptitiously united with the film star’s on the same sheet of paper without his knowledge. Honey helps Alex-Li track down Kitty Alexander, who proves to be a sweet old lady, and Alex-Li convinces her to fly back with him to England on the earnings of her autographs. Once there, there is a hint of conflict when Kitty realizes that her manager back in the United States, Max Krauser, had angrily announced her death to the media, thereby allowing Alex-Li to sell off her autographs in an auction at inflated prices, but she ultimately forgives Alex-Li for that as well. While Alex-Li is in New York, Joseph Klein magically replaces his wrecked car with insurance money (like Kafka, he works in an insurance firm). The long- neglected Esther reconciles with him. Even Alex-Li’s cat Grace gets along with Kitty Alexander’s dog Lucia. Even though Alex-Li repeatedly gets drunk, sloppy, and belligerent, he does not suffer any major consequences for his actions, perhaps due to the comedic nature of the novel.
In reply to the arbitrary nature of the plot, Smith consistently has her characters meditate on Jewish mysticism. Alex-Li’s mother is Jewish, and the novel has several illustrated Kabbala diagrams interspersed through the first half—the first one supplies a framework for the opening paragraphs and it includes figures such as Jimmy Stewart representing Beauty, Bette Davis representing Eternity, and John Lennon standing in for Splendor. Another ironic Kabbala appears depicting all the major figures in Elvis Presley’s life, including the man who sold Elvis his first guitar. Earlier on, when Alex-Li smokes marijuana with Adam, they meditate in front of a more serious diagram of the ten Sefirot and the twenty-two foundation letters of the Hebrew alphabet, although Alex-Li is too lost in a “marijuana fug” to feel much sense of transcendence. Even as this emphasis on Judaism provides interesting insights about the nature of the godhead and the Lenny Bruce-influenced cultural distinctions between Jewishness and goyishness, this effort at profundity can seem forced and inorganic. Occasionally, Alex-Li runs into Rubinfine and two other rabbis, who repeatedly and humorously try to force an item of furniture into the trunk of a car. The Autograph Man concludes with Alex-Li publicly praying a Kaddish for his deceased father, a means to come to terms with his death and bring the narrative to a close.
The Autograph Man becomes the sort of novel one appreciates more for its insights than for its characterization or sense of plot. As in the case of Bret Easton Ellis’s equally funny fiction, the theme of the shallowness of contemporary culture can lead to shallow characters just as a book about the hollowness of fame can seem hollow itself. Not sharing in her level of fame, the reader of The Autograph Man may have difficulty sympathizing with Smith’s disdain for it, but her depiction of what it is like to become famous is chilling. Late in the novel, Alex-Li experiences some of its effects when the autographs that he sells earn him some notoriety among his peers. As he realizes, “he could feel himself transforming, in the eyes of this audience, into a symbol of his century’s collective dream:He’ll never work again.” Even this small amount of attention gives Alex-Li a “new order of fraudulence” in his relations with others and a “new type of loneliness”—the sense that people see him with envy more as an emblem of their projected desires than as a complex individual. Given Alex- Li’s lifelong hero-worship of celebrity, this serves as the final irony of the book. Even though the storyline ends happily, one remembers Smith’s bitter take on her themes, especially the drugged, soporific nature of people’s addiction to entertainment. As Alex-Li notes, watching the passengers on the jet zoning out in front of their televisions as they cross the Atlantic, “Everything in this plane is an interface, like the windows on his computer. . . . Pretty, pretty pictures. Lovely, distracting stories we tell each other.” As he looks down the aisle, he notices “this private experience he is meant to be having is replicated as far as the eye can see.”
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.