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 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...
(The entire section is 1776 words.)