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The Autograph Man
Zadie Smith
London: Penguin, 2002.
£7.99, 419 pages, ISBN 0-141-01328-1.

Adrian Smith
University of Nottingham


The Autograph Man is ostensibly the story of Alex-Li Tandem who is twentysomething years old and has all of the arrested development that seemingly goes along with being a male of that age. He is a part-Chinese, part-Jewish autograph hunter who trades famous people's signatures for a living. He has a girlfriend, a cat and a car (albeit a car which he has smashed into a bus-stop during a drug-induced black-out, reducing it to junk). He also seems to have an unfeasible tolerance for drugs and alcohol. He appears to have lived his whole life in the London suburb of Mountjoy. It is also the story of his father, Li-Jin Tandem, who finally succumbs to a fatal brain tumour after a wrestling match between Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy, a wrestling match to which he took his son, Alex-Li, and his son's two friends Mark Rubinfine and Adam Jacobs, a wrestling match where Tandem meets Joseph Klein, a boy who has a domineering father and an obsession with collecting autographs. Li-Jin's life ends as Alex-Li's begins—as Li-Jin falls to the ground, the last thing he sees is his twelve-year-old son attempting to procure his first autograph, an event which will plot the trajectory of Alex-Li's life, and also that of the novel. The Autograph Man is also tangentially about Alex-Li's girlfriend, Esther, a girl with a mechanical heart, the outlines of which she encourages Alex to trace beneath the skin of her chest.

On the surface, The Autograph Man is about all of these things. It is about love, friendship, death and religion. It is about family. All of these things, magnificent as they may be, somehow register as banal and prosaic in the novel. The reason for this is that all of these, the most basic and human of themes, are eclipsed and engulfed by the notion of celebrity and fame. The novel's strongest incarnation of love is between Alex-Li and famous actress Kitty Alexander, whose film The Girl From Peking is Alex's second greatest obsession. His greatest is procuring Kitty's autograph—a rare treasure indeed in his line of work, and a valuable one, too.

In an accomplished piece of writing, as The Autograph Man undoubtedly is, one of the greatest plot devices revolves around Alex-Li's desire to communicate with Kitty Alexander (to whom he has written a letter every week for thirteen years, without receiving either a reply or a copy of her coveted signature), a woman he knows and loves solely through her career as an actress. At the same time, he has a profound inability to communicate effectively with his real-life girlfriend Esther. In fact, much of the novel is dedicated to him avoiding his real-life love, Esther, as happens when he goes to America, where circumstances conspire to help him meet Kitty Alexander. He even misses being by Esther's side at the hospital after her pacemaker has been replaced so that he can trade autographs across the other side of the Atlantic. As a dissertation on the nature of fame and celebrity, Zadie Smith seems to be telling us that the thing we run towards is the ephemeral, the unreal, the world of famous people and big screen entertainment, and the things we run from are those things which are really important.

The novel begins with Alex-Li being portrayed as the only Jewish boy among the four at the wrestling match who is genuinely excited at the prospect of his own Bar Mitzvah. With the death of his father, Alex-Li's faith in Judaism wanes, to be replaced by the superficial pseudo-religiosity of the world of celebrity. Alex's faith in Judaism is suspect all the way through the novel, but we never once suspect that his faith in fame and celebrity is ever shaken. Alex's relationship to the Jewish faith is mostly restricted to his writing a book which attempts to separate the people, objects and practises of the world into the two separate camps of Jewishness and Goyishness. In other words, he approaches his faith with the cold logic of someone making an audit.

The world of autograph hunting comes to replace the world of religion, at least on a functional level. Those events in life which a religious belief system can help us come to terms with can also be soothed by the world of autograph trading. In religious terms, when somebody dies, they are said to have gone to a better place. In the world of autograph hunting, when somebody dies their stock rises. Their signatures become more valuable. The paraphernalia which surrounded them in life takes on an otherworldly sheen. The comfort of cold, hard cash can help the autograph hunter recover from the death of a loved celebrity.

Is it any coincidence that we refer to movie stars as screen idols? Or that we can say someone's performance was iconic? Zadie Smith's caveat to those who would deify celebrities (who are, after all, mere mortals like you and I) is that the more Godlike we make our human heroes, the further we get from the true depth of religious belief; the further we get from a conception of God; the further we get from the belief that there is something in the universe which is greater than the human race. Because, ultimately, in Smith's novel, it is to religion that Alex-Li must turn to heal the rift in his soul that was left by the death of his father.

As an aside, I feel that I should mention at this point that if discussions of God and religion are making you think you should avoid reading this book, you have nothing to worry about. Before I read this book I had almost no knowledge of the workings of Jewish faith, or those of the Buddhist faith, which also features quite strongly in the novel. In fact, I wouldn't really consider myself to be religious, but I guess it doesn't ever hurt to consider these matters.

One of the recurring themes in the novel is an ongoing and farcical situation where three rabbis are trying to load unfeasibly large pieces of furniture into the boot of an unfeasibly small car. Each time this occurs Alex-Li finds his path to the next autograph fair or auction blocked by the rabbis and their furniture. Serving a comedic narrative function, this recurring theme also has a symbolic function—Alex-Li considers his Jewish faith to be something that is getting in the way of his life. Ultimately though, the epilogue to the novel returns us to the beginning, to Alex-Li's faith, and his love for his father. As the story fades out, we are with Alex-Li at the Kaddish—the ceremony whereby he celebrates his father's life, and remembers his passing. This is a ceremony he has tried to talk his way out of attending, for it was imposing upon the important things in his life—autographs, the pursuit of fame and the famous and repeated viewings of Kitty Alexander in The Girl From Peking.

I probably already got way past the point where I should have mentioned that the book is also a brilliant read. If you need a novel to help you unwind for a little while, why not pick this up at your nearest bookstore, kick off your shoes, leave the TV switched off for a while (your 'idols' will not miss you—you shouldn't feel that you are missing them), and immerse yourself in Zadie Smith's best-selling easy-going prose? With her nimble handling of the plot, believable characters and gently joking style, you may have to remind yourself that there are deeper issues at stake here, too.


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