In her second novel, The Autograph Man, Zadie Smith tells the story of a man infatuated with fame. Alex-Li Tandem is a collector of autographs, the timeless signatures of individuals able to, as Smith writes, “cheat Death of its satisfaction: obscurity.” Walking through Cotterell’s Autograph Emporium in the center of London, Alex examines first editions, signed portraits, theater programs and Christmas cards, wavering “between awe and rage at the very famous, as he does at the idea of God.” Smith’s novel poses the significant question of what happens when the pursuit of fame becomes indistinguishable from the pursuit of religion. Her story is further complicated by religion’s own inaccessibility to Smith’s multi-cultural lost generation.
Smith’s protagonist has spent his entire life in Mountjoy, “an affordable, fifties-built, central-heating/locking-as-standard, schools-included commuter village on the northernmost tip of the city of London.” At the age of 27, Alex is still surrounded by his childhood friends, and when he is not tracking down the signature of Jimmy Stewart at an auction in Picadilly Circus or avidly pursuing the rare signature of Kitty Alexander, a movie actress from the 1940s, he is often smoking up with Rubinfine, Joseph, and his long-time girlfriend Esther, who all lead similarly unfulfilling lives.
Rubinfine became a rabbi at his father’s request but lives vicariously through his students, getting them to discuss “what they want to be when they grow up” when his Powerpoint presentation on the meaning of Purim doesn’t fill the whole hour. Joseph is a loyal, yet troubled, employee at Heller Insurance; he is uncomfortable with working for a company where “certainty reigns,” “effect is neatly traced back to cause,” and he is asked to “document the acts of God.” We know that Esther wrote her Ph.D. thesis, as Alex struggles to remember, on the “Modes of Something in the Development of the Iconography of African Jewry in the Something,” but like Alex himself, we don’t know how to interpret that piece of information. Unfortunately, we see Smith’s characters only in glimpses—telling details upon which Smith does not leave herself room to expand.
Alex-Li also happens to be half-Chinese, half-Jewish. His ethnicity is described in detail in the novel’s first thirty pages, and we hear a lot in the novel’s first half about the manuscript he has been working on since college– Jewishness and Goyishness. However, just when Smith’s observations on cultural identity seem to develop and fuse with her observations on modernity and youth, her characters’ preoccupations with ethnicity make an abrupt exit. Smith’s descriptions of characters such as Alex’s childhood friend Adam, “that fat weird freak Black Jew kid who lurched from one ill-fitting `identity’ to another” disappear in the second half of the novel. One begins to think that the presence of Anita Chang– Alex’s rude neighbor who underestimates their “shared racial coincidence”– is itself nothing deeper than a coincidence when Smith’s ideas on race and modernity are not pursued or even connected.
The themes of ethnic and modern culture not only appear to be in discord, but they also lack coherence as independent ideas. Many of the conversations in the novel’s first half take place when the characters are under the influence, providing Smith with an easy means for her characters to make seemingly profound statements. “It’s like when you go on about Hollywood,” Alex tells Adam as they share a joint, “saying it’s a false religion that only worships pleasure.” Such conversations serve as a tactic for Smith to simply transfer her thoughts to the minds of her characters without any sort of development of theme or character. She doesn’t prepare the reader for the characters’ realizations, nor do the characters’ epiphanies occur at any logical climax.
Zadie Smith has had her own experiences with fame. After the publication of her first novel, White Teeth, Smith, at the age of 24, won the Whitbread First Novel Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize. Smith’s publisher labeled her “the new Salman Rushdie.” White Teeth’s engaging prose began with the story of two World War II veterans and ended with a reflection on identity during a time when the immigrant experience has stripped individuals of their connection to personal history. Smith’s epic narrative of Archie Jones’ and Samad Iqbal’s families were welcome additions to the growing genre of what some call postcolonial literature, and what others call world literature. White Teeth was not afraid to engage with ideas and if one criticism could be made of the novel, it was that it was too ambitious. Nonetheless, the rushed generation-leaping tale offered cogent, and at times hilarious, insights into the legacy of British colonialism in Britain itself. Her novel was as eclectic as the very city she was describing. Zadie Smith showed that not only is it possible for the modern novel to be ambitious, but that perhaps it is a necessity. But being the proclaimed successor to one of the most distinguished authors of our century at the age of 25 can’t be easy. After Smith’s early display of talent, she certainly had expectations to fulfill.
The same ambition that distinguished White Teeth is also present in The Autograph Man, but this time Smith’s drive may have surpassed her abilities. Smith does not pursue the themes of migration and multiculturalism that she handled so deftly in White Teeth. Instead, London, and all its diversity, serves as the backdrop, as well as a distraction, to a novel that attempts to confront the banality of modernity by way of celebrities, cinema, and brand names. And while the thematic appeal of White Teeth compensated for its hurried pace and breadth, The Autograph Man’s lack of focus or character definition somehow seems indefensible.
This incoherence is all very disappointing. Zadie Smith was supposed to be the next Salman Rushdie. Through her sharp observations of the immigrant experience in White Teeth, Smith established herself not only as a novelist, but as a cultural critic. She was one of the few authors to portray modern London as it truly exists—as a muddle of cultures and displaced identities. Yet, it is when the novel gains thematic focus, precisely by abandoning the cumbersome references to race and identity, that Autograph Man takes on a shape of its own. Alex travels to New York in the second half of the novel, where he plans to approach Kitty Alexander in person, receive her signature, and return to London triumphant. , the once pathetic Alex finally matures in New York, a setting that offers Smith the opportunity to interpolate some weighty descriptions of the clash between “hipsters and the Poles” in Brooklyn. He shows up at Kitty Alexander’s doorstep and, in one of the book’s more skillful scenes, he and Kitty read the letters he has sent her since he was 13. Alex realizes that unlike his Jewishness and Goyishness and Esther’s Ph.D. thesis, which were “for no one,” in these letters “something he had written had affected someone.” So begins Alex’s genuine reflection on his life as an “autograph man” and as an author of sorts. Smith’s use of metafiction and reflections on authorship might lead the reader to liken her to Nabakov in the same way that White Teeth associated her with Rushdie.
In the same way that in Nabakov’s metafiction his own creations told us about himself, Zadie Smith’s fiction becomes autobiography through Alex’s experiences with both cultural rootlessness and fame. Amid one of Alex’s existential crises, Joseph, in an unexpected burst of lucidity, alerts Alex to his fundamental flaw. In an attack on his purpose as a collector, Joseph says to Alex, “you’re so determined to shape what to me is fundamentally without any shape.” As The Autograph Man becomes self-reflective, Alex and Esther struggle with their misguided determination as classifiers “to shape what is fundamentally without shape,” and one cannot help but wonder whether Smith fears she has fallen prey to the same temptation. In an interview with the Guardian after the release of White Teeth, Smith bemoaned her newfound role as a cultural critic. “I am expected to be some expert on multicultural affairs,” Smith said, “as if multiculturalism is a genre of fiction or something, whereas it’s just a fact of life.” Perhaps writing a novel in which characters are defined by their ethnicity carries the danger of trying “to shape what is fundamentally without shape.” The experiences of Alex become coded messages to the critics and The Autograph Man reveals that Zadie Smith does not want to limit her novel’s scope to exile and migration. She actually wants to tell us about herself.
Zadie Smith may not be the next Salman Rushdie, but that’s because she doesn’t want to be. In the same interview with the Guardian, Smith yawned when the comparison was mentioned. To Smith, the comparison is well-intentioned, but “racial nonsense” nonetheless. “I think I have brown people in my book,” she told the reporter, “and so does Salman, and so does Hanif Kureishi. So it’s a genre, don’t you see that?” Perhaps the cultural references that we read as distractions should not be interpreted, but simply accepted as a part of modernity, which should in turn be accepted as Smith’s actual focus. The ideas that strike us as disjointed in The Autograph Man—cultural identity and modernity– perhaps need not be connected at all in order for The Autograph Man to gain lucidity. And the racial descriptions that seem cumbersome and disconnected from plot are simply a function of Smith’s realism. To read them otherwise is, as Smith would say, “racial nonsense.” Once we accept the multiculturalism that is a “fact of life,” The Autograph Man redeems itself. As we express our disappointment with Zadie Smith, we should also realize that she too has written a critique of us as readers.