Synopses & Reviews
We live in a world of signs.
But not everybody has to trade in them....
Alex-Li Tandem sells autographs. A small blip in a huge worldwide network of desire, his business is to hunt for names on paper, collect them, sell them, and occasionally fake them—all to give the people what they want: a little piece of Fame. But what does Alex want? Only the return of his father, the reinstatement of some kind of all-powerful, benevolent God-type figure, the end of religion, something for his headache, three different girls, infinite grace, and the rare autograph of forties movie actress Kitty Alexander. With fries.
The Autograph Man is a deeply funny existential tour around the hollow things of modernity: celebrity, cinema, and the ugly triumph of symbol over experience. Through London and then New York, searching for the only autograph that has ever mattered to him, Alex follows the paper trail while resisting the mystical lure of Kabbalah and Zen, and avoiding all collectors, con men, and interfering rabbis who would put themselves in his path. Pushing against the tide of his generation, Alex-Li is on his way to finding enlightenment, otherwise known as some part of himself that cannot be signed, celebrated, or sold.
"A preternaturally gifted new writer [with] a voice thats street-smart and learned, sassy and philosophical all at the same time." The New York Times
"Smith is...a master of style whose prose is playful yet unaffected, mongrel yet cohesive, profound yet funny, vernacular yet lyrical." Los Angeles Times
"Smith writes sharp dialogue for every age and race and shes funny as hell." Newsweek
About the Author
Zadie Smith was born in northwest London in 1975 and continues to live in the area. The Autograph Man is her second novel. Her first, White Teeth, was the winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, and the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize.
Reading Group Guide
“Intelligent. . . . Exquisitely clever. . . . An ironic commentary about fame, mortality, and the triumph of image over reality.” —The Boston Globe
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Autograph Man
, Zadie Smith’s remarkable novel about life, death, and the search for the ultimate signature.
1. The text of The Autograph Man is interrupted by drawings, unusual typography, diagrams, lists, boxed jokes, and other features not normally found in novels. What do these add to the story? How do they change the texture of the book? What do they indicate about Zadie Smith’s attitude toward her story and toward the conventions of the literary novel?
2. What emotional impact does his father’s death have on Alex Li-Tandem? In what ways does it determine much of what he does and does not do during the rest of the novel? Does he achieve an acceptance of his father’s death and undergo any sort of healing process by the end of the story?
3. Brian Duchamp tells Alex, “Women are the answer. They are. If you’ll only let them into the story. Women. They are the answer” [p. 144]. Why does he say this to Alex? Is he right? In what sense do women turn out to be “the answer” for Alex?
4. When Kitty Alexander discovers that Alex is the author of the letters she has found so moving, she says, “it worries me that you write these. Why did you write? You are really too young even to remember my last film, no matter my first…. There is no girlfriend, or she is not effective. There is a lack somewhere. I think this must be true” [p. 240]. Why does Alex write so many letters to Kitty? Why is he so fixated on her? Is Kitty right in pointing to Alex’s less than happy love life as a reason?
5. Throughout the novel, Alex and other characters make international gestures for any number of things, from “He’s crazy” to “shut up,” and usually these have a comic effect. But near the end of the novel, when Alex suggests that the Kaddish ceremony is “nothing more [than] a gesture,” Adam asks: “What’s more important than a gesture?” [p. 340]. In what ways are gestures both comic and seriously communicative in the novel? In what ways are they significant?
6. Alex grows hysterical observing autograph collectors at the convention in New York. “As if the world could be saved this way! As if impermanence were not the golden rule! And can I get Death’s autograph, too? Have you got a plastic sheath for that, Mr. Autograph Man?” [p. 207]. What function does collecting and selling autographs serve for Alex?
7. When Honey and Alex find Kitty’s apartment, Alex thinks it’s too easy. “This just doesn’t happen that I want something and then it’s just there. With no effort,” to which Honey replies, “Baby, that’s exactly how it happens.” Later she adds, “The plan is no plan.” [p. 226]. Is Honey the most “Zen” character in The Autograph Man? Why would Zadie Smith make a prostitute perhaps the wisest figure in the book?
8. The Autograph Man doesn’t have a conventional plot, where unfolding actions drive the narrative. What elements create and sustain the reader’s interest in the absence of a strongly defined plot? Can The Autograph Man be considered a postmodern fiction?
9. What kinds of relationships does Alex have with his friends? With Esther? What do they all, at one point or another, try to tell him about himself?
10. What does The Autograph Man suggest about the role that race, ethnicity, and religion play in shaping personal identity? To what extent do the characters in the novel define themselves along these lines?
11. When Alex fills out the hotel questionnaire, he offers a pithy, one sentence summary of his philosophy of life: “Regret everything and always live in the past” [p. 247]. Is he merely joking, or does this statement reflect the way he sees and lives his life?
12. Why is Alex writing a book that divides the world and everything in it into the categories of Jewish and Goyish? How do his friends regard this endeavor?
13. During a fierce argument near the end of the book, Alex says to Esther, “it’s like you think I have, like, the morals of a sewer rat, or something,” to which Esther replies, “Let’s not talk about morals. Let’s not do that” [p. 331]. What is the cause of Alex’s shabby behavior towards Esther? Is it a moral issue?
14. In what ways can the novel, as a whole, be read as a critique of modern western culture? How do the characters, in the way they live their lives, exemplify this critique?