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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, October 1st, 2002


 

The Autograph Man

by Zadie Smith

A review by Thomas Mallon

In the underselling, overanalyzed world of literary fiction, the disappointing second novel is as familiar as baseball's fizzled phenom or the stock market's burst bubble. Reviews announcing the failure of last year's prodigy to "fulfill the early promise" of what so proudly was hailed are written and read with a sort of exhilarated letdown. Knowingness and schadenfreude abound.

One wants to say it ain't so for Zadie Smith, whose White Teeth, back in the middle of 2000, was pronounced "epic," "audacious," "astonishing," and "funny as hell." Even cynical observers, watching the balloons of praise bob and blurb above the superstore, realized upon actually reading the book that the encomiums had been launched to signal the arrival of something real and terrific. Which is why The Autograph Man, Smith's new novel, creates genuine disappointment, not the synthetic sort one is told to feel even in those cases of second-novel syndrome where the first novel wasn't, in fact, very good. I expect that more than one review of Smith's new book will carry the title "Pulling Teeth," and whenever I see it, I'll wince for the twenty-six-year-old author, who is probably in no danger of early disappearance, but who is in for a much rougher ride and a much smaller box office this time out.

Twenty-six! Born, according to Current Biography, on October 27, 1975, to a British father and an immigrant Jamaican mother; brought up in Willesden Green, the sort of outer-borough London neighborhood then starting to change color with the zest and strain that have accompanied most such recent transformations in the First World, from Flushing to Rotterdam. As it happens, I spent some of the summer of '76 in Willesden Green, a long tube ride from the locales of my London research, and as I read White Teeth, many years later, I found myself wondering whether back then, in the course of a walk down High Road, past the Pakistani newsagent and the Indian take-away restaurant, I might have passed a pram bearing the nine-month-old Zadie Smith, who would one day do for Willesden Green what Dickens did for Chancery Lane and Camden Town.

White Teeth, which opens in 1975, takes life from the friendship of Samad Iqbal, a Bengali waiter with a crippled hand, and his old army buddy, Archie Jones. Thirty years after their wartime service in Bulgaria (which may or may not have ended with the commission of an atrocity), the two of them, nearing fifty, are muddling through marriages to "two girl-wives"Samad's Alsana, also Bengali, and Archie's Clara, "from Lambeth (via Jamaica)."

Archie is a comically soothing live-and-let-live bloke who works in a printing factory as a specialist in folding and perforation. The half-assimilated Samad is a bundle of Westernized Islamic guilt: "I swear. I eat bacon. I regularly slap the salami. I drink Guinness. My best friend is a kaffir nonbeliever." Samad sends one of his twin boys, Magid, to live in Bangladesh as expiation for his own secular sins, only to see the young man backfire homeward, years later, as a thoroughly Anglophilic lawyer. As Magid's mother, Alsana, tells Clara, "I don't recognize him ... It is like sitting down to breakfast with David Niven." Clara's child, a daughter named Irie, longs for slimness, straight hair, and Magid's fearless, delinquent brother, Millat:

To the Cockney wide-boys in the white jeans and the colored shirts he was the joker, the risk-taker, respected lady-killer. To the black kids he was fellow weed-smoker and valued customer. To the Asian kids, hero and spokesman.
Smith's first novel doesn't miss a trick of popular culture, and the book is exceptionally humorous. In fact, White Teeth has sitcom potential: what are the Iqbals and the Joneses but the Kramdens and Nortons transported in time and place and blessed with children? But there is nothing small about the novel. Except for a few flashbacks, the action runs from 1975 to 2000, Zadie Smith's entire life up to the book's publication, and readers feel that she stuffed the volume with everything that crossed her mind or entered her sight in that quarter century. The novel's sheer capacity, and its comic moral vision, are quite specifically Dickensian, though Smith can also whack her subjects with a satiric paddle more like Thackeray's. The radical activist Brother Ibrahm is not only short — "you couldn't help thinking, in the Brother's very own style of third-word emphasis: five foot five" — but tautological as well: "Though he promised explanation, elucidation, and exposition, linguistically he put one in mind of a dog chasing its own tail."

Never surrendering her Victorian-narrative prerogatives, Smith barges in and out of paragraphs like George Eliot in leather boots, constructing little essays and deft anatomies — charting, for instance, the student body at Glenard Oak, in the borough of Brent, where schools by 1990 were teaching pupils of "67 different faiths, 123 different languages." Tickled to find herself knocking about the great British novel, Smith has a go at tossing all sorts of Shandean elements onto the page: jokes in boxes, family trees, parodic chronologies. She even quotes P. G. Wodehouse.

"Only the immigrants can speak the Queen's English these days," Samad says. A reader of recent Indian and Caribbean fiction might also argue that only the children and grandchildren of British colonialism seem able to write Victoria's fiction, to manage its humming plot factories and boatloads of dramatis personae, to reproduce its gusto for messy life. The condition-of-England novel has been, like England itself, internationalized. (Smith's Archie is a hopeful cross-cultural concession — a gentler descendant of John Osborne's Entertainer, Archie Rice, one who has pulled himself together and stands ready to welcome anyone to the old English music hall.) I would argue that Ian McEwan's recently acclaimed Atonement, so shapely and perfected, full of Brionys and Cecilias, lawns and fountains, is a less English book than the exuberant and ungainly White Teeth. Atonement may be a fine construction, but there's water in its veins, a sort of exhaustion that manifests itself in the epilogue's concern with that great chestnut of modernism, the unreliable narrator. In White Teeth, Smith is too busy narrating to care about such a thing.

So what's gone wrong, at least for now? Quite a lot; enough to make The Autograph Man very much smaller — less accomplished and less felt on every level — than its predecessor. For her second book Smith has picked up stakes and moved to a neighborhood dominated by mechanical noise.

The people of Mountjoy have based their lives on the principle of compromise, and each night they quietly embrace the earplugs and migraines and stress-related muscular discomfort they receive in exchange for cheap houses sitting directly in the flight path of an international airport. This is not the Promised Land. This is an affordable fifties-built, central-heating/locking-as-standard, schools-included commuter village on the northernmost tip of the city of London.
Mountjoy feels wan and suburban-generic compared with White Teeth's Willesden Green, which teemed with striving and aspiration.

The Autograph Man's title figure is Alex-Li Tandem, the twenty-seven-year-old son of a Chinese father and a Jewish mother. His autograph trading, which might have remained a teenage hobby, is now, instead, something between vocation and obsession. Alex has a lovely girlfriend, a Ph.D. candidate named Esther, but his true object of desire is the extremely rare signature of Kitty Alexander, a forgotten movie-musical actress whose 1952 film, The Girl From Peking, ranks in Alex's airless imagination as "the greatest movie ever made." The hundreds of unanswered letters that Alex has sent to Kitty in New York, seeking her signature, have evolved over thirteen years into haiku-like evocations of Kitty herself.

Dear Kitty,

When behind a young man on a bus, she finds herself staring at his neck. The urge to touch it is almost overwhelming! And then he scratches it, as if he knew.

Love,

Alex-Li Tandem

Much of the novel's second half involves Alex's trip to New York for the big Autographicana convention, at which "signing" ex-astronauts and centerfolds mingle with specialist dealers in Elvis and serial killers. Straddling the convention's fame divide is Honey Richardson, a germophobic ex-prostitute clearly modeled on Divine Brown — famous in what passes for our real life as the woman who blew Hugh Grant. Honey is at Autographicana to deal in other celebrities' signatures, but she's also pursued for her own. She explains to Alex,

"See, trick is to get mine on a corner of a big old sheet of paper and then go door-stop the actor ... in London, and get him to sign the same piece without him knowing? That goes for a hundred dollars. Me by myself — doesn't push much more than twenty-five."
With Honey's help, Alex succeeds in finding Kitty, who professes, or at least feigns, a charming detachment from her old films and fame. He removes her from the clutches of mad Max Krauser, the fan-club president who all these years has kept Alex's letters from reaching the actress. Kitty and Alex finally head to England, where he sells her autograph at a price that's been wildly inflated by false reports of her death.

By the time of this return trip the novel has become so zany and improvisational that a reader wonders if Smith herself can track its action. And yet for all the rushing about, The Autograph Man feels not so much busy as empty, like a short story that's been padded beyond any reason — almost the opposite of White Teeth, an enormous production that still felt too small to hold all it had on its mind.

The new book's chief problem is Alex himself, this autograph man who is harder to read than a doctor's scrawl. We know he suffers feelings of futility and experiences occasional rage toward his celebrity quarries, whose "famousness" gives them a "remarkable ability to cheat Death of its satisfaction: obscurity." We see Smith try all sorts of devices to characterize and clarify her protagonist: getting him to list the things he loves; making him fill out a supposedly revealing hotel-guest questionnaire.

Please feel free to write your own philosophy of life in the space below.

Regret everything and always live in the past.

But Alex never coheres. His long-running romance with Esther isn't at all believable, and his ultimately chaste skirmishes with both Honey and Kitty do little for him or the reader. We see a lot of several friends he has had since childhood — an insurance man, a video-store owner, and a rabbi — but to no particular end. They engage in a great deal of argument, some of it when stoned; the four always seem ready to collapse into a hey-man-I-love-you heap of reconciliation. At one point the insurance man — speaking, too revealingly, for the author — says to Alex, "We've turned into abstractions of each other ... We fear each other as symbols of one thing or another. We don't tell the truth."

White Teeth had much to say about the transplantation of Islam to the West, and The Autograph Man has its religious territory too. Of Alex's three friends, the rabbi is the least spiritual; it's the insurance man and the video-store owner who are interested in "mystic Judaism, specifically the Kabbalah." But the novel's attention to these things seems on a par with the fashionable dabblings of Madonna and Roseanne.

Smith's real subject, in both books, is the hybrids and doublings and dichotomies created by modern immigration. Alex, of course, is a hybrid himself. (His Chinese father was named Tan, but as the rabbi poignantly explains, "Someone thought 'Tandem' sounded better.") Kitty is Russian and Italian, Esther is black and Jewish, and both, for a time, are American. But the combinations feel mechanical or stale this time out. Alex, we're told, has long been working on a manuscript called Jewishness and Goyishness. And yet its parallel columns — "Jewish office items (the stapler, the pen holder), goyish office items (the paper clip, the mouse pad)" — seem the stuff of some Friars Club junior auxiliary.

Smith has shown, along with all her English literary ancestry, the clear influence of both Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. (She publicly acknowledged the latter even before this book's crying of lots.) A reader could feel the two big American presences in the millennial windup of White Teeth, where genetic engineering, apocalyptic Jehovah's Witnessing, and the long-buried secret of Archie and Samad's military past had to be brought together by the stroke of midnight. The result was less than wholly successful, the construct finally getting the better of the characters. But one had the thrilling sense that an amateur pilot was trying to land the gigantic jet she had packed all these characters into. At the end of The Autograph Man, Smith just validates their parking and waves them good-bye.

Throughout this second book she continues to excite a reader's admiration with figurative bursts ("At a junction they stop talking all at once, and the silence sticks for a while, as if someone spat it at the windscreen and they're watching it slide down"), but The Autograph Man never gets its vocal bearings. "What vultures used to do on the outskirts of a village is now the business of the telephone exchange, satellites. What comes after death happens on the phones": this observation, confusing enough to begin with, cannot be assigned to Alex or to the narrator — or to some mediating indirect free style. It hangs in the narrative air, willing but slapdash. There is a peculiar repetitive quality to some of the book's small elements and connective tissue. The author constantly, tediously, has characters make "the International Gesture for surprise," "the International Gesture for calm," and so on, instead of just letting them get on with their own body language. She keeps referring to "the popular actress Rita Hayworth" or "the popular actor Jimmy Stewart," as if the novel aspired to be a reference book — or, I suppose, an autograph dealer's auction catalogue. If it's the latter, then Smith needs a makeup class on the imitative fallacy. Much of the novel's pop-cultural reference seems oddly, inadvertently, obvious: Sam Goldwynisms and bits of Casablanca trivia are put on the page as if expected to surprise the reader. This, weirdly, from a writer sharp enough to notice, early on, how slogans have replaced clichs in children's conversation.

Philography — autograph collecting — is a good subject for a novel. It invites meditation on identity and the irreducible, and also on the way in which, according to Smith, "the collector is the saviour of objects that might otherwise be lost." But the economy of celebrity artifacts depends on scarcity: "Autograph collecting, as Alex is not the first to observe, shares much with woman-chasing ... A woman who gives up her treasure with too much frequency is not coveted by men." The Autograph Man, following White Teeth by only two years, makes a reader wonder what pressures, internal or commercial, compelled Zadie Smith to get back out there quite so quickly. Her new novel is too little too soon, and although she has more talent than just about anyone else in the room, no one, she needs to be reminded, has talent to burn.


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