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The New Republic Online
Thursday, October 10th, 2002


 

The Autograph Man

by Zadie Smith

The Box of Tricks

A review by Ruth Franklin

Is Zadie Smith a pseudonym for Dave Eggers? This question is not as absurd as it sounds. In the three years since he founded McSweeney's, the literary quarterly famous equally for its exquisite packaging and its high-ironic sensibility, the possibility that all the contributions might be written by Eggers alone has been a continual source of speculation. Eggers's expansion of McSweeney's into a book-packaging enterprise — offerings include The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature and the recent I., by Stephen Dixon, as well as an imminent new novel by Eggers himself — has only deepened the mystery. How else to explain the books' near synchronicity, in both style and substance, with the work of the man behind the curtain?

Now, alas, we must add another possible Eggers alias to the list. Oddly, Smith's debut novel, White Teeth, was the antithesis of everything that McSweeney's represents. While the McSweeneyites tend to emphasize typographical games over such dinosaurs as plot or character, White Teeth is an old-fashioned, almost Dickensian novel, charting the courses of two families, the Joneses and the Iqbals, over several generations. Archie, an Englishman, is married to Clara, an immigrant from Jamaica. Samad and Alsana came to London from Bangladesh; he and Archie are Army buddies. While some elements nudge at the boundaries of realism, the book never falters, thanks to Smith's controlling intelligence. And she manages to deploy her various images of teeth just enough to allow them to gain momentum as a powerful metaphor for immigration, but without the sort of theme-hammering characteristic of more self-indulgent writers.

In the two years since White Teeth, however, Smith has become progressively McSweenified. The first ominous sign was a blurb from her on the cover of Dogwalker, a collection of short stories by McSweeney's contributor Arthur Bradford that could easily be the worst work of fiction published last year. (At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it made me feel physically ill.) Then a story by Smith herself appeared in McSweeney's 6, a volume accompanied by a soundtrack composed and performed by They Might Be Giants. The last page of Smith's entry was blank but for the comment "Ms. Smith's story used to be longer."

One would like to dismiss all this as typical Eggers ridiculousness. But the pranks now culminate in The Autograph Man, a full-blown McSweeney's production in all but name. Gone almost completely are the imagination and the humanity of White Teeth; they have been replaced by gimmickry. The gimmicks, unfortunately, are not confined to the level of topography; they are manifest in nearly every aspect of Smith's new novel, from the cartoonish figures to the caper-filled plot. In a recent interview in the Observer, Smith remarked: "Often I feel when I'm writing certain characters and their traits that I have already seen them on TV. In sitcoms or whatever." Though it repeatedly asserts, "YOU ARE NOT WATCHING TV ... YOU ARE NOT WATCHING TV," Smith's latest is a supersize sitcom, a made-for-TV novel.

The "autograph man" is the half-Chinese, half-Jewish Alex-Li Tandem, who is obsessed with two things: obtaining the autograph of the elusive 1950s movie star Kitty Alexander; and dividing the world into the categories of "Jewish" and "goyish," in the familiar manner of Lenny Bruce. He is writing a book called Jewishness and Goyishness, "three hundred pages and counting of what amounted to a two-sided list. Jewish books (often not written by Jews), Goyish books (often not written by Goys); Jewish office items (the stapler, the pen holder), Goyish office items (the paper clip, the mouse pad); Jewish trees (sycamore, poplar, beech), Goyish trees (oak, Sitka, horse chestnut); Jewish smells of the seventeenth century (rose oil, sesame, orange zest); Goyish smells of the seventeenth century (sandalwood, walnuts, wet forest floor)." Alex heads each section with the tetragrammaton, the four-letter transliteration (in English "YHWH") of what the Jewish tradition believes to be the unpronounceable name of God, "as if the invocation of the Holy Name would protect his heresy."

Like Alex's creation, the main body of The Autograph Man (there are also a prologue and an epilogue) is divided into two sections, Jewish and goyish: the first structured loosely around the principles of the Kabbalah, the second structured loosely around the principles of Zen Buddhism. The prologue begins with the twelve-year-old Alex, accompanied by his father, Li-Jin, and two other boys, Adam and Rubinfine, on the way to a wrestling match. From the start the tone is boisterously comic, and Smith sketches the bullying and jokes and rude noises of these adolescent boys with great skill. Every movement is the "International Gesture" for something: vomiting, masturbation, surprise. Rubinfine is "the kind of child who would set fire to his own clothing just to see the look on his mother's face." Adam is "definitely a nice boy, with a bit of a weight problem which may or may not be the root cause of his niceness." At one point Li-Jin wants to stop at a pharmacy. "Any complaints?" he asks his passengers. "You smell?" Rubinfine offers. What is funny is not the joke itself, but the astonishing verisimilitude with the way fifteen-year-old boys talk and think.

There is tragedy as well as comedy in this section — unbeknown to his son, Li-Jin is dying from a brain tumor. Happily, Smith does not linger too long over this subplot, but fixes her eye instead on the carefully diagrammed relationships between the boys and between Alex and his father. At the match they are seated next to the accountant Herman Klein and his son Joseph. The "gruesome" Klein, seen from Li-Jin's fastidious perspective, is little short of a monster: he speaks in a "slimy falsetto," and he has a "superfetation of carbuncles [and] below this a dirty brush of a mustache." But Joseph, to whom his father refers not-so-lovingly as "a little weed," is the first autograph collector whom Alex has met; and improbably but believably — Joseph is the epitome of geekiness — Alex is intrigued. Joseph is telling them about his collection when his father, who has gone to get ice cream, reappears.

"What else is in it? In the Jewish folder."

"Nothing."

But he doesn't mean nothing, he means "Here comes my father," which Alex picks up on immediately but Li-Jin completely fails to get....

"BORING YOU, IS HE?"

Li-Jin stands up to get out of Klein's way, and ends up having to stand on the seats with the boys to allow Klein and his belly to get past.

"No, not at all, actually. We were just talking about Joseph's collection — about the Judaica...."

Klein licks his ice cream and smiles. Without the slightest trace of pleasantness or good humor. Li-Jin realizes that he has inadvertently given the man some material — of what kind he has no idea — from which he means to fashion a missile to throw at this child....

He feels very sad. Joseph threw a precious thing to Alex and Alex threw it to Li-Jin and then Li-Jin, instead of protecting it, let this great ape shatter it right there on the floor in front of them.

Despite Klein's parodic grotesqueness, there is a very human sadness in this scene: in Joseph's fear of his father, in Alex and Joseph's timid shufflings toward friendship, in Li-Jin's sense of his own failings as a parent.

When we turn from the prologue to Book One ("The Kabbalah of Alex-Li Tandem"), Alex is suddenly twenty-seven, but the tone of the narrative has not changed at all. Clearly he is suffering from an advanced case of arrested development, but the adolescent jokes get old very fast. Everyone is still making International Gestures. The YHWHs at the start of each section of the prologue have mercifully disappeared, but they have been replaced by another device ripped straight from the pages of McSweeney's: an eccentric summary at the top of each chapter that pinpoints a few highlights from the text below. Such gimmicks — which include also the use of a special font to represent the autographs of certain people and a re-imagining of the principles of Jewish mysticism as they might pertain to Elvis — form a thin frame on which to stretch a novel.

When we re-encounter Alex after nearly fifteen years, he is recovering from having taken a type of LSD nicknamed "Superstar," which "made itself famous all through his body." The workings of fame are now of professional as well as pharmaceutical interest to Alex, as he makes his living buying, selling, and verifying celebrity autographs. As he surveys the wreckage of his life after the acid trip, he discovers that he has totaled his car, infuriated his girlfriend (who was in the car), and somehow come into the possession of what appears to be a real Kitty Alexander autograph.

Alex's obsession with autographs is a kind of linguistic mysticism, and Smith is right to find something at least semi-kabbalistic about the idea of the autograph: the letters themselves seem to manifest power. (There is also the added irony that the Kabbalah has itself become the recent plaything of a variety of celebrities.) At the core of the novel is a version of the old-fashioned spiritual quest, as Alex tries to determine whether his Kitty Alexander is real or fake, and as his friends encourage him to return to his Jewish roots and say Kaddish for his father on the fifteenth anniversary of his death. In a roundabout way, Alex seeks a religious awakening, first through Jewish mysticism and then through the pursuit of Zen enlightenment, but he must first come to terms with the false gods of Hollywood.

The Kabbalah of Mountjoy, Alex's generic London suburb, is replaced in the book's second half by the Zen of New York, where Alex travels for an autograph convention. With nothing more to go on than the name of her neighborhood, he has resolved to hunt Kitty down; and at their meeting he achieves an epiphany of sorts. Over the years that Alex has been sending autograph requests to Kitty via her fan-club president, his notes have evolved from the typical fan letter into brief, lyrical evocations of Kitty's life:

Dear Kitty,
She hopes for nothing except fine weather and a resolution. She wants to end properly, like a good sentence.
Yours,
Alex-Li Tandem

As it turns out, Alex's letters have tapped into a private vein of Kitty's soul. His worship of celebrity has been rewarded with a genuinely mystical experience: a spiritual communion.

Fearful that Kitty's manager is taking advantage of her, Alex convinces her to accompany him back to London, and plans to make both of them rich by selling her autographs. But just after they arrive back home, the news of Kitty's death is all over the news, presumably planted by her manager to cover up her unexplained disappearance. The timing is perfect for Alex, who is now able to sell the autographs at hugely inflated prices. But something doesn't seem quite right here. Why would the manager fake Kitty's death rather than send the police searching for her? This, as well as a few other odd hints, seems to suggest that the book's last hundred pages may be a dream, or a fantasy, or anything but a plausible representation of reality.

The creation of Alex, in all his post-adolescent atrociousness, is new proof of Smith's talent. At a time when few young novelists seem willing to wander far from the comforts of autobiography, Smith's flexible imagination confirms her as a writer who deserves to be taken seriously. It is difficult to think of another recent novel in which a woman has drawn a male narrator so convincingly. At points the laddishness of Smith's mindset, particularly the way she writes about sex from a male perspective, makes one wonder if she is channeling Nick Hornby — or is that Dave Eggers behind her, tipping his hat? But in general her man's-eye view of the world feels true, and it is an artistic accomplishment.

In comparison with the richness of story and metaphor that characterized White Teeth, though, The Autograph Man feels disappointingly slim. For the earlier book's patient unrolling of plot and character it substitutes the tricks of the McSweeney's age: quirky lists, cute drawings, typographical high-jinks. An entire conversation between Alex and his girlfriend is given in instant-message format. Another dialogue is all in capital letters, to show that one of the characters is out of the room. Describing the wrestlers, Smith writes: "if you have a better phrase than like thundering elephants insert it here [ ]". There is a running gag involving midgets, apparently for no other reason than that midgets are inherently funny. The computer is referred to constantly as the "box of tricks," which I kept confusing with the television. And Smith pushes the International Gestures far beyond all sense: we end up with "the I.G. for Soon, if we are lucky, everything in this world, including the man I speak to now, will be reduced to dust." All these jokes are inoffensive enough, but they sour with the tedium of repetition. (There are also some tasteless jokes, including the comment that "the wise guy Walter Benjamin" needs "a comb, a better tailor, a way out of France.") The hold music on an office telephone line — not the freshest device to begin with — is mentioned at least three times. Smith proves definitively that pounding on comedy will not make it more tender.

Worse, Smith seems to have meant her remark about sitcom characters seriously; some of her motifs could indeed have been lifted right out of Seinfeld. As on television, certain characters are defined by one or two repeated attributes: they are always presented in the same setting or performing the same activity. There is a running gag in which three rabbis attempt to load large pieces of furniture into small cars. Marvin, Alex's "milk operative," is a sitcom character if ever there was one: a jive-talking recovering addict who intimidates his customers into ordering expensive dairy products. When Alex's epiphany finally comes, it carries all the weight of a season finale.

Exaggeration for comedy's sake is permissible, even necessary; but if actions stray too far from common human behavior, the humor may fall through the gap. "The phone rang. The downstairs phone being without cord, Alex picked it up and walked to and fro with it in the hallway for a while, like a new father with a distressed baby, hoping the thing might either make a new noise or fall silent. It did not." Would anyone actually do this? "At the thought of his wife of five years, Rubinfine struggled with his face, and from among several more benign choices, a look reminiscent of Lenin after his second stroke won out." Does anyone — anyone of Rubinfine's generation, at least — know what this is supposed to look like?

Elsewhere it is the language that misses its mark. England is called "a shrunken parody" of the United States, "like Lilliput," which seems altogether untrue. A bathroom is so small that it is literally a box: "If you were giving a loo for a present, and you wanted a box to put it in, you would put it in this." England, seen from a plane, is described as an "autumnal quilt," which is fine except that it is nighttime. Rubinfine's overdecorated house is like "living in a violent tea cozy." This last image sounds good, but think about it and it starts to disintegrate.

Smith showed some of this affection for the absurd in White Teeth, but the combined power of her imagination and her writing nearly always compensated for it. In The Autograph Man, however, she seems to lack the confidence to follow through. Consider the character of Esther Jacobs, Alex's girlfriend and the sister of his childhood friend Adam. Esther is a bald black Jew, originally from Harlem, who came to England as a child so that Li-Jin could fit her with a pacemaker, which she still wears. Her character might have worked, or at least have come close to working, in White Teeth, simply because Smith would have insisted on it. That novel was filled with improbabilities — a devout Muslim woman who sews dominatrix clothing, a terrorist group that goes by the acronym KEVIN — yet the sheer force of Smith's imagination prevented the reader from shoving these things aside: she pushed and pushed on her characters until they came to seem inevitable, or at least possible. White Teeth, though, had the benefit of a strong authorial voice: an omniscient narrator who presided over all, doling out descriptions and judgments with the occasional cheeky aside. The Autograph Man, by contrast, is told entirely from Alex's perspective, and we are given no reason to take him seriously.

It does not help that the book is plagued with annoying inconsistencies. The prologue explicitly states that the three boys are not close friends, but later they are presented as best buddies. The adult Rubinfine (who is a rabbi) bears no resemblance to his rude childhood self — surely some allowances must be made for growing up, but he is an entirely different character. One of the autograph collectors with whom Alex works is portrayed as a pathetic good-for-nothing in the first part of the novel, but toward the end of the book, when he dies, we are suddenly asked to feel tragic about it. Honey, a prostitute modeled on Divine Brown who serves as Alex's unofficial guide to Zen Buddhism, is so preoccupied with germs in her first few scenes that she refuses to remove her long black leather gloves or to even brush against Alex, but after a few pages these peculiarities vanish entirely. And it is very hard to imagine a believing Jew making a regular practice of writing out God's holy name, even if, as Smith puts it, he happens to be using a nice pen.

This touches upon a larger point. There is something discomfiting about Smith's incorporation of the Hebrew tetragrammaton into her impudent imaginative universe. Part of this is simple superstition: even secular Jews have a hard time letting go of the gravity that surrounds these letters. (Tradition dictates that the paper on which the word is written must be buried.) If Smith is toying with it for shock value, she has certainly hit her mark. But despite her comedic tendencies, Smith is too deeply serious a writer to rely purely on the need to offend. Like her riffs on the halachah of pot-smoking, her visual punning on the supposedly unsayable name of God — each invocation resides within a little cartoon bubble, as if it were being spoken — has something in common with Rushdie's irreverent game with religion in The Satanic Verses. But while Rushdie clearly had a philosophical point to make, Smith's end does not justify the means. I do not mean to accuse Smith of blasphemy, because non-believers cannot blaspheme. I mean only to say that Smith's purposes in this novel are too small to justify such profaneness.

We must not judge works of art for their fidelity to religious principles, obviously. But we must judge them for their fidelity to artistic principles. And The Autograph Man, trifling with the sacred, simply does not have the creative strength to make a case for its own irreverence, which is, in the end, just more McSweeneyish shtick. (In fact, a recent issue of McSweeney's featured excerpts from the Bible printed all in italics, apparently to make fun of electronic book publishing.) Smith's novel illustrates the danger of granting gimmicks too much force: they quickly multiply beyond their creator's control, not least because they are so easy to do.

With her rich and brutal imagination, Smith is the last writer of her generation who should fall under Eggers's spell. It is sad to see her in thrall to a writer who is not remotely her equal. But de-McSweenification is only half the battle. There is also the question of whether Smith will return to the novel or continue with her apprenticeship in the sitcom. "I saw the best minds of my generation/accept jobs on the fringes of the entertainment industry," Alex quips. The autograph man could turn out to be a prophet after all.


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