The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The Autograph Man By Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton, £ 16.99

These lines from Yeats’s “The statues” could be a fitting epigraph to Zadie Smith’s second novel, if one reads “Jewish” for the poet’s “Irish”. “We Irish, born into that ancient sect/ But thrown upon this filthy modern tide/ And by its formless spawning fury wrecked,/ Climb to our proper dark, that we may trace/ The lineaments of a plummet-measured face.” The filth in the modern tide is, of course, the glut of useless information, with which Smith’s characters and reader have to cope.

It assumes the form of a dizzying popular-culture trivia-quiz, a relentless information-churning device. The exhibits in Victoria’s Albert Hall; Ava Gardner (“I was married to Mickey Rooney! The marriage represented the biggest female-to-male height differential in Hollywood”); the lyrics of John Lennon; the popular writer Philip K. Dick; the popular comedian Lenny Bruce; 22 foundation letters of the Hebrew alphabet…and so it runs for a little over 400 pages. These disparate elements, like the autographs Alex Li-Tandem trades in, are supposed to form a chain of signifiers. But they land straight into a junkyard of symbols, because they fail to lead towards any cohesive meaning.

If the idea is to take the readers on an “existential tour around the hollow things of modernity — celebrity, cinema and the ugly triumph of symbol over experience”, then Smith has to escort her readers out of the places she leads them into — in other words, round off her characters in the end.

Alex is a Chinese-Jewish autograph man living in an imaginary north London suburb, but actually within his ideas and obsessions. He wanders in two worlds: of autographs, and of Jewish rites. In the first, where a mere proof of one’s identity becomes commodified, Alex hunts for that elusive autograph of Kitty Alexander, a silent-era heroine and a Garbo-like recluse. In the other, the object of his quest is less specific, some kind of enlightenment which will help him piece together into a cohesive, meaningful whole the symbols that float around him.

Alex moves from London to New York, and manages not only to locate the seventy-something Kitty, but also to bring her with him to London. In the whirligig of events that follow, Kitty’s agent in New York announces her death, Alex cashes in on the impact of the news and sells his newly-acquired letters and signatures of the heroine of “the best film ever made”, The Girl from Peking. He then hands over the money to his dying comrade, Brian Duchamp, instead of to Kitty, gets drunk, quarrels with Esther, his girlfriend of ten years, and finally turns to his own Kabbalah.

Alex’s final act is the making of an offering to his dead father, Li-Jin, the one person, if any, whom he misses. After toying with the idea of the Kaddish — “a conversation between Jew and God, son and absent father” — which fails to impress him as something more than a token gesture, Alex sticks up Li-Jin’s autograph on the remaining branch of the autograph tree belonging to his childhood friend, also Esther’s brother, Adam. Li-Jin finds eternal rest between “the popular philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the popular writer Virginia Woolf”.

The novel could be read as a parody of modern life. Only, it does not succeed except for the language the characters speak: “But don’t you want him to like come over here, you know, and then like sit down next to you'”

The Autograph Man begins with the bonding between father and son, and comes back to it in the end. The events in between are thus rendered as meaningless and “goyish” as the pot Alex and Adam smoke, where “78 per cent” of the fun is in the rolling.

But perhaps Smith (or is it “the popular writer Zadie Smith”') would like to tell her readers, as Adam tells Alex, “It is better, even if you can’t feel it”.

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