Alex-Li Tandem sells autographs. 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 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 trappings of modernity: celebrity, cinema, and the ugly triumph of symbol over experience. It offers further proof that Zadie Smith is one of the most staggeringly talented writers of her generation. Look for her new book Swing Time, coming November 2016.
Smith's eagerly awaited second novel begins with a bang, but rapidly loses momentum, slipping from tragicomedy to rather overdetermined farce. The introductory set piece is panoramically sock-o in the best Martin Amis tradition, taking us from Doctor Li-Jin Tandem's outing with his son's friends to see a wrestling match in Albert Hall to his sudden death from a massive stroke. Fifteen years to the week later, Li-Jin's son, Alex, is being pressed by his friends, Adams Jacobs and Joseph Klein, to say Kaddish for his dad. Alex is an autograph trader and obsessive egotist. Over the course of the week, he wrecks his car on an acid trip, goes to New York in quest of the legendary retired actress Kitty Alexander, frees her from her mad manager (who promptly announces her death to the papers, thus inflating the value of her signature) and gets his girlfriend Esther, Adam's sister, angry enough that she suspends their relationship. Smith paints portraits of a very multiculti Judaism: Adam, for instance, is a black Jew, while Alex is a disbelieving Chinese one. Adam's kabbalistic interests are supposed to operate in Smith's text the way Homer's poem operated in Ulysses, giving it a mythic dimension, but the big theme of Jewishness feels tacked on, like a marquee advertising a former attraction. Smith's pen portraits of the shabby, yobbish autograph trading circle are intermittently funny, but her prose is so busy being clever that the laughter never builds. This is disappointing but, even with its faults, the novel points to a literary talent of a high order.