Zadie Smith's 'Autograph': superstardom is truth

October 06, 2002|By Kay Chubbuck | By Kay Chubbuck,Special to the Sun

The Autograph Man, by Zadie Smith. Random House. 400 pages. $24.95.

Alex-Li Tandem is the autograph man, a dealer in famous signatures. He lives in England on the fringes of the entertainment industry, "a minor incidence in the lives of others." He is a spectator, a collector, an observer in this bittersweet (and in some ways failed) new novel by Zadie Smith.

Importantly, Alex-Li is also beset with an obsession. He wants -- no, needs -- the rare and elusive signature of Kitty Alexander, a screen star and glamour girl from the golden days of cinema. While his colleagues collect Albert Einsteins, Harrison Fords and Ally Sheedys, Alex-Li can think of nothing but this aging star. He writes her hundreds of letters, sealed in pink envelopes. He buys forgeries of her signature, hoping they're real. He watches her in The Girl from Peking over and over again, until he's asked to buy the copy from the video store.

Then one morning, after tripping on a drug called Superstar, Alex-Li discovers a postcard with Kitty's signature pinned to his door. Is it real or isn't it? Did he forge it? Did he buy it? How did it get into his apartment? Alex-Li can't remember. Nor can he remember his wrecked car, his near-death experience. The last few days are a complete blur.

What happens next is Alex-Li's quest to authenticate Kitty's signature -- a journey that takes him away from his commuter town of Mountjoy to London and New York. This journey, unfortunately, is uneven -- an auction here, an autograph fair there, a strained phone call.

Alex-Li, it seems, bobs through life like a bit of exotic driftwood. He is a modern-day Don Quixote; that is, if Quixote had access to instant coffee, instant messaging and the Internet. In fact, so quixotic is The Autograph Man that it ends up presenting possibilities it never explores. In this way, it is a lesser work than Smith's debut novel, White Teeth, and it is certainly less enjoyable.

Take the characters, for instance. As with White Teeth, The Autograph Man is populated with curiosities: a midget rabbi at a barn dance; "Miss TickTock," Alex-Li's bald, pacemaker-fitted girlfriend; wrestlers Big Daddy and the Giant Haystacks; Zen Buddhists; Chinese herbalists; Elvis fans; closet homosexuals; and the prostitute-cum-autograph dealer Honey Smith. (This last has achieved her fame with a Hugh Grant-like incident involving oral sex, a movie star and a motorcar.)

These individuals may be black, Chinese and Jewish (sometimes all three), yet rather than presenting a poignant portrayal of race, as Smith did in White Teeth, here she seems to be staging a freak show along the lines of Diane Arbus. The Jewish characters in particular come across as stereotypical, obsessed with kaddish and the cabalah, chatting about God on street corners.

Ultimately, if The Autograph Man has any greater meaning, it's simply that life is superficial and people are weird. Dreams may come true, but not without intervention from psychotropic drugs, alcohol, and Shid-Tzus named Lucia. Modern life in this novel seems unbearably empty, full of pushers and stalkers, forgers and egomaniacs. Even death can be faked; only superstardom is real. In the end, The Autograph Man is little more than its central postcard, provenance unknown, value indeterminable.

Kay Chubbuck is a lecturer at the Princeton Writing Program and previously was an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. She has published articles in Newsweek and other journals.

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