Book Review

The Autograph Man

By Zadie Smith.
Random House, 2002.
400 Pages.
ISBN 037550186X; Hardcover $24.95 [

Review by Amy Rosenberg

“I go with my friend to the shore of our little river; and with one stroke of the paddle, I leave the village politics and personalities, yes, and the world of villages and personalities behind, and pass into a delicate realm of sunset and moonlight, too bright almost for spotted man to enter.... We penetrate bodily this incredible beauty: we dip our hands in this painted element: our eyes are bathed in these lights and forms.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”

If Emerson’s “friend” is Henry David Thoreau, his “little river” Walden Pond, and his “village” nineteenth-century Concord, Massachusetts, it seems almost foolish to point out that things are a bit different for Alex-Li Tandem, the half-Chinese, half-Jewish, twenty-seven-year-old protagonist of Zadie Smith’s worthy second novel. Alex-Li’s best friend is Adam Jacobs, a black Jew born in Harlem and transplanted to England at a young age. His river: memory, a stream which began flowing when he was twelve years old and his first best friend – his father – died. His village: Mountjoy, a fictional suburb in the flight path of an international airport at the northernmost tip of London, home to residents who “have based their lives on the principle of compromise.” But the comparison is worth making if only because it is clear that, were the boundaries of time, space, fact, and fiction to allow for such a thing, a character like Alex-Li Tandem could learn a lot from Emerson. Lesson number one: Alex-Li needs to dip his hands into the painted element. He needs to reach beneath the surfaces of life and take hold of some meaning.
Smith draws Alex-Li with great tenderness and compassion, while at the same time poking fun at all of the novel’s characters and brilliantly parodying their time and place. She pulled off a similar feat in her first novel, White Teeth. What was so surprising about White Teeth was that, while it was hyped perhaps more than any other novel from a first-time, young writer in the past decade, it actually deserved much of the hype: once you began reading it, you were hooked on the confidence, humor, keenness, originality, empathy, and skill with which Smith molded her cast of characters and allowed them to run away with the plot. There was a tiny voice in your head that couldn’t help agreeing with the giant publicity machine: “How did she manage to know all this – and write it – at such a young age?” (She was twenty-one when she finished White Teeth.) And, once you got over your envy at her luck, success, and talent (and, for many of the critics of that first novel, her high cheekbones, lovely eyes, and beautiful face), you actually felt something like gratitude – here is a young novelist who cares more about good writing than clever irony; here is a young novelist who knows how to spin out a solid, old-fashioned novel. A similar reaction occurs with this second novel: wonder, appreciation. And though the hype has been much less this time around, it is more deserved: The Autograph Man is a more believable novel, more mature, funnier, darker; and because it’s all of these things, it’s ultimately more successful.
Alex-Li’s inability to dip below the surface of things and grasp some substance forms the major conflict in The Autograph Man, and provides the engine which drives the novel’s plot: Alex, your average early-twenty-first-century, late-twenty-something, middle-class, well-meaning, self-obsessed, television-fed, post-yuppie kind of guy, has roughly a week in which to decide whether or not he’s going to take seriously this life that he’s been given. To do so, his closest friends are convinced, he must recite the kaddish for his Chinese father on the fifteenth anniversary of his death.
But Alex “was probably in denial of death. He was certainly suspicious of enlightenment. Above all, he liked to be entertained.” Reciting the kaddish is not high on his list of priorities. Thus, when the novel opens, we find him coming fully awake for the first time since attempting, three days earlier, to find entertainment through the use of a powerful mind-altering drug called “Superstar.” His milk delivery man – Marvin, a black ex-drug dealer whose job is now to intimidate the residents of Mountjoy into making dairy purchases they don’t really need (a perfect example of Smith’s ability to craft even her most minor characters with utmost detail, originality, and satire) – tries to tell him the truth about drugs:

they’re meant to be a short-cut to the ultimate…thing, the plane, or whatever you want to say it like, yeah? It’s meant to be: here’s your thirty quid or whatever, take me to higher consciousness, please. And it don’t work that way, Bro. You don’t get the full benefit. You’ve got to work your way up that tree, meaning that that is an allegory which is saying: you can’t just fly up to the branches. You get me?

No, Alex does not get him: throughout the course of the novel, he proceeds to consume more alcohol than it seems possible for any character – fictional or real – to absorb in a week’s time. He focuses the bulk of his energy on his favorite activity, buying and selling the autographs of famous people, and trying out strategic ways of duping other autograph men into buying his fakes while avoiding purchasing theirs. He fails at winning back the love of his longtime girlfriend Esther – black, bald, beautiful, sister to Adam Jacobs, wearer of a pace-maker since childhood – who he has alienated by, among other things, injuring her in a car accident and then forgetting about having done so, sleeping with another woman, and wanting to sleep with still other women. And he steadfastly ignores the good Adam’s advice to cast aside these lesser concerns and practice saying the kaddish (Adam, a student of the Kabbalah, knows whereof he speaks, even though, against Marvin’s better judgment, he chooses the drugs-as-a-way-to-higher-consciousness path. But for him this choice works. Perhaps this is because his drug is simple marijuana; or maybe it’s that he’s already accepted a deeper meaning in life.).
In short, Alex is not working his way up the tree, just as he’s not dipping into the river. His troubles are escalating, and he chooses to deal with them through a series of refusals and denials. This becomes particularly interesting given Alex’s obsession – and the novel’s – with the past. Alex deals in the ephemera of by-gone eras; Adam centers his life around the teachings of an ancient text; the narrator tries to pin down the origin of things, giving, for example, an involved history of London’s Albert Hall. It seems that if Alex stopped and examined his ties to the past – or any ties to the past – he might begin to get somewhere as far as finding meaning is concerned. Rather than think about dead fathers, traditional Jewish prayers, or the point of his autograph fixation, however, Alex instead takes off across the Atlantic for a convention in New York. There, he can not only sell a few famous names, but also undertake a search for Kitty Alexander, the once-known, now-forgotten movie star who possesses the only signature he’s ever really wanted to own. It is only when he finally finds Kitty, understanding through first-hand knowledge that his idea of her is something belonging to the past, that Alex begins to find meaning in the past – and thereby the present and future.
Yet it is not these unfolding events which convey the central moment of the novel. Miraculously, the moment around which all of the other events revolve occurs not in the story’s center but at its beginning and end: Li-Jin, Alex’s father, dies in the prologue and Alex, finally, comes to terms with his death in the epilogue. The miracle here is that, regardless of this, the reader still wants to read the whole middle, where all of the peripheral events take place. It’s as if the novel is a sandwich, but it’s the bread that’s the point and the stuff in the middle just adds some delicious flavor. Or, as Emerson might have more eloquently put it: as if one has to look beyond the boundaries of everyday life – business, relationships, entertainment, the stuff that makes up the bulk of experience – to the edges, where the meaningful things happen.
It must be said that the novel suffers a major flaw: it is too gimmicky, too reliant on generational in-jokes, and too embarrassed by its own potential depth and seriousness – not unlike a very smart teenager who tries desperately hard to blend in inconspicuously with her duller peers. For example, the structure of the book is straightforward, with the plot moving from point A to point Z and the voice consistently that of a third-person omniscient narrator. But there has been an attempt to complicate this refreshing simplicity by breaking the story up into two sections: one with chapter headings based on the ten sections of the Kabbalah, the other with chapter headings based on the practice of Zen. This becomes distracting for a reader, given the many layers of meaning and symbolism already attached to the elements of the Kabbalah alone, along with those Smith adds through her creation of a Kabbalah specific to the life of Alex-Li (and later one specific to the life of Elvis Presley). There are other distractions as well: the list of sub-headings at the start of each chapter that summarize the events that occur within; the diagrams that occur throughout; the unique, handwritten signature given for each famous name each time one is mentioned; the pictures; the word-bubbles; the Hebrew letters and words that make occasional appearances; and even some of the characters, like the cartoonish midget rabbi or the high-class black prostitute-turned-autograph-dealer who has a seemingly irrelevant dirt phobia. These things are funny, yes, and they very cleverly mesh with the larger themes and ideas of the book, but strip them away and you still have a funny book with admirable literary devices that reveal human themes and big ideas. They are overkill, and they detract from one of things that appeals most about Zadie Smith: her penchant for writing long, old-fashioned social satire with great attention to character development.
Nevertheless, the book succeeds. It pierces with its sharp perception of zeitgeist – not only its description and parody of celebrity-obsession, religious confusion, excessive leisure and capital, and other facts of contemporary, middle-class living, but also in the details with which it captures former eras. For example, about the early Seventies: “This is back in the days when you could still hit other people’s children.” About Victorian times: “there is most likely a name for that sort of thing. Something like: Excessive Grief Syndrome (EGS). But in the late nineteenth century…most people were still prepared to call it love.” About the 1940s: “The children speak in slogans now. Li-Jin grew up with clichés. The slogans make the clichés look innocent.” Which brings us round to another of the reasons that Zadie Smith has been so successful as a young novelist: she senses and expresses – as a novelist should – a feeling which helps define the generation she is part of, the one she writes for and about. That feeling is nostalgia. Not just any kind of nostalgia, but particularly nostalgia for things that have never been experienced, that disappeared forever before we were even born.

--Amy Rosenberg
11 March 2003

Additional Information

Zadie Smith Page -- Maintained by AuthorTrek, this page is developing a Web-annotation to White Teeth.

Bold Type Zadie Smith Page -- A small page set up by Random House, it holds an interview and excerpts from her work.


Email Amy Rosenberg at:

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.