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Not a patch on White Teeth,
This review is from: The Autograph Man (Paperback)
Having read the brilliant, and truly five-star White Teeth, I must confess to being more than disappointed by Zadie Smith's follow-up The Autograph Man. Admittedly, the fact that I read it in fits and starts didn't help with my attempts to view the novel as a coherent whole, but maybe that's the point: I simply wasn't motivated to read more than bitesize chunks at a time.
Smith is undoubtedly talented, and the novel is filled with chinks of light, but I didn't warm to the central character, Alex-Li Tandem, and certainly wasn't impressed by the endless references to Goyish and Jewish, and the suffocating presence of Jewish mysticism as embodied by Alex's friend Adam. On the whole, indeed, the novel presents a remarkably unenlightened picture of Judaism, with Alex at best agnostic, the predilections of the aforementioned Adam, and their friend Rubinfine, who loons around London with a cabal of militant fellow rabbis, apparently in search of items of furniture and the like.
The plot is interesting, particularly in the way in which Smith threatens to fail to resolve the future of Alex and Esther's relationship, before giving us a hint of the truth at the end. The ending is thoroughly unsatisfactory. Alex's quest for the Holy Grail that is a genuine Kitty Alexander, and the unusual twists and turns which it takes, is the most engaging feature of the book, particularly in the way that Smith contrasts Kitty first with the more overtly sexual Honey Alexander, and then with the long suffering Esther whom, lest we forget, Alex abandons on the eve of a heart operation to jet off to an autograph convention.
Whilst these elements, together with a fairly astute dissection of the cult of celebrity, are well observed, there is much in the novel, and particularly the overwhelming fascination with Judaism, which dampens its effect. Like so many authors before her Smith, who worked wonders with a debut novel of ambition and scope in White Teeth, has failed to live up to her billing with her second. Smith is still young, however, and a return to form is assured.