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The Autograph Man
The Autograph Man
by Zadie Smith
Edition: Hardcover

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Retreading old ground, 14 April 2003
This review is from: The Autograph Man (Hardcover)
Having read the other reviews of this book on the site, it seems that any appreciation of this book must be founded in an appreciation of White Teeth as well. I enjoyed White Teeth; and found it exciting to read an author writing with such freedom, and yes, I did expect a lot from The Autograph Man.
The novel centers around Alex-Li Tandem, "one of this generation who watch themselves", which becomes something of a mantra for the construction of the novel. It is concerned primarily with fame and celebrity, and our continuing fascination with both, something which obviously had an impact on Smith after the publication of White Teeth. She examines what fame is, what appeals to us and what lengths we will go to feel the reflected glory of celebrity; and yet there is always something missing. Smith seems to have nothing new to say on the topic. All emotions are reduced to token symbols and these IGs, International Gestures, soon become an irritation. They are used to show shorthand communication in the modern world ; but all this has been done before. At worst it feels that Smith is forcing her characters through the motions - Alex-Li's decision to drink his way through the alphabet of alcoholic brand-names feels like an episode tacked on at the end to illustrate a heavy-handed point about how everything is reduced to a symbol.This oint is made repeatedly and at length throughout the book. There seems to be no motivation to Alex-Li's actions, other than his pursuit of Kitty's autograph, and consequently it is hard to empathise with a character who cares so little for himself, and yet only for himself. There is absolutely no emotional engagement with Alex-Li, making the second storyline, that of his search for a father-figure difficult to find credible. There seems to be no great impulse to his search; it seems to be something done out of a feeling of duty rather than desire, or love. But maybe that it the point of it; for Smith time and again sacrifices interesting plot avenues in favour of making cheap points about the nature of celebrity. As for the other characters, only Kitty seems to have any life in her; the rest function better as allegories for aspects of Judaism or celebrity, than stand-alone characters.
Having spoken about these problems I had with the story may give the impression that it is a poor book: it is not. Smith's prose is enviable - she has a real talent with words, and at times is a pleasure to read. She also has an ability to write conversation that flows naturally, an area many contemporary authors struggle with.
As a novel set in the past, White Teeth was drawn tightly together by history, and there was potential to do the same with religion in The Autograph Man, but the weakness of the central character prevents any kind of credible engagement of the two main themes of Judaism and celebrity. An investigation of Judaism would have been an interesting read, as would a short story on the fascination of celebrity, but together, they require a stronger link than Alex-Li Tandem to create as complete a novel as Smith would have wanted.

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