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The Autograph Man
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 9 February 2008
A disappointing second novel. I enjoyed 'White Teeth' (although it was not perfect), and hoped that 'The Autograph Man' would be even better. It's not. It's painfully self conscious throughout both in the style of writing and in its contrived multiculturalism. (Look! My character is half Chinese and half Jewish! Aren't I clever!) In fact, her characters are more or less utterly defined by their race and/or religion, and rather than having the individual charactersitics and personalities that would make them interesting. In fact, the main criteria for appearing in this novel seems to be as unlikely an ancestery as possible, rather than being a well rounded and entertaining character. Smith has clearly decided that multicutural identity is her main selling point and she is going to labour it throughout.

It's not that the issues around multicuturalism don't offer plenty of scope for great fiction, and it's certainly a very trendy topic. But as with any story there needs to be a good plot and engaging characters to carry the reader along. The most effective books dealing topical issues of this kind do it subtly, so the reader encounters the writer's insights conincidentally whilst enjoying a good story. Smith's writing is about as subtle as an elephant.

The main character, Alex, is irritating and uninteresting. I couldn't bring myself to care about him or his search autographs and enlightenment. This might have been bearable had he been supported by a great cast of secondary characters, but unfortunately these were mostly as bad. The story was dull and forgettable - even though I only finished it recently, I'm already struggling to remember what happened.

There are so many great modern novels dealing with clashes between cultures and identity that readers can afford to pick and choose in the genre. Unless you have a passion for collecting autographs yourself - and even if you do - I wouldn't recommend this one.
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on 20 September 2016
I have owned this book for a long time but could never get past the brilliantly written prologue for some reason. On my recent successful attempt at reading the book I remember the reason... the rest of it is so hard to read! It seems very clever and intellectual at times, just for the sake of being clever and made me feel unintelligent and unworthy of reading it when I didn't quite understand all the Jewish quirky nuances. White Teeth is one of my favourite books and I have re-read it many times, so I was hoping for good things but, the characters are unlikable (who in their right mind would want to be friends with or have a relationship with Alex??) and it REALLY plods along. The storyline itself I found pretty uninteresting - but then again I am not interested in the whole 'celebrity worship' culture. Disappointing all in all...
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on 20 April 2004
I tried to go into the Autograph Man with an open-mind, determined not tocompare it to White Teeth, Smith's debut novel and one of the best Britishnovels of the last ten years. It always seems unfair to compare new workto the best an author, or indeed has produced, especially a book aspopular as White Teeth. However, by the end of The Autograph Man I wasleft feeling slightly disappointed that she has turned in a mediocrenovel, and not the promise she showed in White Teeth failed to completelyshine through.
The initial premise of the book, focussing upon a group of friends unitedby their love of autograph hunting, was an interesting choice of matter,if not an obvious commentary on Smith's brushes with fame since thepublication of her debut novel. She attempts to get to the bottom of abizarre and interesting hobby, and makes a number of witty and subtleobservations on the nature of fame and celebrity.
However, this appears to be lost with the characters she chooses toexamine it through. She appears to have attempted to write the mostpolitically correct series of characters ever to have graced literature -the central characters are Jewish, but each is from a separate ethnicminority. None of them ring true, especially when compared to thestruggles of identity contained within White Teeth. As the characters aremore united by autographs than by their faith or identity, it is hard tosee why she chose a set of such unrealistic characters.
Alex Li-Tandem, the chief protagonist, is a deeply unsympathetic character- he is uncaring, selfish and effuses to take responsibility for his life.It is hard to care what ultimately happens to him. His friends areone-dimensional, and do not really seem to develop. The most interestingcharacters in the book were minor players- Brian Duchamp, an aging man whofakes autographs, and Kitty Alexander, an old Hollywood star. They havelives that are worth investigating and fleshing out, yet are sidelinedAlex and his friends. The book only really takes off towards the end whenKitty enters the novel, yet is slightly too late to rescue the novel.
That is not to say that the book does not have any merit to it. Herwriting is occasionally witty, and her observations about London suburbsare sharp and witty. She is willing to experiment with the prose, alteringthe page lay-out, adding in diagrams and hand-written text. Thesubject-matter is very interesting, and the opening section matches anypassages in White Teeth. The book also rattles on at a fair pace.
Ultimately The Autograph Man in an exercise in disappointment. It wasalways unlikely that Smith would produce another masterstroke, but thereis so much in the book that could have been improved, starting with thecharacterisation. This is not a bad book, merely average. However, itstill shows much potential and I am looking forward to reading her nextnovel. Wonder if I could get an autograph from her in the meantime?
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on 21 December 2011
I'm not altogether sure about this book. It's about a few weeks in the life of a half-Hong Kong Chinese, half Jewish man (called Alex-Li Tandem) who gets into collecting (and dealing in) autographs, with one actress (Kitty Alexander), being his favourite (and a particular goal of his).

The book traces (briefly) how Tandem got into autograph hunting and dealing, and then examines his efforts to meet Ms. Alexander, and what happens after they meet.

It's not a bad book, but I'm not sure what to think of it. Tandem isn't the most likeable person in the world (he's like most immature late 20-somethings who do typically thoughtless not quite grown up yet late 20-something things), and nothing much happens. So part of me is inclined to think, what's the point of the book?
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 20 February 2012
An everyday tale, really, keeps you reading but nothing terribly original or special. The language is what lifts this story out of the mundane. The last five paragraphs were lyrical and perfect and yet the end was a disappointment - it went on too long but ended too soon.

I would have liked to see more of what happened with Kitty, would have liked to see more of what happened to Max, what happened to Alex once it became known that...

But I don't want to spoil.

Very funny, touching; beautifully written - especially when the prose touches on those small moments of everyday life and brushes them with magic. It's not Zadie Smith's best book, but definitely worth a chunk of your time.
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on 4 August 2014
I loved this book. It's the best I've read in a long time. I'm surprised by the other reviews. I picked it up by chance and couldn't put it down. It races along. It's funny, quirky, sad, enlightening and beautifully written. I hadn't realised that the autograph man was someone who dealt in autographs, so was introduced to a whole new world. I really liked Alex-Li and his friends, both boyhood and professional, and enjoyed pottering around London with them. I liked its domesticity and home town feel. The New York section was fun, very filmic. Honey and Kitty were great characters too, but as celebs not as real as the London people. I'd read White Teeth which was ok, but The Autograph Man has made me think I should read it again. In the meantime, I'm now reading NW. So far, so good.
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on 12 February 2010
The initial hype around Smith has hopefully now faded so that we can judge her books in a more realistic light - and in that light this is still a great, great novel. The prose is superb, combining jokes, great images, and intellectual references all with a lightness of touch and sense of pace. I found myself rereading sentences just for the sheer pleasure they gave me.

I'll leave others to describe the plot and characters - suffice to say Smith is spinning a lot of plates here, and makes it all look effortless.
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on 3 October 2002
The Autograph Man is the most disappointing second novel since Harper Lee owned up to ghosting that Britney Spears book. I loved White Teeth - and yahboo to those who just praised its precocity; it was a great read whatever the author's age - and expected to be entirely bowled over by The Autograph Man. And perhaps that was the trouble - my expectations were so high that I'd be bound to feel let down if I didn't actually die of pleasure.
But on any reading it's just not that good. Where White Teeth was warm, Autograph Man is trying-to-be-cool but just ending up cold; where there was colour, now there is monochrome; where that was amiable, this is standoffish. The main characters are colourless and mostly ciphers for Smith's points-to-be-made on Judaism and celebrity. And most of the jokes had my toes curling all the way up to my spine ("Alex had read about dignified silences in novels. This was his first attempt." Stop trying so hard!!). It rises to Smith's unquestionable potential only in two places: the prologue, with its excellent digressive and funny narrative on Victoria and Albert and 1980s wrestling; and the third quarter of the book, set in America, where we meet the only interesting characters in Kitty Alexander and Honey Richardson.
Overall The Autograph Man - astonishingly and crushingly - seems like a step backwards from White Teeth, and not a flowering. Still, she's only 27 and has got her c**p book in early. Fingers crossed that it's all up, up and away from here.
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on 3 March 2010
disappointing. I like zadie smith, loved white teeth and enjoy her essays and lit crit stuff. This novel doesn't work for me; the jokes don't come off, the celebrity as signifier motif never really came clear and the characters seemed unrealistic, selfish and most importantly, unbelievable. I never really bought into the characters, which is the first hurdle for fiction.

I'll persevere with Zadie and assume this one's a blip.
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on 21 June 2003
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.
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