by Zadie Smith
Publisher: Random House
Pub. Date: October 2002
Accused of being a "one-hit-wonder" after the internationally acclaimed White Teeth, 20 something Zadie Smith attempts to prove her worth with her second novel "The Autograph Man", but this overly self-conscious forced book leaves much to be desired. The story is that of an autograph collector and trader, Alex-Li Tandem, and his obsession with obtaining a rare signature from 40's movie star Kitty Alexander.
Smith seems to be trying to say something about the struggle of identity in her characters, constantly bringing up the fact that Alex is half Chinese and half Jewish, but this theme never comes to fruition. Alex is a bland, unlikable character, who is portrayed as some sort of a neglected genius always dreaming of "working on his book". Alex's book entitled "Jewishness and Goyishness" didn't seem to me to be a work of a genius at all, but rather was a book devoted to offensive stereotypes. According to Alex's book anything "goyish" was bad, humorless, posh, and backwards, while anything "Jewish" was worthwhile, sexy and humble. The word "goyish" appeared on almost every page of the book being used as a derogatory term. Possibly more disturbing than the content of Alex's book, was the fact that it seemed to have nothing to do with his character, for he wasn't religious at all, and seemed to resent the fact that his close friends were all rabbis or devote Jews. Smith never resolved the issue of Alex's obsession over his stereotyping book, though mention of it disappears as the story progresses.
Equally offensive was Smith's strange mix of characters. In what seems an unsuccessful attempt to be politically correct, she included a wide variety, from a young woman with a pacemaker, to an obsessive compulsive Buddhist, to a black Jewish family, to a group of partying midgets lead by a midget rabbi. Instead of integrating these characters into the storyline, they come across as cardboard caricatures. Smith's dry witty humor that made White Teeth so readable was reduced to stereotypical jokes about goyim and midgits.
There were a few saving graces to "The Autograph Man". Smith's skills as a writer are still very much worthy of her prior praises. Her descriptions seem to glide across the page, creating wonderful imagery, ranking up with Proust's power of making a minute event seem like a monumental occurrence. In her defense, I truly believe her intentions were to be humorous with her "Jewishness and Goyishness" references, a starting point idea from which "The Autograph Man" grew out of, but the finished storyline had ventured so far from its birth, that the two just clashed. Smith seems to have buckled under the pressure to prove herself on as a writer, forcing a second novel to the public in what seems to be a half finished state.