Zadie Smith's first book, White Teeth, published to international acclaim two years ago, was a sprawling, multigenerational, multicultural, lively, and frequently brilliant comic novel about modern London. The novel began with a bold stride, began to stumble about midway through, then fell flat on its face at the end. I read the first half of that novel grinding my teeth with envy. In Archie Jones, the despairing yob ("A man whose pleasures were English breakfasts and DIY. A dull man, an old man. And yet Ó good."), and his endlessly tested, endlessly tempted friend, Samad Iqbal, Smith had brought forth two characters with bottomless comic potential. The absurdly inflated shape of Smith's narrative was on loan from Salman Rushdie, the Oxford-wiseass prose style from Martin Amis, but that's of little consequence with a new writer¨Rushdie and Amis themselves owe their early books to Gunter Grass and Kingsley Amis, respectively. Anyway, no great writer's first book has ever been perfect, just look at Joyce (Chamber Music), Nabokov (Mary), or Larkin (The North Sea), three more deities in Smith's literary universe. You write your first book so that you can write your second. What was important was Smith's verve, ambition and undeniable skill, all of which made the novel's slow descent into dull, didactic farce all the more frustrating. By the time White Teeth dragged itself to its ridiculous, self-immolating climax, I was disappointed but not disillusioned¨Zadie Smith is a very good writer, I thought, and it won't be long before she writes a great book.
I still feel that way, but The Autograph Man (doomed to be called Smith's "follow-up" novel) isn't it. This is a novel primarily concerned with the search for the authentic in a world dominated by the artificialities of image, celebrity, and pop culture. If your eyes started to roll during that last sentence, it gets worse. Imagine a novel in which the main character, Alex-Li Tandem, is a twenty-something, half-Chinese, half-Jewish autograph collector whose father fell over dead while twelve-year-old Alex-Li was off trying to get a wrestler's autograph. This same bi-cultural autograph man is obsessed with a reclusive, 50's film starlet named Kitty Alexander, whose greatest film was The Girl From Peking, in which the young Russian actress plays a poor Chinese girl who comes to America to become "the toast of Hollywood"¨ironies upon ironies! Oh, and did I mention that Alex's best friend is a black pot-head who's into the mystical end of Judaism? Or that another friend is a reform rabbi with a thing for Harrison Ford? Or that Alex-Li is writing a book in which everything he can think of, under such headings as "Food", "Clothes", "The Nineteenth Century", and "The Lyrics of John Lennon", is divided into two categories, Jewish and Goyish. This comes from a famous extended riff by Lenny Bruce ("Balls are goyish. Titties are Jewish.") quoted at the front of The Autograph Man. Or that the novel is separated into two sections¨"Mountjoy: The Kabbalah of Alex-Li Tandem" and "Roebling Heights: The Zen of Alex-Li Tandem". I probably shouldn't mention that before he died, Alex's father signed a pound note for his son and each of his friends¨giving them autographs, in other words. Or that the novel takes place just before a very reluctant Alex is scheduled to say Kaddish for his father.
In the world of The Autograph Man, the two fundamentals are films and Jewishness; these are the primary colours used to paint everything¨"the story of the [The Girl From Peking], essentially, was the progress from the picture on the right to the picture on the left. You had to read the video case backwards, like Hebrew." Alex's obsession with Kitty, then, is a yearning for a God. In case the point is missed, Kitty is described as being "as awkward and invisible as Jehovah. She was aloof. The public hated her for it." And again: "A man wavers against awe and rage at the very famous, as he does at the idea of God."
While The Autograph Man desperately piles on the ironies and poignancies, its central character does little more than slouch around, feeling ambivalent about everything. As a result, the novel manages to feel simultaneously manic and half-asleep. It also feels incredibly dated¨it is baffling that Smith would choose such a hoary old bugbear as film to set against spirituality, especially since Walker Percy did the very same thing in his 1961 novel, The Moviegoer. Besides, television long ago surpassed Hollywood as the main medium of fame. Smith's vision of movie stars-as-gods is fairly obsolete. If many of us still look to celebrities as gods, we have become not merely pantheistic, but hylozoistic, making celebrity gods out of everybody. And no novel trying to make a point about fame this late in the day should be reduced to creakily invoking both Andy Warhol and Elvis Presley.
Like a grumpy old man, The Autograph Man is constantly pointing out how inauthentic everything has become¨characters are always making the "International Gesture" for this-or-that. On the subway, three woman demonstrate "what three women having fun look like." Even the interiors of passenger jets are shown up as fraudulent¨"Nothing on this plane has anything to do with flying, just as his desktop doesn't have anything to do with the processing of information. Pretty pretty pictures." Human behaviour and society has always been a mix of the authentic and the inauthentic, the "truth" and the "story"¨for a self-absorbed, Holden Caulfield-esque character like Alex-Li to suddenly notice this is defensible, for a novel to do so is not.There is further small irony in getting lectured about this sort of thing by a book that reads uncannily like Money-era Martin Amis, attempting the same cross-Atlantic, ketchup-on-curry clash of America and Britain. Again, a new writer can be forgiven for showing her influences a little too clearly, but Smith will have to forge a voice and sensibility that is undeniably hers before she can go on at us about being inauthentic. Smith can do better than this. There is a profusion of good lines here¨my favourite, when Alex-Li looks at his ageing face in the mirror: "The catch in his face, the one that held things up, this had been released."¨but there is so much here that is simply beneath her, so many of the jokes and ideas (in a comic universe, jokes are ideas) are simply obvious and banal. And good lines don't add up to a good book. In fact they can easily add up to the opposite, something Smith is well aware of:
Aesthetic failures are failures of truth. They're untruthful to the souls of people. That's a bit wishy-washy language, but that's what we'redealing with. If you turn a joke because you just want to show how clever you are, and at the expense of that a character loses something, that's a lie. It's a metaphysical lie, it's an aesthetic lie, and it's a terrible mistake. (from an interview, 2002)
The very fact that she can point this out makes me hold out hope for Zadie Smith's next book. ˛