Book Review: The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith
“All fandom is a form of tunnel vision: warm and dark and infinite in one direction.” – The Narrator
There is nothing more treacherous than fame. At one point, it is an asset then, at the next, it is a liability. This is because nobody is the master of fame and everyone, even the Brad Pitts and the Angelina Jolies of the world will fade into obscurity. The only people who can profit and prosper from fame are those from the outside of fame, those that make the fame of others their source of livelihood. They are called Autograph Men, those who sell the signature of famous people varying from Star Wars-era Harrison Ford to the taboo that is Adolf Hitler. Only such men, these Autograph Men, can make fame an ally.
Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man is a story of such a man mentioned above. Alex-Li Tadem, a half-Chinese, half-Jewish man who walks through life peddling the signature of others; offering to people the chance to experience and own a sliver of other people’s fame for a price, of course. For Alex-Li, his ultimate goal is to get an autograph Kitty Alexander, a reclusive star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, who rarely gives autographs and memorabilia. For Alex-Li, Kitty Alexander is the Holy Grail and he is one of King Arthur’s knights who will do anything to get it. In this case, “anything” constitutes writing letters to Kitty. Alex-Li’s world is overturned when, after a very wild trip due to drugs, he acquires two autographs of Kitty Alexander. From this point, the story goes haywire with Alex-Li being questioned about the authenticity of the autographs; Alex-Li going to New York to participate in an autograph convention and visit the home of Kitty Alexander; encountering a mysophobic prostitute; Kitty Alexander living in his home; dealing with his father’s death; dealing with his friends, girlfriend and mistress; and imbibing different alcoholic drinks alphabetically.
The people in Alex-Li’s life are as much a character as Alex-Li himself. Accompanying him in the colorful cast of characters is his girlfriend Esther, a lovely girl whose only fault for Alex-Li is that she is real to him unlike Kitty Alexander; Adam, Esther’s brother and Alex-Li’s best friend, who is a very devout Jew who engages in the occasional (read: a lot) joint; Joseph, another friend of Alex, a former Autograph Man who is now an insurance salesman who envies Alex-Li’s vocation and love life; and Rabbi Max, another friend, who is a rabbi that tries to guide Alex through the Jewish faith while fitting Brobdingnagian furniture in Lilliputian cars. These are the core characters, including Kitty Alexander, which helps move the plot forward, backward, and sideways.
The story is not conventional as it does not follow a specific plot. It is more of “a week in the life” kind of story that details what happens to Alex-Li in the course of a week. The story is interposed with a lot of graphic and written intermissions in the form of jokes, drawings, Jewish illustrations, and (in the case of the prologue) the four-letter word for the name that cannot be named of the Jewish faith. All of this, along with Zadie Smith’s mastery of language, creates a rich and textured book even though it only clocks at around 340 pages.
All in all, it gave me an insight into the inner workings of fame, as interpreted by Zadie Smith. We see characters who try to catch a sliver of this elusive good and yet not everyone is successful in this endeavor. One has to suffer, as some of the characters in the book did, embarrassment, neglect, ridicule, and even death. Being an Autograph Man is not only a business because it is also a sacrifice. Alex-Li sacrificed his relationships, his cleanliness, and his health just to complete his search for his Holy Grail. And, in the end, did he achieve the only thing, which is the resurrection of his father, which can make him happy? Sadly, no.
The Autograph Man is a good book that exceeded my expectations since I have read that this is Zadie Smith’s weakest work of fiction. If this is indeed her weakest work, I am now more excited to read her other books especially her magnum opus, White Teeth.