Long Awaited Reads Month: The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

Long-Awaited reads month buttonI read far less than I hoped to this month. In fact, I was hoping to read at least two books for Long Awaited Reads Month; instead, I only read one, Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man. In fact, I finished it last week, and since then, I’ve been trying to think about what I want to say about it.

The problem is this: the book is pretty good. It’s Zadie Smith, for starters, so at least one knows going in that the writing will be better than fine. The Autograph Man is the story of Alex-Li Tandem, a half-Jewish, half-Chinese English boy (okay, he’s in his late twenties, but trust me, he’s a boy) who lives in a suburb of London called Mountjoy. Long story short: when the book opens, Alex’s father is taking Alex and his friends Adam and Rubinfine to see a wrestling match. At the match the boys meet Joseph, who’s been dragged there by his own father. Joseph is a collector of sorts, dealing in autographs. A tragic accident happens that afternoon. Fast forward 15 years later, and Alex is an autograph man, which is exactly what it sounds like: a person (a man, right) who deals in items autographed by famous people. For Alex, the most desirable autograph is that of Kitty Alexander, a Hollywood movie star from the 1930s and 1940s whom Alex admires. Alex messes things up a lot. He frustrates his friends. He takes a trip to New York City and seeks out the elusive Kitty Alexander.

I’m making it sound more boring than it really is. I enjoyed it, mostly. I just can’t decide how I want to write about it. I’m pretty sure I missed a lot. For example, Book One of The Autograph Man is The Kabbalah of Alex-Li Tandem. I could talk about how if you have knowledge of Kabbalah, it will probably help you with the book’s structure, and you’ll probably get a subtext (no pun intended) that I didn’t. But you can also probably read it (as I did) without looking up anything and still enjoy it. (Okay, I actually did look it up, but not until I’d already finished Book One, so it doesn’t count.)

I guess I should be embarrassed that I didn’t try to figure out what Smith was doing with the book, but in all honesty, I just didn’t want to. I wasn’t up for the challenge. Or rather, for a pretty simple coming-of-age story, the challenge seemed unnecessary. If one strips away all the clever artifice and references, the story is  simple: a boy who still grieves for his father, who has never been sure how to grow up. The boy has friends who care and want to help. The boy must go on a journey to see what is really important in life.

A better title for this book might be, “Writer Amuses Herself with Own Talent.” I know, ouch. And I like Zadie Smith–or at least I think I like her. The only other thing I’ve ever read by her was On Beauty (which is based on E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, a book with which I was already familiar), and I enjoyed it a great deal. She is very critically acclaimed and all that, and I’ve accepted it all on the basis of that one book. And she seems to be…everywhere.

Sometimes it’s a pleasure to read a book where one can tell the author is having a lot of fun or has really hit a stride. And then there are other times when a book can seem just a little too clever, as though the author found (or created) a place to use all those clever lines and observations she’s been collecting in a notebook over the years.  This book definitely falls into the latter category.  I sort of felt like Smith was doing jazz hands on every page, and it got old about halfway through.

I resisted writing about this book, but I knew I really needed to because it was technically the only thing fitting the bill for Long Awaited Reads Month. If you have it in your stacks, read it. You won’t be wasting your time. If you consider yourself a Smith fan and this is the only one you haven’t read, definitely pick it up. For me, the jury is out. If The Autograph Man were the first Smith I’d read, I’m not sure I would want to read anything else by her, in all honesty. Still, I’m glad I read it, but I have a feeling that the next book I read by her will be the one to tip me toward reading more or away from her altogether.

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9 comments

  1. I have never been able to read anything by her. We are not buddies,, or even acquainted really. Oh she lives on my shelves but we keep our distance. Doesn’t sound like we will bond with this book either. I guess one shouldn’t expect to be friends with everyone one reads. Huh……

  2. I haven’t read this one, but I’ve had similar thoughts whilst reading her other books. I started NW last month, but haven’t finished it. I can see it is entertaining, but it just isn’t striking the right chord with me. I felt equally unmoved with her earlier books. I thikn she and I just don’t click :-(

  3. Jackie, that happens. Unfortunately that’s also the way I feel about Dave Eggers. I tried to read his first book and have never been able to get myself to even try anything else, even though I know you like him and I trust your opinion!

  4. I tried reading White Teeth and eventually gave up – not sure why I couldn’t finish it. Maybe it was the mood I was in at the time.

    I’ve since bought The Autograph Man – but haven’t yet started it, and today I ordered NW.
    I’m not sure why I coninue to buy her books considering my reaction to her first novel wasn’t really positive.

    Maybe its because I’ve found her to be such a good speaker in her interviews and she makes me WANT to like her books.

  5. Onesimus, I really did like On Beauty, but I also completely get where you’re coming from…and the farther I get from Autograph Man, the less I like it. I see her skill. I see HER. Not characters, not story–author.

  6. Hi Priscilla,
    that could end up being a reason I might struggle with her books. I’m a character and plot man. While I appreciate skilful and innovative writing, to me the writing needs to serve the story and not vice versa. I recently read The Satanic Verses and felt its main purpose was to show Rushdie’s intellect, although part of the book showed that he could move beyond that to write genuinely moving prose.

    Tim (onesimus)

  7. Tim, you hit the nail on the head. A perfect example of an author managing to write an engaging character and story while also playing a bit with the narrative or offering an interesting framework is Kate Atkinson’s latest, Life After Life. She had ample opportunity to get in the way of the narrative with some clever sleight of hand, or by pointing out what she was doing herself in that “meta” way some authors have, but she never does. Ursula is a full character, and so we willingly go with her on every journey.

  8. I first heard about the Kate Atkinson book on your blog and it seemed like something that would interest me. If I don’t buy it for myself I’ll buy it for my mum’s birthday and read it before I give it to her ; )

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