Book Review: The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith
20th April, 2016
Twenty something Alex Li-Tandem is an obsessed fan. He lives in a world of blind idolization of a Hollywood actress named Kitty. His desperate attempts to get in touch with her even in the middle of a personal disaster and the hurdles in the way of the autograph man is the gist of this work.
Alex Li-Tandem is a Chinese-Jewish man who makes a living out of collecting autographs, signed photographs and letters of celebrities. The story is set in the suburbs of Mountjoy, London where we see the Autograph Man (Alex) dividing everything in the world into Jewish and Goyish.
“People don’t settle for people. They resolve to be with them. It takes faith. You draw a circle in the sand and agree to stand in it and believe in it.”
The contrasting ease with which Alex is able to write heartfelt fan letters to his idol Kitty, for thirteen years, but is unable to communicate in an effective manner with his girlfriend Esther with whom he has had a ten year relationship forms the crux of the story. Zadie has done a brilliant narrative about celebrity obsession mingled with thoughts of love, death, religion and friendship. There are many symbolic references of obstructions (like Alex’s rabbi friends asking him for help to fit a huge piece of furniture in a small car) which can be enjoyed in the literary sense. The plot tightens as Alex finds himself in possession of an autograph of Kitty whose authenticity he is unable to determine. At the same time, his personal life is in a mess with his relationship with Esther being complicated by his acquaintance with a girl named Boot and he finds himself questioning his friendships. The story is about Alex’s journey to find himself, fulfill his dream of meeting Kitty and different perspectives on personal glory and selfless helping.
This is a book you have to work on – put in a few hours of reading and then push yourself to read a portion each day. I found the beginning portions extremely dry but the pace picked on from the middle, which was a relief. I do admit that I am fascinated by the concept of the book which is so original. It gives you an honest glimpse into the autograph market that stands on foundations of big money, agents and unrecognizable forged pieces. The book talks about Judaism, Goyishness and Zen Budhism, both the rational and the blind aspects which I found interesting.
I feel Zadie, being the genius that she is, could have delivered a crisper story by cutting a hundred pages. Her writing is fresh and has no shadows of her previous works unlike many authors who establish their style of writing and tend to get repetitive. This would be a good choice if you want to try out some good writing in contemporary literature, but otherwise it’s a big no-no.
Title: The Autograph Man
Author: Zadie Smith
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About the Author
Zadie Smith, born Sadie Smith in the north-west London, completed her first novel White Teeth during her final year at Cambridge. It made her a prominent literary figure with the response it generated. The Autograph Man is her second novel.