Books Read in 2015 46. The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith


Genre: Literary Fiction, Religion

Narrative Style: Third person largely from Alex’s perspective

Rating 4/5

Published: 2002AutographMan

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Alex Li-Tandem collects autographs for a living and is obsessed with Kitty Alexander. He is so desperate for her autograph that he writes to her every day. When, after a drunken binge, he finds he has her autograph everyone thinks he has faked it but the truth is much much stranger. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge.

Time on Shelf: About ten years. I bought this and White Teeth at the same time. I read White Teeth straightaway and loved it. I meant to read this not long after but other books got in the way.

This is an interesting book. It is interesting in a number of ways. It is about fame from the point of view of non-celebrity autograph men who hunt for memorabilia like vultures. It shows the fickle nature of the market where what counts is not how famous you were but how many times you signed your name. Alex is obsessed with getting Kitty’s autograph for just this reason. She rarely signed anything and so it would be a tremendous coup to have one.

The second way it is interesting is the way it talks about religion and Jewishness. Alex himself is half Jewish and it would seem that this is the reason that he splits everything into two camps – Jewishness or Goyishness. One of his best friends is a rabbi, another has found transcendence through his dope smoking. He is fully immersed in Jewish culture without ever being an actual part of it. I must admit that I don’t know a lot about Judaism (or any religion really) but I could understand Alex’s wish to keep his distance from it all and the way it made him feel uncomfortable.

Finally, this is a novel about death. At the very beginning, Alex’s father dies, a loss which Alex is still recovering from as an adult. His death permeates the whole story. Alongside it, is the idea of fame as an avoidance of death – your image and your things live on after you. Those who leave nothing in the way of autographs and so on, might as well be dead even before the event occurs. When Kitty’s death is mistakenly announced , Alex takes the opportunity to sell all his autographs while the price is high. Even Kitty, although annoyed at first, soon sees the monetary value.

The novel was funny as you might expect given Smith’s reputation as a writer of humour. There are some great gags such as the running joke of Alex constantly being thwarted by a group of Rabbis trying to get an improbably large piece of furniture into an unfeasibly small car. But the real strength of this novel is the description of Alex’s grief and his arrested development because of it. The reader can empathise with Alex’s pain and his difficulties in moving forward. It was touching without being sentimental and funny without being cruel. A very enjoyable read.