The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

Autograph manMy autograph collection was started in the mid-1960s. It was the final day of a sea-side holiday with my parents. They had bought me an autograph book as a holiday present. Taking a last walk along the promenade we saw Mike Winters, a well-known comedian at the time, part of a double act with his brother Bernie.

My dad approached him and asked if he would sign my book. He agreed and then patiently waited while my mum tried to find a pen in her handbag. Being the last day of the holiday she had used the bag to hold a few things that had been left out of our suitcases, and these were pulled out one by one during the search for the pen, including a pair of pantyhose.

Mike WintersEventually a pink felt-tip was found and my autograph collection was memorably started. Slowly my collection grew, but rarely with any really famous signatures. We had few celebrities around our home village. The most well-known at the time was Jack Bodell, briefly the British heavy weight boxing champion, and uncle of a class mate of mine.

It is only in during the past 20 years or so that my collection gained more prestigious additions, including several “A list” movie stars, prime ministers and other politicians, musicians, athletes and several significant authors.

Is it therefore surprising that Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man appealed to me? I thought I’d bought the book several years ago, around the same time I’d bought her first novel White Teeth; but I searched my library and couldn’t find it. So I bought a(nother) copy and over the Easter weekend read it.

One thing I found a little off-putting early in the book was the use of the name “YHWH” as label to signify breaks within the prologue. “YHWH” is the anglicised equivalent of the Hebrew name of God, a name that devout Jews refuse to speak in fear of breaking the third commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”.
Even as a non-Jew I found the usage inappropriatem unnecessary, and yes – offensive.

I recall Smith writing something in one of her essays about using structural aids in her work, a kind of scaffolding that was helpful while writing that ought to be dismantled after the work was completed. Maybe Smith found something helpful in using “YHWH” in that way, but in leaving it behind, it became (in my view) an irrelevant artefact serving no real purpose.

The Autograph Man of the title is Alex-Li Tandem a man with mixed Chinese and Jewish parentage. His interest in autographs began during childhood and in adulthood developed into a career, buying and selling and authenticating celebrity signatures.

Tandem must be one of the most dysfunctional characters I’ve come across – dabbling in mystical religion (his own version of his friends Kabbalah practice), writing a book that no one is likely to want read (Jewishness and Goyishness), obsessed with a reclusive “golden years of Hollywood” actress and seemingly intent on destroying the long-standing relationship with his girlfriend, the sister of his best friend.

I previously said that my early autograph collection was lacking famous signatures, but what exactly is fame? Smith looks at this question throughout the book. What makes someone sufficiently famous to make their signature worthwhile and collectable? TV exposure? Withdrawing from society after a brief but promising film career like Greta Garbo? Being caught mid-sex act with a celebrity? And in what way does a person’s “claim to fame” define them in other people’s eyes?

The story was enjoyable despite (or because of) the frustration of Tandem’s talent for making the wrong choices, but to me the ending was a disappointment. It brought no feeling of resolution and neither did it leave me with an open question to chew upon afterwards. It just came to an end with no sense that anything had changed in Tandem’s life. He was more or less back where he started, primed to continue the same mildly destructive path, enabled by all too forgiving and tolerant friends who fail to make him accountable for his actions, but continually clear up his wake of damage.

A year or two ago I struggled with Smith’s debut novel White Teeth and eventually gave up on it. After reading The Autograph Man I’m encouraged to go back to that earlier book and give it another chance. But before I do that I’m looking forward to her latest book NW. My copy of it arrived in the mail yesterday.