if I knew The Autograph Man was less good than other novels by Zadie Smith, I did not expect it to be this bad. A tedious read from the first page to the last, Zadie Smith’s second novel looked like a long private joke to me. So I probably did not understand many more or less hidden or complex references, which is my fault, but damn, why make a book so full of itself if it makes it so inaccessible to your readers? For the first time, Zadie Smith has disappointed me. But I was told that she wrote The Autograph Man to counter the writer’s block that was plaguing her, and after that, she gave us On Beauty, so I can’t really bear grudges.
The eponymous autograph man is Alex-Li Tandem, a half-jewish half-Chinese young man who hasn’t come to terms with his father’s brutal death (can one ever come to term with the brutal death of a parent?) and struggles to be emotionally committed to anything other than his vain quest for an autograph he will most likely never obtain, that of reclusive actress Kitty Alexander. If you don’t think this plot looks very interesting, wait until I tell you how tiresome the characters are.
Alex-Li, first of all. What an unbearable, selfish, monstrous ass-hole (pardon my French)! The guy is unpleasant to whomever addresses him, even to his girlfriend who seems to be the only normal character in the novel, and on whom he blithely cheats. Alex-Li is a character who hates the whole word except the one person he can’t reach, and he has no regards for his friends who, for a reason that I cannot fathom, still try to help him and make a decent person out of him. These friends do not exist in this small world except in their relation to Alex, which makes them utterly unconvincing and boring.
Kitty Alexander, the movie star whom Alex is obsessed with and who finally enters the pages of the novel as a full character is just as surreal and literally incredible as the others. That Alex convinces her to leave her New York flat and join her in his untidy flat, in London, is beyond me. The only thing I found interesting about Kitty Alexander is the way her voice is depicted: grammatical mistakes and unnatural rhythm with unexpected commas offer the reader an accurate idea of what her accent sounds like.
Of course Zadie Smith can write. Her prose is the only thing that kept me ploughing through this novel. I did not care at all about the characters, nor the plot. I was not seduced, I did not believe in their strategies, ideas, emotions, decisions… But I loved Zadie Smith’s prose, because she can always surprise me. Her acid irony made me laugh more than once, and this is the least we can expect from a book that represents absolute boredom in other matters. Some paragraphs, elaborating on the comfort an airline company almost forces on you (“No one has desired his comfort and sleep this badly since he was a baby. Everything possible is being done to make him feel that nothing momentous, like flight, is occurring.”) or the impersonality of a hotel rooms, or the morality of getting your car insured… can trigger some interesting thoughts… But that’s only if you’re willing to make the effort. In my case, I was already too bored to ponder over those lines.
So much so that Zadie Smith’s four hundred page reflection on celebrity and anonymity, names, jewishness, attachment and what-have-you went completely over my hand, and frankly, I just wasn’t interested enough to read more in order to fill all the gaps my lack of references opened in my reading.