Zadie Smith – The Autograph Man

For someone with my particular literary damage, reading this novel for the first time in 2014 was a lot like having the arguments of 2001 all over again.  If literary critic James Wood’s attack on what he deemed “hysterical realism” has a fitting target it is this over-eager, initially likeable but ultimately tiresome second novel from Smith.

The story of “twenty-something Chinese-Jewish autograph dealer” Alex-Li Tandem’s frantic, free-wheeling attempts to lose himself in the search for his pop culture obsession, The Autograph Man spends its four hundred plus pages tilting after a curiously overdetermined sort of oblivion.  To mangle a Samuel Johnston quote most boys of my age know by way of popular wise guy Hunter S. Thompson, Tandem acts in the belief that he who becomes his hobbies spares himself the pain of being a man.  The novel follows suit, hence the ever-egressing framework of Kabbalistic associations, Zen progressions, verbal tics (“the popular” and ”wise guy” chief among them), Rabbinical comedy routines and generally excessive detail.  All of this by way of keeping Tandem from dealing with the world’s tendency towards impermanence and disorder: these events take place in the build-up to the tenth anniversary of his fathers’ death, and in the aftermath of a destructive trip that seems like it might cost Tandem most of his established relationships, and also his car.

The overlapping structures of this novel are all fine and sturdy, and have elsewhere proven themselves more than capable of supporting, variously: an Oscar Wilde aphorism, an essay by Walter Benjamin (“wise guy” and recipient of the novel’s worst punchline), the occult adventure comic Promethea, and an excellent graphic novel by Eddie Campbell.  There’s nothing to say that they couldn’t provide the framework for an excellent Zadie Smith novel too, but the difference between The Autograph Man and all of the aforementioned works is that Smith’s imaginative scaffolding seems to exist around very little that was worth supporting in the first place.

What we have is an extended description of the absence felt by an absence.  It’s clear from the novel’s prologue onwards – in which the main characters are introduced as young boys, out for a trip to a wrestling match with Tandem senior on the day of his death – that Smith’s prose is working towards this end.  Before the novel has even made it to its first chapter, the narrative excesses are in full effect:

This afternoon these two hulking men are here to demonstrate Justice. The kind Mr Gerry Bowen [Block M, Seat 117] can’t get in the courts in compensation for his son’s accidents; the kind that Jake [Block T, Seat 59] won’t get from school whether chooses to squeal on those bastards or not; the kind Finn [Block B, Seat 10] can’t seem to get from girls no matter what changes he makes to his wardrobe or record collection or personal hygiene; the kind Li-Jin [Block K, Seat 75] can’t get from God.

My description of Smith’s technique might risk make this sound like a fearsome, avant-garde work, hopefully this excerpt should make it clear that what we are dealing with here is the baroque commonplace.  Style and character are clearly matched here in their obsession with cataloguing the extraneous; the surplus of information provided works against its own lyricism (those seating positions are just that bit of stray detail too far), with the end result being a paragraph that goes to such lengths to make the implications of its first sentence clear that it ends up undermining the whole thing.

All of this, remember, in service of what isn’t so much an observation about life or justice or wrestling as it is a riff on one of Roland Barthes more famous essays – one that I linked to on this blog earlier in the week.    

Again, I fear that I have made The Autograph Man sound more bracing than it truly is: the bourgeois novel that un-writes itself as it goes on.  Sadly, all of this is deployed in service of the traditional novelistic movement towards change and understanding – having made the obvious so obvious as to seem incredible, Smith replaces it with yet more obviousness.

In context, Alex’s final performance of Kaddish for his father feels about as convincing and worthwhile as this sentence.  The novel’s epilogue is a rapture of observed gestures, prefaced by a quote from Peter Handke contesting that such obvious tics are all we have to sustain us.  Sadly, the abundance of motions that fill The Autograph Man feel less like a response to this idea and more like a try-hard performance from a talented young comedian with too little material and too much to prove.

Zadie Smith - Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

Ten stray thoughts that occurred while reading Changing My Mind:

  1. Zadie Smith remains a great writer who has yet to write a truly great book, but Changing My Mind is – perhaps somewhat unexpectedly – the closest she’s come to achieving her full potential so far.
  2. That the great, youthful mess of White Teeth cohered rather too forcefully was easily forgiven if you shared Smith’s apparent need to show that such coherence was still possible; that her most recent novel NW would be perfectly imperfect if it had the courage to stop thirty pages earlier is rather more frustrating.
  3. As Smith admits in one of the pieces collected here (Two Paths for the Novel), her prose fiction is bound by the lyrical realist tradition to which she subscribes only awkwardly; as a book of essays accrued during a period where she was struggling with the weighty task of writing a novel, Changing My Mind has a sense of lightness to it that suits her well.
  4. While writing about writing, Smith worries about the idea of “The Novel” as only someone who has already decided that they are “A Novelist” can.
  5. Despite what you might think if you keep up with the thoughts of working novelists, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Smith’s brings a careful, practitioner’s eye to her criticism, finding rarely mentioned commonalities between David Foster Wallace and Philip Larkin, reading George Eliot as someone who tested the form of the novel to its extremes, and describing the temptations of unnecessary structure that blight her second novel, The Autograph Man, with a sharpness of intent that would impress its harshest critics.
  6. That she makes such observations while showing a rare commitment to brevity only makes this book more impressive; I borrowed and expanded upon Smith’s self-criticism above to little advantage.
  7. Smith also turns out to be a great, casual film reviewer. While her writings on, say, Get Rich or Die Trying, Good Night and Good Luck or V for Vendetta may be more compelling for the personality they reveal than from any deep technical insight, Smith’s character is nonetheless bright enough to illuminate these movies, and her criteria for evaluating popular entertainment (how stupid do you have to make yourself to enjoy it, and how much pleasure do you receive in return) performs that rarest of critical miracles: it is genuinely useful in everyday life.
  8. The long pieces of remembrance are the strongest things here. Writing about David Foster Wallace by way of his short fiction, and about her own father by way of his taste for the comedy of failure, Smith finds a way to use her knowledge of her own craft to cast light on the personalities of others.
  9. These essays fixate on ephemera as a way of writing about death and absence in a way that demands comparison with The Autograph Man; that they are so much more successful than her earlier novel speaks to an increased understanding of how to apply her talents, and how to spot the telling detail from the amusing one.
  10. Her best book so far then?  Sure, but I doubt it’ll stay that way for long.  The title of the book is well chosen, after all – forever uncomfortable, forever trying to move forward, Smith is an extraordinary machine

David Foster Wallace – This Is Water 

A triumph of packaging over content, This Is Water re-frames David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon Commencement Speech as a cheesy self-help pamphlet, with the sentences carefully separated onto individual pages so that we might appreciate their wisdom and tolerate the price tag.  The hardcover binding serves a similar purpose, attempting to suggest solidity in a way that makes it clear that the contents would pass the windowpane test.   

It seems vulgar to criticise the book on these terms, but this vulgarity is merely a reflection of the publication choices – if you want to read the whole thing, you can still do so online for free and in a less obnoxious context.  This is Water is probably the most immediate way in to DFW’s writing, but as Zadie Smith – who is an excellent reader of Wallace and George Eliot alike, as I’ve already mentioned – said in her tribute, it’s “Hard to think of a less appropriate portrait of this writer than as the dispenser of convenient pearls of wisdom, placed in your palm, so that you needn’t go through any struggle yourself.”

(It occurs to me that George Eliot’s fiction is equally apt to suffer this injustice, based as it is on crisp and immediate judgements layered on top of each other to become something far more difficult to carry away with you.)

To return to the cover, the ideas “about living a compassionate life”promised in the subtitle are here, and they make for a decent starting point towards their stated goal – Wallace’s comments on the aptness of the term “hard-wired” as a description our tendencies towards solipsism, and his suggestion that we apply our imaginative and analytical intelligence to attempting to counteract this in our commonplace interactions therefore seems worthwhile too – but This Is Water doesn’t get much further than that.  Which is fine if you take it as a speech intended to make young graduates consider how best to apply their education, but the publication of This Is Water imposes the status of eternal and unshakable truth on lines like this:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day”

In one of David Foster Wallace’s more fully developed works of fiction or non-fiction (and truthfully, the latter category was at least as successful as the former in addressing these concerns), he would have taken a minute to comment on the fact that he’d just made these allegedly unsexy disciplines sound pretty fucking sexy, but not here.

Reading This Is Water gives you an idea of the content of Wallace’s thought, but nothing of the process that made these thoughts worthwhile, or which at least were the more worthwhile result of these thoughts – the attempts to deal with an inability to square theoretical knowledge with life as it’s lived, the struggle to avoid punishing the reader while still asking them to work to be rewarded, the overload of junk language and too-much-information that aimed to convey something simple and sincere.

As I said, Wallace’s speech works well as the introduction to something, and Little, Brown and Company have done the text no favours by presenting it as the final (complete) word by deceased author.

David Foster Wallace may not have intended to portray himself as the wise old fish explaining what water is to the youngsters, but this book struggles against his best intentions in a way that is accidentally reminiscent of something from one of his fictions.

Mark Kermode - Hatchet Job

It’s obvious but still fair to say upfront that if you don’t care for Mark Kermode‘s criticism, you probably won’t enjoy this book either.  The argument about the role of the professional critic in our contemporary, opinion-saturated landscape is a fine one but it could easily have been contained in a 3,000 word essay. The bulk of the book, then, comprises of anecdotes from Kermode’s life as a film reviewer.  These are written in Kermode’s familiar register – you can practically taste the quiff while reading the story of his confrontation with an affronted director who wanted Kermode to repeat his criticisms to him in the flesh – and while they add a certain low-budget romance to his attempts to justify the existence of his profession, if you’re not overly fond of his vocal or follicle mannerisms then you’re unlikely to change your opinion of the man or his hairstyle.

I find Kermode to be amusingly argumentative company, the sort of reviewer I’d probably enjoy disagreeing with in the comfort of my own home, plus I’m still a sucker for stories about The Daft Romance of Writing despite myself, so this worked just fine for me.

Kermode is blessedly free of the sort of totalising mindset that leads many print-era critics to dismiss everything that’s ever been written on the internet as mere shitehouse barking, and his passages on web criticism are typically generous in spirit.  This makes sense given Kermode’s enthusiastic adoption of the medium, but he even manages to say a few nice things about Amazon’s review system, which is curious given that I know that not everyone who’s selling stuff through that site has capital eye issues with this part of the bargain - Kermode flags some of the potential issues of this brave new world, but his overall take is more positive than you might expect.

That said, you’d think that a self-professed “old fashioned Trot” would have something to say about how this is part of the creeping growth of co-production as a consumer model in modern biocaptilism, but perhaps that’s an argument for another book on the same topic, one heavier on theory and lighter on quips.  I’d like to read that book, but this desire for a bit more thinking was more of an afterthought than a concern that haunted my reading of the book itself

Like the question of whether online anonymity only serves to mask the great unwashed (hint: even if it did, as a member of said mob I can see the value in not always being identifiable by, for example, my employer, and it’s possible to “hide” behind a pseudonym while also providing a fixed point from which to stand by your opinions), this is the sort of objection you’d have with a friend over dinner and which would be a distant memory by the time you’d polished off your deserts.

Like I said, he’s that sort of critic.

EDITED TO ADD: At the behest of my lawyer, I would like to make it clear that I have no intention to kidnap Mr Kermode, and that the rumours that I have set up a dual purpose debate/dinner chamber in preparation of this act have been grossly exaggerated by my “friends” and neighbours.

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