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.