Review: The Autograph Man

I often complain, hyperbolically, that literary fiction makes my eyes bleed.

That’s not quite true, though. (Obviously.)

It’s closer to the truth that I often don’t know what to do with literary fiction. It either seems pointless, or so artfully woven with point that I have no idea where to start talking about it.

Happily, it was the latter that was true of Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man.

Our Hero is Alex-Li Tandem, a Jewish-Chinese Londoner who buys and sells autographs and assorted celebrity memorabilia for a living. He’s obsessed with Golden Age film star Kitty Alexander, and so is flabbergasted and delighted when an autographed photograph of her turns up unannounced, pinned to his front door. The novel is partly – but by no means exclusively – dedicated to unravelling this almost Pynchonian mystery. It’s also about Alex’s inability to commit to his long-term girlfriend Esther; his relationship with Jewishness, refracted through the observances his friends encourage him to make on the anniversary of his father’s death and through his endless lists of mundane items, categorised as either “Jewish” or “goyish” (I confess, this particular line of thought left me flummoxed); and the way that our culture’s saturation in film constricts and compromises our attempts at authenticity, especially when it comes to relationships (a concern it shares with my favourite novel of last year, Scarlett Thomas’ Our Tragic Universe).

Which…gosh. There’s such a lot going on here. But Smith handles it gracefully, humanely and wittily. At a sentence level, she has a great sense of comic timing, a sense of rhythm that builds to a gently bathetic conclusion; I was not expecting to laugh at this book, but I did:

Alex-Li felt a deep satisfaction at the thought of an eleven-by-fourteen colour photo of [Harrison] Ford in the Millennium Falcon, boldly signed…which sat in his briefcase this very day and which he had no intention of selling to Mark Rubinfine even if he gave him twenty thousand pounds and his liver.

(This is unexpected humour, the sort of humour that makes you snort gracelessly in public places. I love it.)

Alex-Li is the kind of protagonist who has spoiled many lit-fic novels for me: male, middle-class and agonising about everything that is wrong with his life while ignoring the fact that he’s basically a complete wanker who can’t see women as full people. I mean, I still don’t like him all that much. But I liked The Autograph Man almost despite him, which is a testament to Smith’s writing, her clear-eyed humanity about who Alex-Li is.

Oh, and this:

He felt that mad cold one sometimes feels upon seeing an absent loved one, a kind of dysrecognition: Is this really her? Are we really lovers? Is this where I put all of my life? Does she know me? Do I –

I’ve never seen this described before, and yet, I recognise it. And that recognition, when a book sees you, and says, “yes, I know you”? Well, isn’t that on some level what fiction’s for? What writing and reading are for? (And that last question, so perfectly unfinished, because Alex-Li is interrupted by Esther at this point. It implicitly re-frames that trite question, do we ever really know anyone else? with the corollary, do we ever work hard enough to know anyone else, even the people we think we’re closest to?)

This is only not my favourite book of the year so far because N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky made me cry in Stansted Airport. But it’s up there. And it made me snort gracelessly in John Lewis.

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