The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith: Book Review

The Autograph Man is the second novel by Zadie Smith, published in 2002 after the immensely successful ‘White Teeth’.

‘The Autograph Man’ is our protagonist – Alex Li Tandem, a Jewish-Chinese from London pursuing a career in collecting and selling celebrity autographs (plus other souvenirs).

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

The book begins with a Prologue that covers the bit when Alex is twelve years old and gets fascinated by collecting autographs. In the suburban town of Mountjoy, Li-Jin, Alex’s father takes him and his friends, Mark Rubinfine, Adam Jacobs and Joseph Klein to a wrestling match. Joseph introduces Alex to the idea of collecting autographs. Alex’s father had been suffering from a brain tumour and after the match, collapses to death while the children run towards ‘Big Daddy’, the wrestler for his autograph. 

So, begins young Alex’s attraction to Philography – ‘It’s the word for autograph collecting.’ At the age of fifteen, Alex starts to sell autographs and is able to turn it into a business by the age of twenty. But Joseph is unable to turn his hobby into a profession.

Fifteen years later, Alex has become the professional Autograph Man, ‘Tandem Autographs: More Star than the Solar System.’ Alex keeps reiterating the fact that he is not a collector; he is a trader, doing a business. The job comprising – ‘Collecting, Trading and Verification.’ A lot of emphasis is laid on establishing the profession of an ‘autograph man’.

Now, the plot, so, ‘A Garbo autograph, even a bad one, is still worth about six thousand pounds. Kitty Alexander signed even less than Garbo.’ Kitty Alexander was the actress from the celebrated musical ‘The Girl from Peking’ released in 1952. The public had forgotten Kitty for her attitude but Autograph men had not. But with time, the perseverance of other Autograph men had worn out; Alex continued writing to Kitty every week since the age of fourteen.

Alex wakes up after three days of complete blackout after taking some pill, to find Kitty’s autograph on a blank postcard, pinned to the back of his front door. He realizes that he had banged his car, before being unconscious for so long, and that his girlfriend was by his side at the time of the accident. Esther, Adam’s sister is Alex’s girlfriend. Alex is with Esther for last ten years. To establish Alex’s heart of gold, we have Esther suffering from a Heart problem, slipping in and out of surgery. Though the character does not shout out for sympathy and the relation between the two is beautifully built on equal terms.

In this dazed out state, Alex realizes he has to leave for New York for the Autographicana Fair, an annual extravaganza where people come to showcase their collection. Also, attended by celebrities. Alex definitely needs to meet Kitty Alexander. Alex meets Boot, the woman working as an assistant in an autograph emporium. Together, they let us more into the world of autograph men and then the life of old forgotten Kitty Alexander.

The difficulty for me in the book was to connect to the context of Rabbi’s and Judaism. Also, the book and its chapters are structured around ‘Kabbalah of Alex-Li Tandem’. I am not sure how much it helped the narrative. The starting of each chapter based on this concept is provided with pointers/ terms that summarize the happenings.

There seems to be constant spurge of humour like ‘International gesture of vomiting’ and so forth, also inserting a mondo joke. A bored and uninterested Alex filling the hotel room feedback form with crazy answers, the last being my favourite line, “Regret everything and always live in the past.” But, there is something that keeps the smile at an arm’s distance from you. Though, I really liked the reference to Queen Victoria meeting Albert for the first time and then her mechanism to overcome the grief over her loss.

She leaves a doleful trail of statues and street names, museums and galleries…Ah, how she loved him.

But, you constantly juggle to understand if it is about Alex’s pathos in overcoming his father’s untimely demise and the identity crisis or the humour in pursuing an unlikely profession. Or, the poor predicament of celebrities in their old age. 

This post is a part of #BlogchatterA2Z challenge under Alphabet Z

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