Alex-Li Tandem is a 27-year-old, half-Jewish, helf-Chinese man in search of himself. In his own words, he has "no love, no transportation, no ambitions, no faith," and not much else. An autograph peddler, he hunts down the signatures people want and sells them. He even fakes them if that's what it takes. But what about his own needs? The list is long, but the two most important things are the love of a good woman and the rare autograph of an obscure actress.
I did not check reviews before reading this, but I could not help noticing the VERY low average rating - a 3.16. Low ratings don't bother me, I find on the whole I am more likely to like a book rated 3.2 than one rated 4.2, but it surprised me for this book. This is not a literary book likely to be picked up by those who like page turners or who like their tragedy to come with tear-jerky wallowing rather than wry observation. Though this was Zadie Smith's second novel she was already a known quantity appealing to a particular type of reader who liked White Teeth, and those readers I figured probably shared my tastes to some degree. Still I dove in.
I started reading the preface, and thought "what is wrong with people, this is genius." And that rather lengthy preface does not falter. Its so good! Sadly, the book does not deliver on the preface's promise. There are parts of the book I might have liked more if I had not been set up by the preface to expect a wonderful rollicking read. In fact the part of the book I liked least was the 50 or so pages immediately following the preface. The story crashes to earth immediately after the preface. I sorta kinda hated that section where we spend time with Alex before he leaves London for NYC. I almost abandoned the book, and if that section had gone on another 10 pages I likely would have done. The book though does pick up in the NYC section, regardless of how improbable the story becomes. I loved the book's end, which made absolute sense though there is no resolution, just the merest whiff of growth and change which given the protagonist's stuntedness is a seismic shift.
Smith takes on some big themes here, themes I would think were very present for her as a young writer who achieved literary It Girl status with her first book. The emptiness of celebrity, and its utter disconnection from craft or art is overarching. I liked that she did not simply dismiss celebrity as silly and shallow, or ignore what appears to be a real human need for iconography. People need things like heroes and faith, which remain unchanged and unchangeable when things and people around us change and disappear at the moments we most need constancy. Smith was much less successful examining the distinctions between faith and tribal identification. I understand why she chose Jewish characters for this meditation, I don't think there are any other major religions or sects where that distinction between faith and tribe is more troubling and profound. Alex's relationship (or lack) to Judaism and to Jews and to Jewish culture is a great set up for that discussion, but I don't think Smith pulls it off.
I know non-Jewish writers who write great Jewish characters, but most don't, and Smith falls into the latter group. Alex-Li and his freinds did not resonate with me, they did not feel familiar or recognizable in any way. They really felt like constructs to illustrate things about what it means to be Jewish. And maybe that was the problem, their Jewishness was so central to everything they did, and that really felt off. And that clunky characterization was not limited to the Jews. I think the weakest most poorly written character in the book is a black buddhist woman, which is how Zadie Smith identifies (well secular buddhist-y). So much here is tone deaf which is not usually something I say about Zadie Smith.
In the end there were a lot of poorly drawn characters, a weird conflation of defining oneself and defining one's faith (I know faith is a part of how we define ourselves, but trust me that it would not have been this big a part for Alex, who identifies pretty comfortably as Atheist and who already acknowledges and accepts his tribal connection.), a lot of digressions, and serious structural problems. Still there were swaths of genius that gave me real pleasure and so I am calling the whole a 3. Its easier to afford the optimistic 3 rather than the disappointed 2 when I am reading back-catalogue. When dealing with a new writer I never know if a first brilliant book might have been an aberration. A lot of writers never deliver on the promise of a great first novel so I remain cautious, but I know Zadie Smith gave the world a great next novel (not to mention some spectacular essays) so I can see the way in which this not great novel made later great work possible.
After the sheer brilliance of "White Teeth", possibly nothing Smith could have written would have matched up- yet, Autograph Man gives you the impression that she didn't even try.
The book comes with some kabbalistic chart, which I could not make sense of, not before, nor while or even after reading. Perhaps it is a kind of postmodern distractor, who knows.
Naturally, I was sympathetic to the book opening with a main character of Chinese descent, but, as so often happens the name and background seems too contrived: a English - Chinese Jew, named Alex-Li Tandem. I was willing to go along, but basically, if an author cannot come up with a reasonably acceptable name for the (main) character(s), I must say I soon start losing interest. I never really discovered what the book is about, there does not seem to be a plot or story to follow. I suppose the postmodern author will scowl at me for that.
The only way to get through this book was by skimming. I doubt I missed much.
I started with a certain empathy for Alex as he was forced to do things that neither he nor his family wanted by a dominating partner (been there, got the tee-shirt!) but, as the book progresses, it becomes more and more like a poor British re-write of one of those cosy American sit coms of which Channel Four seem so proud. The problem is, I suspect, that this book falls so neatly amidships of British and American humour that it sinks into the depths of the Atlantic - perhaps that is why the humour is 'deep'!
Not a book that I shall recommend to my friends.
Well, this is my book.
Was rather, it depicts a segment of my life almost biographically.
It's a fun read, as Zadie Smith writes so beautifully about the most unlikely things. A white Jew, a black Jew and a Chinese Jew go to a wrestling match... and it's not a joke, it's a morality tale. Perhaps not quite up to the standard of White Teeth, but worthwhile anyway.
The plot was interesting, but split in several places. This isn't necessarily a good thing, but in the end it left a few ends not quite finished. I found that I wasn't at all pleased with the ending relating the main character and the movie star he idolizes throughout the book. I felt there should have been more of a conclusion there than what exists.
I highly enjoyed the book and its descriptive nature, even with the small disappointments that popped in occasionally. It is easy to see why the book made the Orange Shortlist.
I wanted to like this unusual story since there is good writing in there. But I couldn't. It has a prologue, which I usually hate, and I hate them more when they are too long. Shades of things to come. It got tedious because it's overstuffed with detail and scenes just go on too long. It's quirky, but not interesting and I didn't get attached to any of the characters to wade though all the minutiae.