The autograph man : a novel

by Zadie Smith

Paper Book, 2002





New York : Random House, c2002.


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.

Media reviews

Ms. Smith's latest novel, ''The Autograph Man,'' is similarly ambitious -- in this case tackling such sprawling themes as the consequences of fame, the hunger for religious faith, the tension between the symbolic and the mundane -- but it's a flat-footed, grudging performance. Dour where ''White Teeth'' was exuberant; abstract and pompous where ''White Teeth'' was brightly satiric; tight and preachy where ''White Teeth'' was expansive.

User reviews

LibraryThing member RossWilliam
The first half of this book is fantastic. The second half drags, but has flashes of brilliance. The obssesions of the autograph hunter were magnificent. I will admit that I enjoyed this book more than "White Teeth". If you collect anything this book will resonate with you.
LibraryThing member bhowell
This is a brilliant book by one of Britain's newest stars in the literary world. The plot and the characters described on the flyleaf of the book did not attract me in the least but I was quickly drawn into the wacky world of Alex-Li Tandem. Alex is an obsessive autograph collector, buying and selling for a living, but dreaming of the ultimate prize, the autograph of forties movie actress Kitty Alexander. His life is more or less chaos and this book is dreadfully funny as Alex resists the attempts of his well meaning friends, including his on and off girlfriend of 10 years to bring some stability and committment to his life. There is nevertheless action and adventure and many hilarious surprises. The book is a bit difficult to explain in a review because I can't think of any book to compare it with and it is hard to explain it's unique charm. I am hooked however and will be looking for her first novel, White Teeth and her newest book which has been published in the UK but won't reach North American bookstores till Sept 2008.… (more)
LibraryThing member Narshkite
Occasionally I read books that I am enjoying more-or-less until there is some shift in the narrative that either destroys my enjoyment of the book or ratchets it up wildly, but its rare that I read something where that happens at least a dozen times. The Autograph Man was that rare book where I went from loving to loathing to loving over and over, sometimes within a single chapter.

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.
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LibraryThing member curatorial
Awful. Couldn't finish it. Gave up. Unlikeable characters. I couldn't figure out why I should be investing my time in reading about these dull, self-indulgent people. Clever kabballah themes also not interesting; just clever. Very disappointing after White Teeth, which I really enjoyed.
LibraryThing member pingobarg
laugh out loud hilarity and witicisms. didn't get the rave reviews of "white teeth", can't imagine why not.
LibraryThing member drivingsideways
*shaking head *
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.
LibraryThing member LadyN
I very much enjoyed this book. It's a more intimate narrative than White Teeth, concerning a much smaller circle of charaters, and spanning a shorter time frame. The consequence is that the plot is not as rich as White Teeth, but in some ways this was as much an advantage as not. The interesting thing about Smith's books are they are all very different. (I didn't think much of On Beauty at all).… (more)
LibraryThing member Fluffyblue
I did not enjoy this book very much. I didn't feel in touch with the characters and it just bored me. It's a shame because I'd really enjoyed White Teeth.
LibraryThing member abirdman
Zadie Smith's sophomore effort, and not as good as her first or third novels, but a good book nonetheless. Smith writes about young, multi-ethnic Britons incredibly well and convincingly. Her craft is a bit more exposed here, so it's possible to follow the development of the plot without being overwhelmed by the characters, situation, and sheer writing pyrotechnics. I learned more about the craft of novel writing from this book that from White Teeth, even though the latter was more enjoyable. Read Zadie Smith! She's the real thing, a genius, a precocious new-comer, and she has a lot to teach the world about humanity.… (more)
LibraryThing member edwinbcn
I was not particularly expecting very much from this novel, but since we cannot get that many books here in China, and it was a special offer, plus, I thought I should give this author, Zadie Smith, so popular in recent years, a try, I bought this book and gave it a shot.

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.
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LibraryThing member the.ken.petersen
The blurb states, ".... is a deeply funny, existential tour around the hollow things of modernity..." : perhaps it is too successful. This book is too 'clever' by half and three quarters but, scrape through the surface and there is nothing there. (What does the term "deeply funny" mean?: does humour have depth, or should it point out what we already, really know?)
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.
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LibraryThing member Linus_Linus
I am sure for all of us there would be a book reading which would feel like we are reading our own life and its happenings; what we think, feel, and live etc.
Well, this is my book.
Was rather, it depicts a segment of my life almost biographically.

LibraryThing member cajela
This is the tale of Alex-Li Tandem, an English Chinese Jew who makes a living trading autographs. He's in search of one famously elusive star's signature, and also in search of what it means to be himself. He catalogues the world as Jewish or not; he avoids dealing with his father's death and whether to say Kaddish; he gets rotten drunk and pisses off his friends; he flies to New York and meets the elusive star while his girlfriend is in hospital. He's not always easy to sympathise with...

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.
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LibraryThing member rfewell
I listened to this one in the car. Zadie Smith is one of my favorite contemporary authors, and her storytelling is lush and vivid. [book:The Autograph Man] was a story about a young man in search of his identity through the stumbling search for religion and an illusive autograph.
LibraryThing member mirrani
Not the same caliber as White Teeth, but by no means dull. Zadie Smith writes in a creative way and is able to put to words thoughts that readers don't realize they ever have until they've read the words for themselves.

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.
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LibraryThing member Vivl
I picked up this book because I had a voucher to use up and the book shop had suggested that Zadie Smith is similar to Margaret Atwood. Well, apart from being female I'm not sure there's any connection, but I did really love this book. On glancing at other reader reviews, I wasn't sure what I was in for--many compared The Autograph Man unfavourably with White Teeth, a book which a good friend didn't like at all, but I loved this from the start. The sense of humour was very much in line with my own and Zadie Smith's observations on life/reality rarely failed to strike a chord.… (more)
LibraryThing member thatotter
Started strongly, but by the end I found it kind of trite.
LibraryThing member flydodofly
I have enjoyed the book to some extent, but then it kept moving in same circles and I lost interest. It simply did work for me.
LibraryThing member pussreboots
The book has it's faults but over all I liked it. It remeinded me a bit of Manchild if the characters had been recast as younger and Jewish. They are just as shallow and obsessed as their older goyish counterparts. The writing style reminds me of Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and the Damned in how it flits between prose and play with the occassional diagram thrown in. The book though is awkward in its presentation and expiramentation and could use some editing -- a fifty page prologue is too long. While the author probably loved the backstory she had created for Alex-Li Tandem, knowing how his father died is not neccessary to appreciate the story. It would have been better to introduce the details throughout the story rather than up front.… (more)
LibraryThing member cattylj
I worship at the alter of Zadie Smith. This was the first of her works that I read, so I didn't come to it with White Teeth expectations, as many others on here did. But even if I had, I don't think I would have felt any differently. It's phenomenal.
LibraryThing member Bookmarque
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member pgchuis
Gave up at page 133. This is beautifully written, but it is aimless and boring and there are no female characters.
LibraryThing member HeatherWhitney
The reviews are true: this is not her best
LibraryThing member mahallett
very strange book. i started this in june maybe and finished it in august. what is all this about "the international gesture for ____"? not very likable characters and autograph forging and searching and kitty ? . the subjects below says humourous stories and picaresque literatire!
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