The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

The first hundred pages of this flaccid, wasteful novel are unquestionably the most annoying that this reader has ever met with. After this it’s downhill all the way. Annoyance is replaced by torpor, which is itself replaced by acute embarrassment for the writer. I read White Teeth in fifty-page chunks in Battersea library, escaping the hell of working in a supermarket. I remember it as clever, vibrant and not without a little wit. Okay, it was improbable and silly in parts, but thanks to the narratorial vim and exponential escalation of its plot, one never had time to shake ones head – No! – to probe its foundations. With the ugly scaffolding of cabbalistic categories and Zen zetetics, the reader of The Autograph Man is given ample time to question Smith’s wisdom.

A great writer is a great brainwasher, by which I mean that after reading them your thoughts are clearer; the world appears fresh and alive. Nabokov’s magnificence is due to his ability to keep the searing visions of life and art enmeshed. In the pre-publication fluff, many names were bandied around – Smith had been reading Pnin, Wodehouse, Vonnegut, Amis – and she claimed to hate her baggy, wacky debut. Expectations were high, but so bad is this book that she’ll probably never be trusted again. Take, for example, this passage:

So. One moment you are very pissed and stoned, you are having a psychotic interlude. The next -particularly if it is raining and you have a pretty girl screaming at you in the middle of the street – you are not. And Boot was full of questions today. Questions like:

What was that about?
Are you completely mad?
Are you trying to get me sacked?
What kind of person turns up in that state?
Do you realize he could press charges?
What goes through your mind when you’re like that?
Do you think that insulting people helps anything?
Is it broken?
Do you need a doctor?

The cute opening, the exaggerated/facile characterisation, the tendentious swerve to the hook. And what about that hook? One can imagine these questions seeming like a good idea after the first two; they draw attention to idle cliches and are quite accurate for the character of Boot. However, this is a novel where nothing is subtle, the questions become lazily written and half-hearted. Every thing reverts to hollow shorthand.

For The Autograph Man is an inauthentic novel about inauthenticity. Its ludicrous and shapeless protagonist, Alex-Li Tandem (half-Chinese, half-Jewish, all boring suburbanite), frequently (and tediously) mulls over the received gestures he finds himself enacting and reciting. As the golden-hearted, Divine Browne-esque hooker Alex-Li implausibly meets says: it’s “like we’re in some bad TV movie.” Ironic and self-conscious, the characters are cliched whilst knowing they are cliched. It is a shabby combination, without grace or even humour.