<%-- Page Title--%> Book Review <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 119 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

August 22, 2003

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Name of the Prose

Anonymity is the theme tune of Zadie Smith's occasionally brilliant second novel.
The Autograph Man

Zadie Smith

Hamish Hamilton, £16.99, pp432

The Booker Prize is hardly a lottery, but the books that go through at each stage tend to be the ones with fewest enemies, not the ones with most friends. Literary politics play a part, even (or especially) when the committee tries to avoid literary politics. It won't be easy for the judges of a rather less celebrated prize to resist Zadie Smith's claims to the Encore, awarded for the best second novel, most conclusive consolidation of a talent.

The hero of The Autograph Man does exactly what it says in the title: Alex-Li Tandem collects and sells (without particular success) the self-identifying marks made on paper or photograph by people whose names are known. Autograph collecting has its own economy, according to which a Howard Hughes is worth a Bill Gates hundreds of times over, but it also represents in diluted, distorted form a search for the sacred. The hunger is for a symbol that will have absolute value, beyond the reach of market forces. The holy of holies, as far as Alex-Li is concerned, would be the autograph of Hollywood actress long retired, famously reclusive. He has been writing to her regularly since he was a boy -- nothing crudely soliciting, just little prose poems imagining her mental life. For all the response he has had, though, he might just as well have written, on a regular basis, YOU DON'T KNOW ME, PLEASE MAKE ME RICH.

Most of the book is set in London, specifically an outlying northerly suburb called Mountjoy, but Zadie Smith makes her mark on landscape by removing the names that are already there. So when Alex ventures into the centre, he goes 'down a famous road to a monument' or to 'a popular square, framed on every side by giant cinemas'. Thematically, this is pointed (the relationship between things and the names for them being a troubled one), but it also frees Smith up stylistically, allowing her prose to explore textures without the neurosis of constant reference.

Famous people, on the other hand, are identified in a way that renders celebrity flat: 'the popular singer Madonna Ciccone' tagged equally with 'the popular musician Leonard Cohen'. Paradoxically, though, there's a sense that above a certain level of importance naming becomes impious rather than reverent. Smith name-checks Nabokov indirectly at one point, through his Russian pseudonym Sirin, and seems to rate Larkin even more highly, to judge by her active withholding of his name, using instead a brief quotation about the toad called work and the designation 'Alex's favourite (and only) poet'.

A more pervasively present absence is Martin Amis, whose hectoringly insightful mannerisms Zadie Smith doesn't always manage to make her own. Withholding a name is part of the novel's strategy in some areas that seem arbitrary and sometimes awkward. Alex turns on not a Mac, laptop or PC, but simply a 'box of tricks'. Instead of the commonest conversational expletive Smith supplies 'ug' and 'ugging', a substitution which seems less coy in the Prologue, when her characters are barely teenagers, than in the body of the book. Running parallel with an extraordinary writerly assurance is a worry about relying on second-hand formulations. This too can be claimed as thematically appropriate (the colonisation of life by representations of itself), but the anxiety seems out of proportion.

The book is divided into two main sections, subtitled the 'Kabbalah' and the 'Zen' of Alex-Li Tandem. It's Judaism, though, that dominates the book, in all its forms, from the mystical to the never-quite-profane (the Jewish joke, with its core of teaching). Even the subsections of the prologue are separated by that other four-letter word, the tetragrammaton, the word that refuses to be a word, name for what may not be named.

All the major characters are Jewish, though their observance ranges from the absolute to the resistant, the would-be non-existent. Jewishness works beautifully in the novel as a source of ideas and symbols. Jewishness is an outsiderdom with a front-row centre seat. It's also a shrewd way for a British novelist to excite an American market, without needing to relinquish domestic subjects.

This ignoble suspicion about the rage to cross over flares up only occasionally (when tick-tack-toe has driven out the native noughts and crosses), most sharply in the Prologue. 'Exclusive province of childhood: a time when genetic/cultural inheritance feels like this weird but cool thing you just got landed with, like an extra shoe. Hey, check this out, Tom! I'm Eurasian! Whoa, I'm a Maori! Look, no hands!' These thoughts are inserted into a scene set in the Royal Albert Hall in the late mid-1980s, where Big Daddy is about to wrestle Giant Haystacks, but they seem altogether American, in ideology as well as language.

Kitty Alexander works fine as a character, but not at all as an icon. In that particular area The Autograph Man is beaten hollow by The Passion of New Eve, Angela Carter's novel about a mysterious film star, Tristessa, and the man who tracks her down. She's got it, her prose has it too, but she's not ready to take it on as her subject.

Reviewed by Adams Mars-Jones, The Guardian


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