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The Autograph Man: A Novel Hardcover – October 1, 2002

2.8 out of 5 stars 71 customer reviews

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Julian Fellowes's Belgravia by Julian Fellowes
"Julian Fellowes's Belgravia" by Julian Fellowes
From the creator and writer of Downton Abbey comes a grand historical novel, with hugely exciting twists and dramatic chapter endings. Learn more | See author page
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

When Alex-Li Tandem is 12 years old, his father takes him and his friends Adam and Rubinfine to a wrestling match at the Albert Hall in London. By the end of the evening, the pivotal events of Alex-Li's youth have occurred: he has met Joseph Klein, a boy whose fascination with autographs proves infectious; his friendships with Adam and Rubinfine are cemented; and his father has dropped dead. This is enough action for an entire book, and in fact things slow down dramatically after page 35 of Zadie Smith's sophomore novel The Autograph Man. When we meet Alex again, he is a grown man, an autograph dealer and devoted slacker, suffering the physical and spiritual after-effects of a three-day romance with a drug called "Superstar." While under its malign influence, Alex has managed to wreck his sports car, alienate his girlfriend Esther, and--possibly--forge the rare autograph of his idol, the 1950s movie star Kitty Alexander. Will his friends save him from the embarrassment of trying to sell this suspect autograph? Will they pull him together in time to perform Kaddish on the 15th anniversary of his father's death? Although not as enthralling or politically resonant as White Teeth, Smith's hallowed debut, The Autograph Man amply demonstrates her ability to juggle several main characters, several themes, and a host of plots and subplots, with the occasional purely comic episode thrown up in the air beside them like a chainsaw or a cheesecake. Readers will want to step away to a safe distance during the chaotic final scenes. --Regina Marler

From Publishers Weekly

Smith's eagerly awaited second novel begins with a bang, but rapidly loses momentum, slipping from tragicomedy to rather overdetermined farce. The introductory set piece is panoramically sock-o in the best Martin Amis tradition, taking us from Doctor Li-Jin Tandem's outing with his son's friends to see a wrestling match in Albert Hall to his sudden death from a massive stroke. Fifteen years to the week later, Li-Jin's son, Alex, is being pressed by his friends, Adams Jacobs and Joseph Klein, to say Kaddish for his dad. Alex is an autograph trader and obsessive egotist. Over the course of the week, he wrecks his car on an acid trip, goes to New York in quest of the legendary retired actress Kitty Alexander, frees her from her mad manager (who promptly announces her death to the papers, thus inflating the value of her signature) and gets his girlfriend Esther, Adam's sister, angry enough that she suspends their relationship. Smith paints portraits of a very multiculti Judaism: Adam, for instance, is a black Jew, while Alex is a disbelieving Chinese one. Adam's kabbalistic interests are supposed to operate in Smith's text the way Homer's poem operated in Ulysses, giving it a mythic dimension, but the big theme of Jewishness feels tacked on, like a marquee advertising a former attraction. Smith's pen portraits of the shabby, yobbish autograph trading circle are intermittently funny, but her prose is so busy being clever that the laughter never builds. This is disappointing but, even with its faults, the novel points to a literary talent of a high order.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (October 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037550186X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375501869
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (71 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,317,693 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Many reviewers have written about Zadie Smith's second novel in relation to White Teeth, and seem to come at it with a lot of baggage as a result. Let me just state for the record that I don't have a horse running in the Zadie Smith stakes. I've never read or heard an interview with her, and don't really know anything about her. I read "White Teeth" and mostly enjoyed it, but didn't think it was as brilliant as many others did. I approached this book as a blank slate, without knowing anything about it.
It's not good. In fact, it's pretty bad. If you wanted a textbook example of the literary sophomore slump, here it is. The story concerns Alex-Li Tandem, a half-Chinese, half-Jewish (Tandem... get it?) dealer in autographs. The main plotline concerns his obsession with the fictitious old film star Kitty Alexander and with obtaining one of her ultra-rare autographs. The central theme, however, concerns Alex's inability to ever deal with the sudden death of his father. This death occurs in the excellent prologue, which forms the first tenth of the book and is really the only part worth reading. Covering Alex's childhood visit to a wrestling match at Albert Hall, complete with interesting digression into the venue's history, this section would have made an excellent standalone short story.
Alas, it is followed by 300+ pages of muddled prose populated by characters that are dreadfully flat and uninteresting. Alex is whiny loser, who is unable to connect with the people around him, seeking solace in the bottle, or in his obsession for autographs.
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Format: Paperback
On this my third attempt at reading this book, I still can't seem to get pass the lifelessness of the main character. Every attempt to read this book has been painful and each time I have given up.
I have decided to sell it to a bargain book shop in the hope that someone can appreciate it more than I have.
After loving her first book, I was deeply hurt by this one. Nothing, absolutely nothing motivated me to continue reading this book and I have finished some real doorstops in my time.
Sorry Zadie but I just didn't like it at all.
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Format: Paperback
This is the first Zadie Smith novel that I've read; and that may be unfortunate, as I'm not really in the mood to try another. Surely this is not her finest -- but the overall effect was so muddled, that I'd rather try something else.

The narrative framework of this novel appropriates philosophical systems from two traditions. The first half of the novel adopts the Kabbalistic tree of life, its ten sefirot or spheres. In case the too-obvious symbolism doesn't make an impact on you, Smith makes its patently simple by naming each chapter after each sefirah. If even that's too difficult, Smith provides several Kabbalistic diagrams, which look like they were photocopied from Madonna's notebook. Believe me, Smith's knowledge of Jewish philosophy is about as deep as the red-strings those Hollywood stars wear around their wrists.

The second half of the novel (highlighting the main character's Chineseness) derive its titles from the 'Riding the Bull' sketches, made famous in the west by beatnik Buddhists in the sixties. Following the same old mistake that Buddhism and 'Zen' are synonymous, our Chinese hero (who strangely uses Japanese vocabulary to discuss religion) learns to transcend self, with a lot of slapstick along the way.

The split-framework is intended to highlight the divided heritage of the Chinese-Jewish main character, whose hybrid background allows for endless quips and innuendoes about purity and providence in determining one's political/racial identity. On this theme, Smith is glib rather than insightful.
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Format: Paperback
Zadie Smith is such a terrific writer that one isn't immediately aware of how dire her second novel quickly becomes. The sentences still glimmer, but slowy the wit begins to curdle, and eventually turning the pages becomes a struggle.
The opening is spectacular, a superlatively funny and sad miniature that taken as short story far outshines the long novel that follows -- exactly the sort of leap forward one might hope for from the author of White Teeth.
Unfortunately, then comes the rest of the book, focused on Alex-Li, a boy in the prologue, now an aimless young man. The novel seems to intend itself as a comedy of self-loathing: Alex and his friends are cinema-addled, emotionally stunted boy-men incapable of separating media fiction from reality, of connecting to flesh and blood women. While not particularly original, this is a vein that's been successfully mined for decades, and there's plenty of peculiar color in the worlds of autograph men and multicultural British Judaism.
The problem, finally, seems to be that the author identifies not with Alex, but with the put-upon (and predominantly off-stage) women in his life. So the tone is not one of self-loathing, but just, well, loathing. The hectoring feel of the narrative collapses our sympathy for Alex. He's presented as a big loser, no more no less. Eventually we cease to care about him, and all the jokes in the world can't help that.
By it's end, the novel disintegrates into pure, frantic farce -- a big disappointment from such a distinctive writer -- but it won't stop me from reading the next one.
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