Sunday, March 04, 2007

Zadie Smith: The Autograph Man

In the ardour of my new-found love of Zadie Smith I read The Autograph Man, a story about four Jewish men who have been friends since boyhood and have different views on their religion and life. The main character is Alex-Li, a half-Chinese Jew who makes his living selling autographs and other memorabilia. The book starts out from the perspective of his father, Li-Jin, who takes his son and two friends to a wrestling match (where they meet the fourth member of the group of friends) on the day when he dies (from a brain tumour he's kept secret from everyone. Then it moves on to Alex-Li, twenty-something years later. Alex is obsessed with the actress Kitty Alexander, who is a recluse and hasn't signed an autograph for, like, ever. After an acid trip in an attempt to reach Kabbalistic understanding he has an autograph, and while his friends (Adam the black Jew, his sister Esther (also Alex' girlfriend), Rubinfine the rabbi and Joseph the insurance salesman) all think he forged it while tripping, Alex thinks it's real. And then he gets another one in the post, thus proving him right. So on a business trip to NY he looks Kitty up, to thank her.

The book is at times hilariously funny, and also very moving. The bit where Li-Jin, wearing nothing but a t-shirt, breaks down in tears at his own mortality in front of the BBC test screen, using a turkey sandwich as a hanky, is both ridiculous and so tragic it tore my heart out. In my opinion it petered out a bit towards the end, since it felt almost too slapstick in mood - there's only so much of Alex-Li getting drunk that can be funny after all. I'd still recommend it as a good read though. Smith has a lovely turn with metaphore, I like that.

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