Monday, May 8, 2017

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

Alex-Li Tandem is a bundle of contradictions.  He is a Chinese man on his father's side and Jewish on his mother's.  He lives in London and makes his living finding and selling autographs.  His best friends are all guys he met at a ball game the last day of his father's life, when he was twelve.  Mark grew up to be a rabbi and he feels it is his mission to bring Alex into the fold.  Joseph was the person who first collected autographs and shared his love with Alex, then went into the insurance field when he was grown.  Adam lives for religion; he doesn't work but spends his days smoking dope and interacting with philosophy and religion.  His sister, Esther, is Alex's girlfriend and has been for a decade.  Alex lives in London as do all his friends.

Alex's obsession is the actress Kitty Alexander, an almost forgotten star of the forties.  She has been a recluse for years and Alex has tried to get her autograph for most of his life, writing her almost every week since he was thirteen.  She is his Moby Dick, his obsession.  He knows it is unlikely that he will ever find her autograph but hope springs eternal.

At a huge autograph show in New York, things start to happen.  He is on the outs with Esther, having cheated on her with a woman from the autograph world.  At the show, he meets and hangs out with a beautiful woman famous for her time in porn movies.  He broods over the fact that Adam and Mark both expect him to have a Kaddish ceremony for his father on the thirteenth anniversary of his death, coming up in the next week.  Unbelievably, right before he leaves London he receives an autograph in the mail from Kitty Alexander and when he realizes she is right there in New York, he vows to find a way to meet her.  Can Alex straighten out his tangled relationships and obligations?

The Autograph Man is Zadie Smith's second novel, written after the success of her first, White Teeth.  It explores the concepts of friendship, of familial obligations and the difficulty of finding one's life work and dedicating the time and energy to make it a success.  Readers will find themselves drawn to Alex as he bumbles through life as his kindness and desire to make the world better for all the people he knows shines through.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

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