Alex-Li Tandem sells autographs. His business is to hunt for names on paper, collect them, sell them, and occasionally fake them—all to give the people what they want: a little piece of Fame. But what does Alex want? Only the return of his father, the end of religion, something for his headache, three different girls, infinite grace, and the rare autograph of forties movie actress Kitty Alexander. With fries.
The Autograph Man is a deeply funny existential tour around the hollow trappings of modernity: celebrity, cinema, and the ugly triumph of symbol over experience. It offers further proof that Zadie Smith is one of the most staggeringly talented writers of her generation.
You’re either for me or against me, thought Alex-Li Tandem, referring to the daylight and, more generally, to the day. He stretched flat and made two fists. He was fully determined to lie right here until he was given something to work with, something noble, something fine. He saw no purpose in leaving his bed for a day that was against him from the get-go. He had tried it before; no good could come from it.
A moment later he was surprised to feel a flush of warm light dappled over him, filtered through a blind. Nonviolent light. This was encouraging. Compare and contrast with yesterday morning’s light, pettily fascist, cruel as the strip lighting in a hospital hallway. Or the morning before yesterday morning, when he had kept his eyes closed for the duration, afraid of whatever was causing that ominous red throb beneath the eyelids. Or the morning before that, the Morning of Doom, which no one could have supposed would continue for seventy-two hours.
NOW OPTIMISTIC, ALEX grabbed the bauble that must be twisted to open blinds. His fingers were too sweaty. He shuttled up the bed, dried his left hand on the wall, gripped and pulled. The rain had come in the night. It looked as if the Flood had passed through Mountjoy, scrubbed it clean. The whole place seemed to have undergone an act of accidental restoration. He could see brickwork, newly red-faced and streaky as after a good weep, balconies with their clean crop of wet white socks, shirts and sheets. Shiny black aerials. Oh, it was fine. Collected water had transformed every gutter, every depression in the pavement, into prism puddles. There were rainbows everywhere.
Alex took a minute to admire the gentle sun that kept its mildness even as it escaped a gray ceiling of cloud. On the horizon a spindly church steeple had been etched by a child over a skyline perfectly blue and flatly colored in. To the left of that sat the swollen cupola of a mosque, described with more skill. So people were off to see God, then, this morning. All of that was still happening. Alex smiled, weakly. He wished them well.
IN HIS BATHROOM, Alex was almost defeated by the discovery of a sequence of small tragedies. There was an awful smell. Receptacles had been missed. Stuff was not where stuff should be. Stepping over stuff, ignoring stuff, stoic Alex turned to the vanity mirror. He yanked it towards him by its metal neck until its squares became diamonds, parallelograms, one steel line. He had aged, terribly. The catch in his face, the one that held things up, this had been released. But how long was it since he had been a boy? A few days? A year? A decade? And now this?
He bared his teeth to the mirror. They were yellow. But on the plus side, they were there. He opened his Accidental eyes (Rubinfine’s term: halfway between Oriental and Occidental) wide as they would go and touched the tip of his nose to the cold glass. What was the damage? His eyes worked. Light didn’t hurt. Swallowing felt basic, uncomplicated. He was not shivering. He felt no crippling paranoia or muscular tremors. He seized his penis. He squeezed his cheeks. Present, correct. Everything was still where it appears in the textbooks. And it seemed unlikely that he would throw up, say, in the next four hours, something he had not been able to predict with any certainty for a long time. These were all wonderful, wonderful developments. Breathing heavily, Alex shaved off three days’ worth of growth (had it been three days?). Finishing up, he cut himself only twice and applied the sad twists of tissue.
Teeth done, Alex remembered the wear-and-tear deposit he had paid his landlord and shuffled back to the bedroom. He needed a cloth, but the kitchen was another country. Instead he took a pillowcase, dipped it in a glass of water and began to scrub at the handprint on the wall. Maybe it looked like art? Maybe it had a certain presence? He stepped back and looked at it, at the grubby yellow outline. Then he scrubbed some more. It didn’t look like art. It looked like someone had died in the room. Alex sat down on the corner of his bed and pressed his thumbs to his eyes to stop two ready tears. A little gasp escaped him. And what’s remarkable, he thought, what’s really amazing, is this, is how tiny the actual thing was in the first place. This thing that almost destroyed me. Two, no, maybe three days ago he had placed a pill on his tongue, like a tiny communion wafer. He’d left it there for ten seconds, as recommended, before swallowing. He had never done anything like this before. Nothing could have prepared him! Moons rose, suns fell, for days, for nights, all without him noticing!
Legal name: Microdot. Street name: Superstar. For a time it had made itself famous all through his body. And now it was over.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith. Copyright © 2002 by Zadie Smith. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About the Book
“Intelligent. . . . Exquisitely clever. . . . An ironic commentary about fame, mortality, and the triumph of image over reality.” —The Boston Globe
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Autograph Man, Zadie Smith’s remarkable novel about life, death, and the search for the ultimate signature.
About the Guide
When twelve-year old Alex Li-Tandem meets Joseph Klein at a wrestling match in London, he couldn’t have possibly predicted that their conversation about collecting autographs would change the course of his life. Alex grows up to be an Autograph Man, making a living buying and selling famous names, obsessively pursuing the very rare autograph of 1940s Hollywood movie star, Kitty Alexander.
But Alex’s life is a shambles. He’s wrecked his car during an acid trip, injuring (and alienating) his girlfriend Esther; his friends are mad at him; and he’s still grieving over the death of his father, Li-Jin. His friends, Adam and Rabbi Rubenfine, want him to say the Kaddish for his father on the fifteenth anniversary of his death, but Alex sees that as nothing more than an empty gesture, a ritual he can’t believe in. His girlfriend Esther wants him to grow up and stop being so selfish. But all Alex seems to want is the autograph of Kitty Alexander. He has written her hundreds of letters over the years, all of them unanswered. Until the fateful day when his wish is miraculously granted with the arrival of a signed photo. Now he plans to find her. And thus ensues a wild trip to New York, where he is guided by the “famous whore” Honey Smith, and where he finally meets the woman behind the name he has sought for so long.
Smart, hip, daringly imaginative, The Autograph Man gives readers a vivid glimpse of the signs (and signatures) of the times, and shows once again why Zadie Smith is one of our most admired young writers.
About the Author
Zadie Smith was born in northwest London in 1975. The Autograph Man is her second novel. Her first, White Teeth, won the Whitbread First Novel Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, and the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize.
1. The text of The Autograph Man is interrupted by drawings, unusual typography, diagrams, lists, boxed jokes, and other features not normally found in novels. What do these add to the story? How do they change the texture of the book? What do they indicate about Zadie Smith’s attitude toward her story and toward the conventions of the literary novel?
2. What emotional impact does his father’s death have on Alex Li-Tandem? In what ways does it determine much of what he does and does not do during the rest of the novel? Does he achieve an acceptance of his father’s death and undergo any sort of healing process by the end of the story?
3. Brian Duchamp tells Alex, “Women are the answer. They are. If you’ll only let them into the story. Women. They are the answer” [p. 144]. Why does he say this to Alex? Is he right? In what sense do women turn out to be “the answer” for Alex?
4. When Kitty Alexander discovers that Alex is the author of the letters she has found so moving, she says, “it worries me that you write these. Why did you write? You are really too young even to remember my last film, no matter my first…. There is no girlfriend, or she is not effective. There is a lack somewhere. I think this must be true” [p. 240]. Why does Alex write so many letters to Kitty? Why is he so fixated on her? Is Kitty right in pointing to Alex’s less than happy love life as a reason?
5. Throughout the novel, Alex and other characters make international gestures for any number of things, from “He’s crazy” to “shut up,” and usually these have a comic effect. But near the end of the novel, when Alex suggests that the Kaddish ceremony is “nothing more [than] a gesture,” Adam asks: “What’s more important than a gesture?” [p. 340]. In what ways are gestures both comic and seriously communicative in the novel? In what ways are they significant?
6. Alex grows hysterical observing autograph collectors at the convention in New York. “As if the world could be saved this way! As if impermanence were not the golden rule! And can I get Death’s autograph, too? Have you got a plastic sheath for that, Mr. Autograph Man?” [p. 207]. What function does collecting and selling autographs serve for Alex?
7. When Honey and Alex find Kitty’s apartment, Alex thinks it’s too easy. “This just doesn’t happen that I want something and then it’s just there. With no effort,” to which Honey replies, “Baby, that’s exactly how it happens.” Later she adds, “The plan is no plan.” [p. 226]. Is Honey the most “Zen” character in The Autograph Man? Why would Zadie Smith make a prostitute perhaps the wisest figure in the book?
8. The Autograph Man doesn’t have a conventional plot, where unfolding actions drive the narrative. What elements create and sustain the reader’s interest in the absence of a strongly defined plot? Can The Autograph Man be considered a postmodern fiction?
9. What kinds of relationships does Alex have with his friends? With Esther? What do they all, at one point or another, try to tell him about himself?
10. What does The Autograph Man suggest about the role that race, ethnicity, and religion play in shaping personal identity? To what extent do the characters in the novel define themselves along these lines?
11. When Alex fills out the hotel questionnaire, he offers a pithy, one sentence summary of his philosophy of life: “Regret everything and always live in the past” [p. 247]. Is he merely joking, or does this statement reflect the way he sees and lives his life?
12. Why is Alex writing a book that divides the world and everything in it into the categories of Jewish and Goyish? How do his friends regard this endeavor?
13. During a fierce argument near the end of the book, Alex says to Esther, “it’s like you think I have, like, the morals of a sewer rat, or something,” to which Esther replies, “Let’s not talk about morals. Let’s not do that” [p. 331]. What is the cause of Alex’s shabby behavior towards Esther? Is it a moral issue?
14. In what ways can the novel, as a whole, be read as a critique of modern western culture? How do the characters, in the way they live their lives, exemplify this critique?
Martin Amis, Money: A Suicide Note; Dai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress; Christina Garcia, Monkey Hunting; Franz Kafka, Letter to His Father; Yann Martel, Life of Pi; Ian McEwan, Atonement; ZZ Packer, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere; Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions.