Modern life is rubbish and lonely, declares one of the subtitles of Zadie Smith's tumultuous new novel, The Autograph Man, and in present day England, life seems especially trashy. The sun doesn't shine, and when it does it's a scourge. The royal family is pixilated. The cows are mad. The Prime Minister goes out of his way to be America's poodle. Her Majesty's subjects, of various classes and ethnicities, chafe against each other in spiritual and physical squalor.
Into this hubbub Smith drops Alex-Li Tandem, a Jewish, half-Chinese autograph man in his 20s whose passion for collecting and trading signatures began the day his father died as he and Alex's friends were on the verge of securing the autograph of a pro wrestler. Alex's friends include his best mate Adam, who's black and a devout Jew and whose sister Alex uncomfortably courts when they grow up; Rubinfine, who becomes a rabbi; and Joseph, who turned Alex on to autograph hounding that fateful day in Albert Hall.
Alex's desideratum is the signature of Kitty Alexander, an actress whose Eurasian looks she's really Russian and Italian, as much of a mutt as Alex won her the roles of Anna May Wong types in cheesy '50s movies. Her autograph is rarer than Garbo's, but, nearly miraculously, Alex comes into possession of one. This gift prompts him to leave his crummy apartment in a London suburb ironically named Mountjoy and fly to Brooklyn, where Kitty lives. There he hooks up with a bunch of suspicious characters, including an African-American woman with a germ phobia named Honey, and tries at last to meet the great lady of the B movies, who till then had spent 15 years ignoring his fluffy fan letters.
Smith is a 26-year-old Englishwoman of mixed ethnicity herself (her father is English, her mother Jamaican), whose debut novel, White Teeth, won critical raves and a spot on the bestseller list. She's an intelligent writer who seems to know a lot about many things. Her use of language is exceptional and subtle, from her description of the way Alex's cat bumps him with her tail to the quality of Kitty's forehead as it flows into her nose.
In an interesting twist, the titles of the first part of the book are linked to the branches of the Kabbalistic tree of life, a prominent symbol of the Jewish mystical sect that believes the world is broken. The novel is Alex's quest to unbreak the world, which hasn't been right since the death of his beloved father. Of course, he blunders repeatedly. He drops a substance that lets him visit the cosmos without a spaceship, then involves his pacemaker-wearing girlfriend in a car wreck. Near the end he commits an act which, on the surface, is dishonorable. But Smith keeps us pulling for her befuddled hero.
Alex and his friends truly care for each other, and he turns to them for emotional anchoring. The end of the book has Alex, at Adam's urging, finally saying a long-postponed Kaddish for his dead father. The ritual, despite the yawns and fidgets of the mourners, fixes at least a tiny corner of the world. Sad, funny and ambitious, The Autograph Man is a noteworthy sophomore work.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.