Amid the early-'90s multi-culti hoo-ha, Saul Bellow remarked that he would happily read, say, African lit just as soon as it fashioned anything of consequence. "When the Zulus have produced a Tolstoy, we will read him," he said. Trust Zadie Smith not only to remember that sneer, but to take it as a challenge. As the follow-up to her epochal, if messy, White Teeth, this Brit of Jamaican extraction has written an honest-to-goodness Jewish novel, alluding to Bellow's own Herzog along the way. Characteristically, though, she refuses to color inside the simple lines of race and identity.
The protagonist of The Autograph Man is Alex-Li Tandem, a half-Jewish, half-Chinese Londoner who makes a sort of living authenticating celebrity memorabilia but spends too much of his time getting stoned and muddling about with his pals. This crew includes Adam, a black Jew who moved from Brooklyn as a child; Esther, his sister and Alex's sometime girlfriend; Mark Rubinfine, a childhood lout turned rabbi; and Joseph, Alex's first tutor in autograph-collecting and stardom. Alex wanders the city, making endless notes for a book called Jewishness and Goyishness, which Smith describes as "an appendix, a sequel, if you like, to Max Brod's effort of 1921, Heidentum, Christentum, Judentum. He was also indebted to the popular comedian Lenny Bruce." Insofar as Alex harbors broader dreams, they involve procuring the thus-far unavailable signature of minor '50s star Kitty Alexander. This Russian-Italian sophisticate appeared in Girl from Peking, a film he rents obsessively and ponders almost frame by frame, perhaps seeing in her own racial masquerade some semblance of his own.
Smith puts on her own show in the rich, comic sentences that fill The Autograph Man; in this sense, the book serves up as much pleasure as any novel this year. She has a wonderful feel for the conflicted meanings that come when identities pile hard on each other, as when Adam decorates his room with pan-cultural icons of pop religiosity:
Her jangly, conversational prose hears the intimations of need and longing that Alex's slacker irony can't disguise. Of his accidental airplane seating in business class, Smith writes, "something about it terrified him. The effort that had been taken. And all to identify and assert a few tiny differences: between orange juices, serviettes (cotton or paper), thickness of blanket, sharpness of pencil. The distinctions between coach and business class seemed to him worldly manifestations of the goyish conception of heaven."
Yet even as Alex ruminates wonderfully on ephemera, the novel works itself into a dead-end fascination with such minor epiphanies. When Nick Hornby's characters glimpse meaning beyond Arsenal's win-loss record, it feels to them like real growth. Smith's characters are more plugged in, more quarrelsome, and her readers expect more than riffs on, say, celebrity worship as paltry modern theology: "All fandom is a form of tunnel vision: warm and dark and infinite in one direction." A great many of these riffs are sharp, funny, and precise, but, perhaps by design, they don't lead anywhere. Smith doesn't do much to think out Alex's bicultural identity, nor any of the sub-themes the novel hints at: love among the young and pop-addled, Jewish mysticism as a guide for today, religion in a post-religious age.
What we get instead is a broad-minded, vividly multicultural lad's novel about growing up, Tolstoy hijacked by Zulu-friendly hipsters. From the evidence of The Autograph Man, her first book's promise was no mirage. Zadie Smith has the reach and the ambition to turn out a major body of work. But, as Alex himself riffs off Allen Ginsberg, all too often this novel succumbs to the triviality it mocks: "I saw the best minds of my generation/accept jobs on the fringes of the entertainment industry."