Writing What She Doesn’t Know

May 26, 2003 |

The Autograph Man
By Zadie Smith

Random House. 368 pages. $24.95.

En route to a wrestling match, a Chinese Englishman asks his Jewish son to explain, once again, about “the boxes.” “Tefillin,” the exasperated 12-year-old Alex-Li Tandem replies, “You just strap them. On your head, you know. And a bit on your arms.” Readers of Zadie Smith’s critically acclaimed debut novel, White Teeth, should be familiar with this sort of cross-generational, cross-cultural exchange. With that book, Smith showed that she could write about anyone, anywhere, no matter how far removed from her personal experience—whether they are Jamaican Jehovah’s Witnesses, British Protestants, Bengali Islamists, or Jews.

In her second novel, The Autograph Man, Smith introduces a similar collection of exotically hyphenated cultural specimens, including the protagonist—an angsty Chinese-Jewish-British professional signature collector. Alex-Li Tandem, now 27, spends 300 pages groggily recovering from an acid trip and wondering how in the midst of his hallucinations he obtained his personal Holy Grail, the autograph of an aged and obscure Hollywood starlet. Leading him from his home in the fictional London suburb of Mountjoy to New York City, Alex’s inquiry into this mysteriously obtained autograph coincides with his struggle over whether to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish in memory of his non-Jewish father, at the urging of his quirky Jewish friends. Despite some narrative inconsistencies, flimsy characterization, and a few too many typographical gimmicks (and despite mixed reviews from the critics who fawned over White Teeth), The Autograph Man succeeds as a light comic novel. The farcical narrative is rich with riffs on modern life and features a gang of entertaining cartoon characters including a drug dealer-turned-milkman, a progressive midget rabbi, and a black Jewish mystic pothead video-store clerk.

Like Alex’s heritage, the book is split into two halves—Jewish/kabbalah and Chinese/Zen—though Judaism gets much more play throughout. The book includes diagrams of the kabbalistic sephirot (levels of mystical divinity), a Lenny Bruce routine, a moldy old Jewish joke, at least four rabbis, and even the Hebrew alphabet. Alex obsesses over religious taxonomy: In his spare time, he is writing a book that codifies everything as either Jewish or goyish (non-Jewish). He distinguishes “Jewish trees (sycamore, poplar, beech)” from “Goyish trees (oak, Sitka, horse chestnut)”; “Jewish office items (the stapler, the pen holder)” from “Goyish office items (the paper clip, the mouse pad)”; “Jewish books (often not written by Jews)” from “Goyish books (often not written by Goys)” and so on. All of which raises a question of classification: Does The Autograph Man—written by a goy—work as a Jewish book?

Not quite. Even if Smith can be forgiven a flub in which an Orthodox rabbi wears a prayer shawl while he prepares to move furniture, her explorations of Judaism lack depth. She tosses out allusions to the kabbalah but never plumbs its system of thought any deeper than one imagines Rosie O’Donnell and other celebrity kabbalists do in their Hollywood mysticism seminars. Alex’s comical studies of goyishness don’t breech the surface of the term’s meaning. Where I grew up, “goyish” meant a combination of “WASP-y” and “white trash-y”; and whether you’re in London, Louisiana, or Lvov, the term reflects Jews’ simultaneous fascination with and violent prejudice against non-Jews (whom we suspect will never really accept us).

Alex, Jew and goy at once, might have expanded our understanding of the relationship between gentiles and the chosen people, especially given Smith’s previous successes plumbing questions of ethnic identity. Unfortunately, her ruminations on the topic aren’t more than superficial jokes; anyone interested in the Jew/goy dynamic would do much better to pick up a copy of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

Smith is much more effective as a witty chronicler of life for the under-30 generation. Her characters’ dialogue, especially when spoken by adolescents and those who think like adolescents, is pitch-perfect and hilarious. Set pieces that aren’t strictly necessary to the plot—Alex getting wasted, Alex chatting on IM—read like hyper-literate stand-up comedy routines. One can only imagine what Smith will produce when she applies this talent for “Writing What She Knows” to a complex topic whose depths she is prepared to explore with all of her manifest brilliance.

[Originally published in New Voices.]