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The Paper Chase

Wendy Smith is the author of "Real-Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

Zadie Smith stormed onto the publishing scene in 2000 with “White Teeth,” a burly first novel that embraced the 21st century with its zesty portrait of ethnic, class and sexual conflicts in multicultural London, taking side trips as far afield as Jamaica and Bangladesh. It’s a pleasure to report that her new book is just as stimulating. “The Autograph Man” mingles such quintessentially contemporary themes as our obsession with fame and the substitution of entertainment for experience with time-honored subjects like the tangled bonds between fathers and sons and the inevitability of death. All are considered with the same bracing intelligence and salty humor that distinguished her debut.

The eponymous hero, Alex-Li Tandem, trades in “names on paper ... a small blip in the desire network” whose threads entangle him over the course of a week that takes him from a bad acid trip in London to the Autographicana Fair in New York and home again with his very own celebrity in tow.

Smith has reined in the narrative sprawl that made “White Teeth” exciting but occasionally exhausting; she gives Alex’s story a (slightly) more disciplined structure without renouncing the sweeping authorial voice that energized her earlier work.

Introducing Alex at age 12, the omniscient narrator informs us that “he deals in a shorthand of experience. The TV version. He is one of this generation who watch themselves.” En route from his north London neighborhood to a wrestling match, he is about to be challenged by ugly reality, as Smith skillfully sets up the schism that will define his young life.

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Alex’s father is driving him and his Hebrew school friends, brash, bullying Mark Rubenfine and assertively intellectual Adam Jacobs. (Alex’s father, Li-Jin Tandem, is Chinese, but his mother, Sarah, is Jewish.) At the match, they meet delicate, fearful Joseph Klein, who intensely describes his autograph collection. Fascinated by Joseph’s passion, Alex has discovered his third lifelong friend and his vocation. Backstage, as he whips around to show his father the photo that the winning wrestler has just signed, Li-Jin crumples to the floor.

Fifteen years later, a week before the anniversary of his father’s death, Alex has little recollection of the previous 72 hours, though he knows they included a visit to Adam’s apartment, where he ingested the “microdot,” and a stoned drive ending with the wreck of his car and minor injuries for his girlfriend Esther, Adam’s sister. His friends are convinced that unresolved grief fuels Alex’s self-destructive behavior and absurd dedication to what they consider a trivial profession. (Joseph sells insurance, Mark is a rabbi, Adam pursues God through the Torah and the Kabbalah.) They press him to gather a group to say the kaddish mourning prayer for Li-Jin.

Alex is more preoccupied with mysterious pieces of mail: two autographs from Kitty Alexander, a Hollywood star he has been writing to for 15 years without a reply. The Autographicana Fair provides an excuse to track down Kitty in Brooklyn, even though it means he will be away when Esther has an operation to replace her pacemaker. It’s Alex’s heart that seems faulty as Smith chronicles his frequently outrageous behavior on two continents, yet we can’t help but like him as he riffs sardonically on Allen Ginsberg (“I saw the best minds of my generation accept jobs on the fringes of the entertainment industry”) or conquers his disgust at the physical manifestations of mortality to visit a dying colleague in the hospital.

Tracing her hero’s odyssey, Smith scatters marvelous sentences and sharp insights on nearly every page, astutely placing many of them in the mouths of her characters. “Be an American. Say what you mean,” orders the hooker-turned-autograph-dealer Alex consorts with in New York. “What’s more important than a gesture?” asks Adam when Alex confesses his doubts about the kaddish. Defending the insurance industry, Joseph declares, “Part of the inevitable is the need for compensation. It’s a sin to get it, but an act of faith to want it.”

Like any good novelist, Smith uses action and dialogue to illuminate her themes. She pulls them together in the lovely climactic image: Alex attaches his father’s signature in the honored central spot of Adam’s personal autograph collection, arranged on the wall in the shape of a “Kabbalistic” diagram, “midway between--and elevated above--the popular philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the popular writer Virginia Woolf.”

“The Autograph Man” has faults, principally Smith’s shallow depiction of her characters’ relationship to Judaism. It’s meant to be a major motif--telegraphed by the hilarious epigraph from the late comedian Lenny Bruce--but feels more like a plot premise. We need to see more of Esther, in particular, to understand Alex’s attachment to her. His mother’s absence after the prologue is less surprising: This is a young person’s book (Smith is 27), in which friends are all-important and omnipresent; parents loom large but are safely offstage or dead. Still, it’s jarring when Sarah turns up at the kaddish ceremony, which serves as a slightly disappointing finale.

The fact that Smith’s reach sometimes exceeds her grasp indicates how bold that reach is. She tackles big subjects, and her talent is very nearly equal to her ambitions.


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