Before reading The Autograph Man, I didn't know that most critics and readers HATED this book. I'm glad I didn't know that, because it definitely would have affected my perception. That said, I can see why they felt this way. But The Autograph Man, Zadie Smith's second novel, proves the writer is an excellent one. Perhaps she just bit off more than she could chew with this book.
This is my first introduction to Smith; I haven't read White Teeth or On Beauty. Nevertheless, despite the awfulness that is The Autograph Man, I must concede that I want to read more of her. Perhaps I shouldn't have started with The Autograph Man. But surely it is the mark of a good writer to write something pretty bad and yet still leave me wanting to read more.
The Autograph Man is about Alex-Li Tandem, a half-Chinese, half-Jewish man who sells and trades autographs for a living. The novel opens strongly, with Alex and his friends as children, traveling with Alex's father to a wrestling match. After this prologue, the story proper opens with adult Alex trying to find his path as an adult. He's neither happy nor fulfilled, has barely a "career," and can barely sustain the vital friendships that seem to keep him going. He's not a particulary sympathetic character, but Smith creates some excellent friends for Alex so it's not all a wash. Basically, Alex is lost and his friends push him to get a grip.
I had two gripes with the book: first, the Kabbalah. The first half of the book is 10 chapters long, each named for a branch on the Tree of Life. Call me superficial, but Kabbalah is *so* 2004. I'm tired of trying to understand it. Sure, it sounds cool and all, I guess, but I don't want to read any more about it. I don't get it, I don't get how it connects to this book, it just kinda seems arbitrarily thrown together. Jimmy Stewart = Tif'eret! That's beauty! cool! Wait -- huh?
My other problem was with the second half of the book. Basically, it sucked.
Illumination Factor: Not too great here. Probably due to the second half, which really didn't develop any important themes set forth in the first.
In a nutshell: Apparently not her best work, but after reading it (ok, I skimmed the last 50 pages) I still want to give Zadie Smith another try. So it can't be that bad.
Bibliolatry Scale: 2 out of 6 stars