The Autograph Man (Zadie Smith)

The Autograph Man is a novel by Zadie Smith.
Finished on: 12.8.2018

Content Note: ableism, homomisia, fatmisia

Jewish Chinese Londoner Alex-Li Tandem buys and sells autographs. It’s infrequent work, but he has managed to build enough of a reputation to be able to live off of it rather comfortably. It is also a convenient way to keep an eye on anything by Kitty Alexander, a long and almost entirely forgotten actress who has barely signed anything ever. Alex-Li has been sending her a letter every week, in the hopes of getting another signature or just a sign of life. When the hoped for reply arrives, Alex-Li’s quest only starts.

The Autograph Man did not work for me. It’s nicely written, but it suffers from an absolutely unlikeable protagonist and I was also weirded out by how Alex-Li’s Jewishness is treated. It was mostly my own hard-headedness that made me finish it at all.

The book cover showing a drawing of two men in a wrestling ring.

The first and foremost problem I had with the novel was Alex-Li himself. I really, really, really hated his guts. His continual drinking and pot-smoking annoyed the hell out of me and I started disliking him so much, I didn’t just stop caring whether good things happened to him, I actively wanted him to fail.

And while I appreciated that Alex-Li had an unusual multi-culti background, I was taken aback by how his Jewish background is portrayed. As far as I know, Smith isn’t Jewish herself, so writing not only a Jewish character, but a character who is very much occupied with his Jewishness – for example, he keeps writing lists of what is Jewish and what is Goyish – is tricky in the first place. I couldn’t help feeling that his Jewishness was exploited here. But then again, I’m not Jewish myself, so I definitely can’t claim to be an expert or any kind of authority on this and the novel did win a Jewish literary prize, so maybe I’m being too critical. Anyway, I got a weird feeling here.

What is definitely not up for debate that the novel keeps throwing around the m-slur and year, it’s 15 years old and maybe awareness for that wasn’t that great back then, but that doesn’t make it any less jarring. Additionally, “gaylords” abound as well, being used derogatorily, of course. And to add to the fun, there’s also a touch of fatmisia for more fun.

The final nail in the coffin of this books for me was that Kitty, once we do get to meet her in person, just turns out to be a walking, talking cliché.

So while the writing was pretty good, making reading the novel very fluid, and using a couple of wonderful metaphors, overall it was just a really mediocre reading experience.

Summarizing: meh.

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