THE AUTOGRAPH MAN by Zadie Smith (Penguin), 427 pages, $25 paper. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Tell me if you've heard this one before. Artist releases a first book/film/record to unimaginable praise. The constant press attention turns from flattering to intrusive. Artist lashes out with a second book/film/record that's a thinly veiled meditation on how terrible celebrity is.
Read Zadie Smith's new novel and you'll hear it again. Just two years ago Smith's debut novel, White Teeth, a hilarious rush through modern multicultural London, turned her from struggling author into genuine celebrity -- her changing hairstyles were tabloid news in Britain.
Her new novel, The Autograph Man, is about our obsession with the famous and the ultimate hollowness of fame.
Alex-Li Tandem is a professional autograph hound who makes a living trading the signatures of the famous. He's fixated on getting the autograph of reclusive silent movie actress Kitty Alexander, writing her letters every week until she suddenly writes back. Smith's contempt for the fame game is undiluted.
There are flashes of Smith's typical roller-coaster dialogue, deadpan humour and outlandish characters.
Tandem is half-Chinese, half-Jewish, and obsessed with Jewishness. He keeps a book in which everything is either Jewish or goyish (Smith's word): staplers are Jewish, walnuts are goyish.
He also has a peculiar collection of friends -- a rabbi and a black American Jewish pothead.
Amusing, but there's none of the controlled chaos of White Teeth, and too little of its humour.
The Autograph Man is a disappointment because Smith set the bar so high with White Teeth.
But that doesn't explain why The Autograph Man takes 200 pages to get going and then never really knocks you out.