Fundamentally Goyish

James Wood

  • The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith
    Hamish Hamilton, 420 pp, £16.99, September 2002, ISBN 0 241 13998 8

In his essay on Lancelot Andrewes, T.S. Eliot wrote about ‘relevant intensity’. Contemporary British and American writers are in love with what might be called irrelevant intensity. In fiction, information has become the new character, and information is endless. We know the signs of irrelevant intensity: an obsession with pop-culture trivia; a love of the comedy of culture rather than the comedy of character; zany scenes interrupted by essayistic riffs – on hotel minibars, on videophones, on the semiotics of street manners in major European cities, what have you – the riffs always expertly blending the sentimental and the Cultural-Studies-theoretical; a tendency to elongate into lists whenever possible (of the ‘there were ten things that Brian really disliked’ kind); kooky epigraphs, mixing high and low authorities; long, feverish run-on sentences, desperately semaphoring their gross mimetic appetite, their need to capture as much of ‘the madness of the times’ as possible, as much of ‘the way we live now’; and a frequent oiling of italics. A parody would go like this:

Brian idly fingered the minibar. It was happily ‘chugging’ (though was ‘chugging’ exactly the right word?) to itself as if it had actually already drunk its entire contents. The minibar was one of that weird genre that tells you that as soon as you move anything in it, anything at all, you will be automatically billed. Brian wondered about this: how would they – they being the Loews Hotel accountants who worked out of a large and famously hideous building in Newark, though probably in fact the information was logged somewhere like Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur – how would they know that you had moved, say, the tiny bottle of Johnnie Walker to where the tiny bottle of Smirnoff was standing? Like, thought Brian, would an alarm go off? He plucked a bottle of Budweiser. Nothing happened. The strange pathos of cold beer bottles in lonely hotel rooms! The bottle was shaped like a beautiful woman . . . Above the minibar, the 24-inch Zenith screen was showing a Seinfeld rerun (Brian identified it as one of the shows from that strange two-month lull, September-October 1995, when the writing went soft and the jokes were bizarrely unfunny). There were three things Brian really disliked: a) Seinfeld when he was not at his peak; b) his girlfriend when, as currently, she wasn’t taking his calls; c) the second half of a bottle of beer once the liquid has warmed up. Just as he was pondering these things, the phone went. It was Jason Jenson, known to the police as Wet-Dog, his old friend from Brown, former drug-pusher, cat-burglar, mail fraudster and insurance scam artist, one-time inmate of Lorton penitentiary, now a computer whizz kid with EkaSystems Inc, and earning at least half a million a year . . .

Alas, much of Zadie Smith’s second novel reads like this. (It’s better written, but she had two years, and I had two minutes.) White Teeth, for all its many miracles, occasionally revealed a cartoonish energy that at times seemed to amount to a fear of silence, a perpetual mobility. There were those twins, one in London and one in Bangladesh, who break their noses at the same time, and that genetically programmed mouse, and lots of crazy Mormons, and the Islamic terrorist group with the silly acronym (KEVIN). But Smith’s comic talents burned away these breathy complications, so that they seemed mere hysterical wisps alongside the sunny central story, masterfully controlled, of the delightful Jones and Iqbal families.

The Autograph Man is, as it were, a novel made entirely of those wisps. Its central character, Alex-Li Tandem, is a dreary blank, an empty centre entirely filled by his pop-culture devotions. Around him swirls a text incapable of ever stiffening into sobriety, a flailing, noisy hash of jokes, cool cultural references, pull-quotes, lists and roaring italics. It is like reading a newspaper designed by a kindergarten. (Or by the editorial staff of McSweeney’s.) It is sick with silly epigraphs: from Marilyn Monroe, Kafka, Lenny Bruce (who occupies an entire page), Billy Wilder, Madonna (or the ‘popular singer Madonna Ciccone’, as Smith has it, a tic that runs throughout the book), Walter Benjamin (or ‘the popular wise guy Walter Benjamin’). Each chapter has a cute digest at its head, announcing the delights on offer: ‘Alex-Li Tandem was Jewish – A rainbow over Mountjoy – Hand-print – Superstar – Princess Grace – Marvin is a milk operative – Alex’s feminine goy side.’ Each of these chapter digests continues a running joke: ‘Muhammad Ali was Jewish’ (Chapter 2); ‘Bette Davis was Jewish’ (Chapter 3); ‘John Lennon was Jewish’ (Chapter 4); and so on. The text often blooms into a special boxed feature, such as: ‘The Joke about the Pope and the Chief Rabbi’ (this takes a whole page) or:

Haggadah (Pop Quiz #1)

Q. When Alex and Adam had a smoke, how much of the fun was in the rolling?

A. In the book it is written: Oh, about 78 per cent.

Every so often Smith will surprise us with an informational interpolation: ‘And now here are some facts. When Queen Victoria first met Albert she wasn’t really all that smitten.’ Or, ‘Interesting fact: Rubinfine’s father, Rubinfine, wants Rubinfine to grow up to be a rabbi.’ The novel, which is set in a fictional North London suburb and in New York, bears the impress of American writers like Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace, clever, nervy exhibitionists, IQs-with-i-Books, guys who, as Smith has put it, ‘know things’, writers with a gift for speedy cultural analysis, whose prose is choppy with interruption. The Autograph Man may indeed be the nearest that a contemporary British writer has come to sounding like a contemporary American; the result is disturbingly mutant.

Alex-Li Tandem, the son of a Chinese father and Jewish mother, is the autograph man of the title. He buys and sells autographs for a living, and has the lost vacancy of one who spends his time trading in expensive signifiers (the novel’s publishers promise a story that treats ‘the hollow things of modernity: celebrity, cinema, and the ugly triumph of symbol over experience’). His father is dead, his mother has moved to the country, and young Alex is unmoored. He lives alone. He neglects his girlfriend of ten years, Esther. He drinks too much, and smokes too much pot with his childhood friend Adam Jacobs. He is in love with the 1940s movie actress Kitty Alexander, the star of The Girl from Peking. ‘It amazed him that so many people – in fact, it would be fair to say most people – were unaware that the 1952 Celebration Pictures musical The Girl from Peking, starring Jules Munshin as Joey Kay and Kitty Alexander as May-Ling Han, was in fact the greatest movie ever made.’

Alex is intermittently aware that he is squandering his considerable intelligence on his enormous investment in pop-culture trash. (His ‘all-time favourite book’ is Lauren Bacall’s autobiography.) His friend Adam and his friend Mark Rubinfine, a local rabbi, spend much of the novel trying to bring him to his senses and to God. Adam runs a video store and has a ‘vast’ knowledge of useless pop trivia, but is also a devotee of Kabbalah, fond of using drugs to gain a mystical appreciation of Yahweh. Adam longs for Alex to make one important gesture of seriousness: to say Kaddish for his father. He gets his wish at the end of the novel, though not before Alex has run off to New York in a disastrous search for his heroine, Kitty Alexander, whom he finally meets in Brooklyn (she is now 77, and a recluse).

The novel’s first surprise, and continuously problematic element, is its intense preoccupation with Jewishness. Its leading characters are Jewish, and they live in a largely Jewish environment; it quotes from Kabbalah and from Leon Wieseltier’s book, Kaddish. It carries a long epigraph from Lenny Bruce, in which the comedian riffs on the difference between Jewish and goyish things: ‘Underwear is definitely goyish. Balls are goyish. Titties are Jewish.’ A little of this goes – or goys – a long way. Alas, Smith’s characters are all much involved with the divisions between what is Jewish and what is goyish. They sit around saying things like: ‘There was a black Jew’ (of Sammy Davis Jr). It is an obsession which seems essentially inauthentic, and which marks the novel precisely as one not written by a Jew.

Alex, in particular, seems quite ludicrously (and quite unexplainedly) deranged by his Jewishness. We are told that he has been writing a book for years, in which he divides the world up into the Jewish and the goyish. Improbably, Alex thinks of his cat as goyish (‘this goyish, humourless, pink-eyed fluffball’). He thinks that the ‘quote-unquote’ gesture that people do with their fingertips is ‘the most goyish of all International Gestures’. He complains to Adam: ‘It’s like I’m in some sort of Bermuda Triangle of goyishness today.’ Walking down the street, he divides the world into two groups, ‘splitting them down the centre as they went, as he always did for his hobby, his research, his book. Goyish. Jewish. Goyish. Jewish. Goyish. Goyish. Jewish. Goyish!’

The difficulty is that Smith seems unwilling to apply sufficient irony to this unlikely ethnic mania. When she writes, of a woman who is sitting next to Alex on the Tube and who wants to move away from him, that she ‘performed an elaborate goyish mime – watch-check, realisation of missed stop, little gasp, up on balls of feet’, Smith is obviously trying to see the gesture with Alex’s Jewish eyes. But one has the feeling that Smith’s eyes are too madly Alex’s; that she finds this kind of identification funny, smart, even hip. Of course, the revelation of Alex’s secret book does not make him seem mysterious, or brilliant, or feverishly inspired, as one suspects Smith hopes. It makes him seem stupid.

And should a serious novel – if this is what The Autograph Man is – proceed from, and then only lazily confirm, the shallow binarisms of Lenny Bruce? Despite its Judaic theological literacy, the novel’s Jewishness is so dominated by Bruce’s taxonomic vulgarity that it often seems no more than crude externality. Smith writes, at one point, that Rubinfine had become a rabbi not because he had got God very fiercely, but out of admiration for his origins. ‘Rubinfine was simply, and honestly, a fan of the people he had come from. He loved and admired them. The books they wrote, the films they made, the songs they had sung, the things they had discovered, the jokes they told.’ Would anyone really admire their people like this? Oh, Einstein was such a clever man! And how admirable Herzog is! And Neil Diamond! It doesn’t sound like Rubinfine. It sounds fundamentally goyish. It sounds like Smith’s own admiration. (And what is that ignoble word ‘fan’ doing there?)

The management of irony and sincerity – their proper apportioning, their containment and release – is the vexed issue of this novel, as of so many contemporary works. The Autograph Man has no moral centre because that place is so neglected by Smith’s uncertain wandering. She seems to like Alex much more than we do, to find in him resources which are invisible to the reader. Fatally, she can’t decide about the extent of his corruption by popular culture. Incidentally, novels in which the leading characters are human Cray computers of arcane trivial facts, in which people quote Casablanca to each other, or start conversations with challenges like ‘name three vintage Hollywood decapitations’, or go on about Kitty Alexander and Lauren Bacall, are now coming to seem dismally familiar. We have had High Fidelity, and White Noise, and Quentin Tarantino, and The Sopranos, and Fury, and by now we get the idea that we are poor sops in the society of spectacle, and that everyone under fifty speaks in consumer clichés and TV tags. It may be time to retire this little observation.

Like Dave Eggers, Smith is interested in contemporary self-consciousness. Insofar as she is a moralist, she is a moralist about this. She is always pointing out that her characters, on the brink of a momentous access of feeling, are undermined by their sense that they are not being original, that TV has preceded them. Alex says, at one point: ‘But first we’re going to drink. We’re going to get tight. Middle-of-the-movie stuff.’ After an argument with his girlfriend, he ruefully thinks: ‘he could have played that conversation differently, he saw that. But you don’t get no rewind in this life, as the black grandmothers in the movies like to say.’ Adam reminds him at one moment that ‘there are other people in this film we call life.’

Smith’s characters, like the millipede in the Meyrinck story that realises it has a thousand legs and is suddenly paralysed by indecision, are weakened by their abundant knowledge. It is to be expected that Alex, who spends his life mired in popular culture, would be thus arrested. But this habit of thought is a technical problem for a novel because it draws the character away from us, not towards us. It only clarifies his vacancy. Furthermore, it extends characters out into generality and away from individuation – for all of us, presumably, suffer this crisis of mediation in one way or another. Paradoxically, for all that this kind of self-consciousness about our unoriginality seeks to tear through the veil of representation, it is itself a highly aesthetic gesture, for it is a self-consciousness about self-consciousness. After all, when Smith writes that ‘Alex maintained what he hoped was a dignified silence. He had read about them in novels; this was his first attempt,’ the reader’s response is: but in life people don’t actually think like this – they only think like this in novels. (Or in cool, clever, contemporary ones.)

And if Smith is really concerned about Alex’s destiny, his wandering in the field of signs that is his career, then why does the novel so willingly indulge in just the sort of pop-culture vacancy that Alex tries to resist? Such vacancy is embedded deep in the texture of the prose. Thus we read that ‘Alex folded into the door frame like Lauren Bacall.’ And that Rabbi Green’s face became pensive ‘like the sad mask of Buster Keaton in the silents’, and that Adam leaned forward, ‘curved and precise, like Fats Waller at his piano’, and that ‘Rubinfine struggled with his face, and from among several more benign choices, a look reminiscent of Lenin after his second stroke won out.’

Smith’s reply might be that she is merely being a good novelist, seeing her characters as they would see themselves, and that in a world of signs nothing is authentic. But what then of Smith’s smirking epigraphs, which belong to the novel rather than to the characters? What then of her description of Adam’s living-room, with its posters of ‘the popular musician Stevie Wonder’ and ‘the martial artist Bruce Lee’ and ‘the wise guy Walter Benjamin in need of a comb, a better tailor, a way out of France’ (a deeply unfunny line). This sounds like Smith herself, not her characters.

And if Smith is offering up her own novel as an example of the very corruption afflicting her characters, one would have to say that to poison a whole novel is a very lengthy way of making a point about a single modern germ. Besides, confession is not absolution. The identification of a problem is not necessarily a form of resistance to it, and may be only an easy complicity: this was exactly the moral structure of Rushdie’s trivia-tattooed novel, Fury, which posed as excoriation but was really a love letter to the society of spectacle.

The problem can be put this way. About halfway through the novel, Alex stands in London beneath a twenty-foot poster of Julia Roberts (or ‘the popular actress Julia Roberts’, as Smith has it). Smith writes that on seeing the poster, Alex had ‘a strong urge to kneel’. This is in keeping with Alex’s fawning and childish devotion to the inauthentic. Before we know it the scene has dissolved and Alex is elsewhere. But imagine a serious 19th-century novelist writing with comparable levity about an equivalent shallowness! If Smith is writing sincerely, if she means what she says and believes that Alex did indeed want to kneel before the poster, then the novel’s protagonist is a fool, and we need to feel that the novel knows this, understands it, and can manage the moral implications. But if Smith does not really mean it, if the sentence is just a funny fouetté, kicked out at the amusedly complicit reader (because we, too, want to kneel before Julia, who doesn’t?) – then she is joking at the expense of Alex, and obscuring his quiddity. But crucially, either stance diminishes Alex; the first by decision, the second by accident.

In such an instance, Smith herself seems unsure how to dispose of her own sincerity and irony. The novel’s form – Alex’s correction at the end of the book, his education in the way of Kaddish – suggests that Smith’s project is a moral one. Alex is rescued – or at least, may be rescued – from the ‘hollow things of modernity’. The man who trades in false signs is finally led into synagogue to do business with the great transcendental signified Himself. Smith is quite explicit about this. Alex has spent his life commercially honouring the worthless dead, dead celebrities. The novel will end with his beginning to honour his own dead, his father.

The book’s conceptual grid is plausible enough. The problem is Alex, and the novel’s assessment of his nullity. He is simply an absence. We learn little about him except that he loves Kitty Alexander and is a rather faithless friend and boyfriend. His chosen profession does not yield pathos, as perhaps Smith hopes, but derision. Those moments when Smith tries to squeeze a little sympathy on behalf of Alex always fail, because all one hears is the escaping sigh of unoccupied personhood:

No love, no transportation, no ambitions, no faith, no community . . . Look at this. If this is a man. Look at him. Never have I been more perfectly Jewish. I have embraced a perfect contradiction, like Job. I have nothing, and at the same time, everything. And if I am out of my mind, thought Alex-Li Tandem, it’s all right by me.

This little plaint occurs on a London street about a third of the way through the book. We have been with Alex at an autograph auction, from which he has just emerged. We know only that he is a bit of a mess, has some very decent friends, takes too many drugs, works in a silly and rather shabby profession, and that he is having a bit of trouble with his girlfriend. But here he is, carrying on about being Job, apparently with the author’s approval, in a stew of language that manages to quote, uncomfortably, the title of a Primo Levi book, and misquote the first line of Herzog (Bellow has ‘it’s all right with me’). Alex disappears under the weight of all this reference, and never recovers.

Amid this anarchy of styles, amid the cartoonishness and excess, the misplaced ironies and grinning complicities, Smith can prove herself a marvellous writer in a single sentence: ‘The platform is all cigarettes and schoolgirls.’ That is a fine evocation of an overground platform in suburban London. There are moments like this throughout the novel, moments of precise, vivid, quick prose, rich but never unbudgeted in its wealth, exact, funny, alert. Smith’s ear for speech is superb, and hardly ever lets her down (stagey Brooklynese from the president of the Kitty Alexander fan club the only obvious misstep). But these virtues are not nearly sturdy enough to rescue this novel.