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The Autograph Man    by Zadie Smith order for
Autograph Man
by Zadie Smith
Order:  USA  Can
Vintage, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio

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* * *   Reviewed by David Pitt

Here's the British author's follow-up to her debut, White Teeth, which won a handful of awards. This one's even better, the quirky, offbeat story of a quirky, offbeat young fellow who makes his living buying, and selling, autographs. He is not, and he'd really want you to be clear on this, he is not an 'autograph hound' -- he doesn't traipse around with a little book, he doesn't set upon celebrities and beg them to sign their names on a slip of paper, he's not into that whole 'collector' rap.

He's a businessman, is our Alex-Li Tandem, a dealer in a very special commodity. The Autograph Man is one of those seemingly-plotless novels in which nothing appears to be going on, until the end, when you realize a great deal has happened. I can't really explain any of it here, because Smith has this way of subtly establishing character and motivation that would be utterly ruined if you tried to boil the story down to a series of plot points, but I will tell you this: there are moments in the novel where you will sit up, sort of blink your eyes as though waking from a slightly weird dream, and you'll think: hey, this thing is good.

I love it when a novel sneaks up on me, I really do. Alex-Li, who at first appears to be merely another oddball who's chosen an unconventional lifestyle over maturity, sneakily develops into a complex man with a host of rather interesting qualities; the supporting cast, superficially your usual collection of eccentrics (fellow autograph traders, friends, and a milkman who doubles as a drug supplier), reveal themselves to be fully-formed, massively appealing human beings.

Coincidentally, while I was reading The Autograph Man, I stumbled, in a used book store, upon The Autograph Hound (1973), by John Lahr. It's thematically similar to Smith's novel -- it, too, features someone whose life revolves around the signatures of famous people, although he's a collector, not a trader -- but stylistically they're solar systems apart. Lahr's is a reasonably entertaining but entirely conventional story, and (therefore) not especially memorable. Smith's, on the other hand, is vastly entertaining, thoroughly unconventional, and it'll stick with you long after you think you've moved on to something else.

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