What's in a name? Little of real value

Two years after her wildly successful 'White Teeth,' Zadie Smith takes a bite out of celebrity culture

Book reviewing is ordinarily an honorable process, like say, college admissions, in which righteous judgment flows from disinterested appraisal of a subject's merit. There are, of course, minor abuses now and then. Last year, for instance, Christopher Buckley wrote a dust-jacket blurb for "The Columnist" and then followed up with a gushing review in the Washington Monthly. Or, conversely, Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" was denied the National Book Critics Circle award because several years earlier he'd offended a woman who went on to become the tie-breaking judge.

But by and large, the profession remains committed to appearing devoted to the principle that each book should be judged according to its own value, without reference to its mother or father.

At times, though, a book must contend with its siblings, and like a runty younger brother following a golden firstborn, that can set up harsh expectations. Case in point: The extraordinary celebration of Zadie Smith's debut novel, "White Teeth," in 2000 is fueling some extraordinary condemnation of her second, very different novel, "The Autograph Man." An essay in The Atlantic opens with a grinning celebration of "White Teeth" before chewing out her new book for a host of flaws. A review in last week's New York Times was so irate about Smith's fall from greatness that I expected it to end with a call for the novelist's execution.

But what if this new novel didn't have to emit its eerie light next to the blinding gleam of "White Teeth"? Considered on its own, "The Autograph Man" is something strange and remarkable, a rumination on grief that resists its own profundity, trips into pratfalls of slapstick, and exposes the dark longing beneath our fascination with celebrities.

The story opens with a witty description of 12-year-old Alex and his friends on a day trip to the wrestling match of the century between Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. Alex's father, a Chinese man in London married to a Jew, is desperate to help his son fit in. "He doesn't want Alex standing out from the crowd," the narrator explains. "He knows the boy's life will become difficult, and he hopes that conformity might be his savior."

For this father, the dream of assimilation renders every element of popular culture a kind of talisman – every trite song, television show, and video game his son collects is another clue along the complex path toward suburban normalcy.

Not surprisingly, this plan never succeeds. The second chapter opens 15 years later. Alex has grown into a man just as betwixt and between as his late father. He's uncomfortable as Asian or Jew, a hypochondriac bouncing between Western and alternative medicine, a sophisticate in the tacky trade of celebrity autographs and paraphernalia.

He's so thoroughly versed in the clichés of popular entertainment and advertising that they compose the atmosphere he breathes. They mediate his thoughts, slip into every conversation, and stand ready to preempt or mock every tender moment. "He is one of this generation who watch themselves," the narrator notes.

Though it's rendered foggy and complicated by Smith's loopy style, the story is simple: Alex's devoted friends, the same three Jewish boys who attended that fateful wrestling match so long ago, are worried about him. And they should be. He won't commit to the woman he's been dating, more or less faithfully, for 10 years. His substance abuse threatens to kill him. And he refuses to say the Kaddish for his father.

His only goal is the acquisition of an autograph from Kitty Alexander, the 1950s movie star to whom he's written futilely every week for more than a decade. His religious devotion to this reclusive celebrity has made him something of a legend among the autograph-collecting circuit, but to his friends, it's an obsession that has finally driven him to madness and fraud.

Smith tells this bleak tale with a patter that's irrepressibly comic, swirling with social and cultural insights. There are light touches of David Eggers's antics here, too, invitations to fill in missing words; jokes, skits, and anecdotes set off in their own boxes; lists of things Jewish and things goyish; a transcript of Instant Messages; characters who refer to the book we're reading; and verbal habits like the classification of International Gestures for various emotions, the kind of insider verbal games that connect Seinfeldesque groups of friends, but strike outsiders (and other reviewers) as annoying.

Beneath all the schtick, though, is a man tragically encased in his own self-absorption, devoted to the collection of little symbols of others' identity, tiny scrawlings that promise a taste of immortality to a world terrified of obscurity and death.

A major section of the novel takes place at an autograph convention in New York City, allowing Smith to satirize the sad economics of fame and desire that pervade our lives. Washed up sitcom stars compete with the aged pilots who dropped atomic bombs on Japan. A prostitute (based on the woman who got Hugh Grant into trouble a few years ago) counsels Alex on the management of notoriety and wish fulfillment. No doubt Smith's own experience with the flush of celebrity status generated much of this bitter comedy.

But she dares to raise this sobering critique in a novel that refuses our sympathies. These episodes remain always slightly out of focus, and events sometimes follow one another with the disconnected logic of channel surfing.

"It was like reaching the twenty-seventh minute of a French film," Alex thinks, "the point at which he usually began to have some hazy idea of what was going on." Of course, sitting in the dark like that can be downright maddening, but in this case, it's also uncomfortably illuminating.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com .

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