The Autograph Man
It’s been awhile since I reviewed books on here, though I enjoyed it when I did. At the very least, it helps me remember what I’ve read and what I thought of it at the time.
Taking a leaf from my sister, for the last year or so I’ve only been reading fiction by female authors. Partly this was because I was disappointed by Franzen’s Purity, but mostly it was an effort to force myself to hear alternative voices. Most books you see around are written by men. Without really thinking about it, most books I’d been reading had been written by men. I decided to be intentional about changing that. Thanks to this, I’ve read some great books. The Autograph Man, by Zadie Smith, is the latest.
This is Smith’s second novel, written not long after her famous debut, White Teeth. I’ve been reading her books since shortly after White Teeth was published, and I’ve enjoyed them all – however, somehow I missed this. The Autograph Man is not what I was expecting. It’s not a family novel, it’s a novel of friends, community, obsession, passion and forgiveness. It’s also a Jewish novel. A North London Jewish novel, unlike the New York Jewish novels that I typically read from authors such as Chabon or Lethem. Another alternative voice.
It’s interesting to see Smith’s ability to tell a story evolve. White Teeth was an interesting experience for me. It’s a great novel with a disappointing ending. It builds up, it brings together families, dynasties, countries and history. Then, it stops. Suddenly without a lot of resolution. I realised that the ending really doesn’t matter. A great novel tells a story, and sometimes you have to walk away from the story before it’s been satisfactorily resolved. Then Smith’s On Beauty showed me that a story can be all of those things, and also have a great ending. It’s probably still my favourite of hers, and one of the best final moments I’ve ever read.
Since On Beauty, NW and Swing Time also have perfectly good endings. They tell stories of families and friends and the trajectories of their lives, with an ending like a novel typically needs. Nothing exceptional (I can’t remember how NW ends, to be honest) but nothing left dangling either.
The Autograph Man is on that arc of evolution. It has a definite Ending. It’s a novel that wants to be about the characters, but is also about a journey. I suspect I wouldn’t have been able to see this if I had read all her novels in the order they were published.
At this point Zadie Smith has an exceptional body of work. Reading one of her novels is placing yourself in a world of her creation. A world that’s mostly like modern London, but just a bit different. The events, the coincidence, the reactions, they could be nowhere other than London in a Zadie Smith novel. It reminds me of Greeneland. My bet is that this body of work is already worthy of the Nobel Prize for Literature. We’re just waiting for her to get old enough for that committee to regard her as distinguished.