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How Much For a Tiny Piece of Fame?

Zadie Smith's Autograph Man

When I lived in San Diego, Eddie Vedder used to buy beer at the same 7-Eleven as me. My friend Anne just sent an email telling me about the bar in Aspen where she saw both Emilio Estevez and Jon Bon Jovi. I know more about Ben Affleck and JLo than I do about my sister's boyfriend.

Our obsession with celebrity is funny and disturbing all at once, much like Zadie Smith's new novel. The absurd feeling of intimacy, the self-importance and distortion-Smith's characters approach fame from every aspect.

Autograph Man shows the extent celebrity culture has engulfed us: an aged movie star, alienated by stardom, the ordinary person rocketed into infamy by a tabloid incident, the fan in each of us who feels closer, more comfortable with a movie star, an author or rock star we've never met.

It seems fitting that after the success of White Teeth Smith's second novel should be about fame and celebrity. Faced with the phenomenal success and international recognition, Smith has become an instant celebrity (even her stay at a writer's villa in Italy was dutifully chronicled by Vanity Fair).

At the center of the novel's characters is the Autograph Man, Alex Li-Tandem, whose obsession with identity, fame and the pursuit of an elusive movie star's autograph drives him into a series of mishaps.

As the story opens, Alex wakes up hung over with a fuzzy memory of the last week and a very valuable Kitty Alexander autograph. In a journey of self-discovery, he tries make sense of religion, relationships and his grief over his father's death.

At twenty-eight, Alex's great accomplishment in life has been creating a book that lists items as Goyish or Jewish: "Jewish office items (the stapler, the pen holder), Goyish office items (the paper clip, the mouse pad); Jewish trees (sycamore, poplar, beech), Goyish trees (oak, Sitka, horse chestnut)."

In fact, Alex seems to have an overwhelming need to categorize, hence his Big Five (lease favorite ways to die) list: "1. Cancer, 2. AIDS, 3. Poisoned Water System/London Underground Gas Attack, 4. Permanent Neurological Damage (in youth, through misadventure), 5. Degenerative Brain Disease, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Etc. (in old age)."

On Alex's list of godly things: Relationships that do not involve blood or other fluids, tobacco, telling children that all life is suffering, alcohol and the smell of cinnamon.

Although, like White Teeth, the majority of the novel takes place in the culturally diverse North London, excluding vivid descriptions, the characters' issues with race, cultural identity and "Heinz 57" background seem very American.

In that way that fourth graders feel compelled to recite their heritage-one-fifth Irish, two-fifths Cherokee, two-fifths Guatemalan-Zadie Smith's characters cross over cultural and ethnic boundaries without a social or political agenda. In fact, while race and culture are part of what gives depth to Smith's characters, these factors do not drive the story, a feat not yet conquered by American authors.

Engaging and beautifully written, Autograph Man forces us to question the importance we put on fame and success. Alex's efforts to define himself and the world around him without relying on religion, fame or celebrity are both commendable and hysterically entertaining.

Autograph Man
By Zadie Smith
Random House; ISBN: 037550186X
Hardcover, 400 pages (October 2002)

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