Off The Shelf: The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith


Alex Li is an Autograph Man. A little like being a Munchkin, or a Good Witch, or a Flying Monkey, or a rabbi. Not much, without your belief.

Zadie Smith’s sometimes funny/sometimes sad narrative follows Alex Li Tandem, a half-Chinese English Jew, on his slapstick odyssey to find the elusive Kitty Alexander, an actor from the 1940s who may… or may not have sent him an autograph.

His friends, Adam Jacobs (the black Kabbalist), Mark Rubinefine (an unlikely Rabbi), and Joseph Klein (the original ‘autograph man’ unhappily working in insurance) believe that it’s a forgery created by Alex during a drug induced spiritual experience gone wrong. So wrong that when Alex comes to a few days later, he discovers that he wrecked his car, and Esther, his girlfriend and Adam’s sister, has a broken finger and a strained neck.

There is something funny about the word ‘goyish’. Smith’s emotionally stunted protagonist, Alex Li- Tandem is writing a book categorising things as either ‘Jewish’ or ‘goyish’, but as far the Alex Li is concerned, ‘goyish’ is more than just a disparaging term for things and people that are not Jewish. It is a value judgement that transcends religion and ethnicity. Basically, ‘Jewish’ is applied to anything meaningful and good while ‘goyish’ is shallow and bad. For instance, my allowing dust to collect on this book for years before reading it was ‘goyish’, however, my sudden inspiration to pluck it off the shelf and read it is ‘Jewish’.

If I were to include any spoilers in this post…that would be ‘goyish’.

Alex Li’s ‘goyishness’ rests with his obsession with memorabilia and Kitty Alexander which threatens his relationships, the memory of his father and his faith.

I almost feel that his habitual collecting his own was of trying to hold onto to both his ‘Jewishness’ and ‘goyishness’ together, or in tandem as his name probably symbolises. His collecting seems to be a way bringing the pieces back together in his own broken world, that began with the death of his father.

Despite his flaws, Alex Li is much better at collecting his memorabilia than I am at collecting my thoughts. I feel that there so much more I wanted to say, but for the life of me, I can’t remember what it is. For instance, I can’t remember why I had so much trouble reading it before.

Smith’s second novel is about love, faith, friendship, fidelity, obsession, and all that is glossed with the glint of nostalgia.

I highly recommend it.


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2 Responses to Off The Shelf: The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

  1. I have had this book for years and never got round to reading it. I think I may have started it a few times and only read a few pages so that might be what it putting me off. I may give it another go!

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