Zadie Smith’s critics seem to fall into two stubbornly delineated camps: There are the sycophants, who fall at her feet and praise her to the skies, declaring her to be not only the next Rushdie, Dickens, Amis and McEwan all rolled into one (the sum being greater than its constituent parts); and there are the cynics, who claim that had Zadie Smith not existed she would have been invented by the media anyway, by virtue of her box-ticking abilities (young, black, Cambridge, beautiful). Those same cynics say that the multi-million selling, multi-award winning debut novel White Teeth – converted to the small screen after one of Channel 4’s largest ever advertising campaigns – was over-hyped, over-indulgent and often narratively unconvincing.
With the battle lines already long drawn, Penguin is set to unleash hell again by, well, releasing The Autograph Man, her follow-up novel. A shorter, tighter, more modest proposal (Zadie herself has admitted that White Teeth’s principal flaw was its breathtaking ambition), initially we find ourselves once again in a universe where all human life has upped and moved to North London. Despite its less ‘epic’ ambitions, Zadie’s imagination is still at full throttle, careering first around suburban London and then urban New York on a quixotic quest for a rare autograph, by former silver screen Goddess Kitty Alexander. The protagonist is the wayward but endearing Alex-Li Tandem, whose obsession with celebrity is as eccentric as the accidents that befall him and the company he keeps.
Despite owing a certain intellectual debt to Roland Barthes’ work on ‘semiotics’ (the science of signs), particularly in the Giant Haystacks versus Big Daddy wrestling sequence with which The Autograph Man opens; it does not really qualify as a rigorous or arid novel of ideas. But then Zadie Smith never tries to be as ‘literary’ as some want her to be. She is happy to quote Walter Benjamin and Madonna in equal measure, and one senses that, for her, the significance of signs to modernity is a launching pad for a diverting story, rather than a topic for profound and original dissection.
Instead, the real appeal of Zadie’s work – which goes beyond the marketing and the hype – is not just the ceaselessly inventive prose or the easy humour with which she writes. It is perhaps because we, the great British public, like it that she is brave enough to write a novel populated by Chinese Jews, black Jews, Italian-Russians (or any other ethnic combination under the sun) who are not at all ‘normal’ but that’s OK, she reassures us, thank God they’re not. They are laughable and hopeless and wrong sometimes but her characters always exhale a revitalising humanity.
Jonathan Safran Foers, another widely feted young novelist, declares in his novel Everything is Illuminated, ‘humour is the only truthful way to tell a sad story’. The Autograph Man has darker moments than its predecessor, but they are always offset by a belief in the spirit of survival, a spirit best evoked by that very English attribute of wry self-deprecation.