Details: (c) Zadie Smith 2002; Pub 2002 Hamish Hamilton; ISBN 0-241-13998-8
Verdict: The Autograph Man has its moments, but it's nothing special overall.
Reasons for reading it: I absolutely adored White Teeth, so I pretty much had to read Smith's second novel, and that's even aside from the fact that this one has a Jewish theme.
How it came into my hands: Lochee Library.
When I was raving about White Teeth, my friend RB (an English graduate) complained that it's journalism, not literature. I concede that he has a point, but it's extremely good journalism. Smith has an amazing knack for conveying a scene with incredible immediacy and memorable turns of phrase. These are still present in The Autograph Man, but it lacks the delightfully complicated structure and vast crowd of interconnected characters that the earlier book has.
As a result, it's rather slight as a whole. There's basically a single thread storyline, which is rather improbable and silly. And only the protagonist, Alex-Li, is really drawn with any significant detail. The other characters are not done badly, but there are only a handful of them and even so they are lightning-sketches, albeit good lightning-sketches. They're pretty much just incidental scenery in Alex-Li's life. It's also populated with quite a few extremely thinly disguised famous people, portraits which are vaguely amusing but make the book dated even 3 years from publication.
The Jewish stuff in it is, well, it's not bad, there are no huge glaring errors, but it's slightly off-key. It's certainly not terrible enough to put me off the book. Generally it's a fun, frothy piece, very easy to read but pretty forgettable.
The best thing about it is that occasionally Smith comes out with phrases that just brought tears to my eyes because they are so beautifully crafted. The worst thing about it is that Alex-Li, while sympathetic, is ultimately a moron who persists in screwing things up even when handed a pretty stunning dose of good luck. I very rarely find much appeal in ladlit antiheroes who invariably end up with girls who are far too good for them, and Alex-Li is a particularly bad example. He's so three-dimensional that it's impossible not to want things to go well for him, but he is so superhumanly thoughtless that in the end, even with the excellent characterization, he just lost my sympathy.