FINALLY, A FAIR REVIEW OF "THE AUTOGRAPH MAN"
BY THROOP ROEBLING
|[Note to readers: What follows is actually Nick Hornby's
notoriously bad review of Radiohead's "Kid A" copied and pasted and extensively
re-written to apply to The Autograph Man. It's more of an elusive/abstract
review of unfair reviews than a review of Zadie's book, which we loved
and thought deserved fair consideration, i.e., not having 90% of the text
devoted to her hair, White Teeth, and/or Eggers, but the content
of the book she spent a few years writing.]
To commemorate the first anniversary of the last posting of a piece by Zadie Smith on this site, we have decided to provide a fair review of her latest novel, The Autograph Man, and to do so in terms of the work from which it seems primarily derived, namely Radiohead's Kid A. Firstly, it is only fair to say that reading Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man takes much more time than listening to "Kid A." Although both have attractive and compelling moments -- every so often something gorgeous floats past -- fans bent on liking either the book or the album will not divine future bestsellers or pop songs buried in their passages. Secondly, The Autograph Man starts from the same premise as the Radiohead album: both rely heavily on one's interpretation of their every twist and turn in terms of something other than that which seems to naturally pertain to them; in Zadie's case, it seems immediately apparent that, no matter how pretentiously trivial or nit-pickingly anal the counterargument, her primary concern is the career of Dave Eggers.
You have to work at books like The Autograph Man. You have to sit at home night after night and give yourself over to the freakish quasi-spiritual, almost mystical atmosphere as you try to decipher elliptical snatches of allegory, puzzling out how the recurring allusions and symbols (international gestures, people forcing larger and larger things into smaller areas, Kafka references, and so on) might refer to Eggers' admiration of Saul Bellow (as I'd prefer to think), or to such banally overwrought, high-minded things as how we try to trap a sliver of an uncaptureable divine emanation, or how we try to hold down a bit of the inexpressible hugeness of life and death and everything else between and beyond, and how this attempt, whether expressed on a massive scale (world religion) or an individual level (love of the #37) is necessarily irrational, superficial, and also essential to our humanity (as the author may have intended). In other words, you have to be a teenage stoner to enjoy this book.
Anyone old enough to vote may find themselves overwhelmed by competing demands for their time - a relationship, say, or a job, or a videogame, or buying birdseed, or listening to a CD picked up the same day by Radiohead. If trying to read Zadie Smith's latest offering while simultaneously listening to "Kid A," one may find oneself shouting at the CD player, "Shut up! You're supposed to be a pop group!" then flinging The Autograph Man across the room when one realizes that the new book just purchased is not, in fact, exactly like the other one one had read two years ago. (If anyone says it's possible for artists to do anything other than repeat their initial triumphs verbatim, or if anyone says most reviewers aren't insane freaks with unrelated agendas who are lucky to have their jobs in our tight economy, don't trust them.) Ultimately, Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man demands from you things that become scarcer commodities once you start picking up a paycheck, playing Sega's latest Madden football game, or scattering birdseed across the yard for the neighborhood squirrels.
There is nothing wrong with making books for sixteen-year-old stoners, but Zadie Smith's previous effort had more inclusive ambitions. Her first book may have been patchy, but it contained one foreign word, baloncesto, that gave voice to everyone who has ever felt disconnected, alienated, or geeky -- just about anyone who has ever used literature to get laid. The genius of that word she used in her first work was its mournful anguish, not to mention the fact that it struck a chord with real people locked away in penal institutions. It wasn't just the word that was significant but the thrilling little chukka-chukka gurgle that foreshadowed the next few words that followed it: sundowning, synesthesia, trepanning, and hermeneutical jitbag.
Who knows what earned Zadie Smith her huge audience? One could argue that it may have been longer and chancier words than baloncesto, but it seems just as likely that it was the shorter words that really connected with her readers. Whatever it was, Smith now has a fervent audience who will give her all the lashback she needs (lashback is the phenomenon in which a writer who receives weirdly negative reviews is wildly supported by sympathetic readers, as opposed to its antonym backlash).
We have been served plenty of notice that Smith is bored with her enviable facility for writing; in various interviews, she has warned us that The Autograph Man would be markedly different from its predecessor, and apparently all sorts of blips and splodges and squeaks, fragments of her bellicose work in progress have been emanating from her for quite some time. It comes as something of a relief, then, when you put The Autograph Man's words before your eyes and see the fruity (and beautifully printed) sight of the book's sweet intro. "Hey! I can handle reading this book on its own terms, without relying on references to her previous work or that of other writers or rockbands, without questioning whether people actually walk around while at home on the phone or whether people actually recognize that they've struck the cinematically appropriate gesture for mourning while at a funeral!" you think, but you are immediately knocked flat by the words of its prologue, "Everything in Its Right Place," which consists mostly of lines culled from an album review by Nick Hornby that have been excessively tweaked. Despite being called splendid here, the prologue is an inconsequential piece of sci-fi wordscaping - more than fifty pages of treated voice and eerie synth noises. At the end, the epilogue is an unpleasant free-associative jazzercized workout that reads like a discordant horn section squalling over a studiedly crude bass line. Only once in the book, I think, does Smith come close to creating anything that electrifies the way great chunks of her previous book did: The entire section set in Brooklyn is like a twitchy rhyme you can imagine 23rd-century children with five giant heads and lizard skin reciting in their underwater kindergarten. A whole book like that and The Autograph Man could have been something -- something you wouldn't want to read over and over, true, but something more strident than staggering, more testicle-melding than heartbreaking.
What is peculiar about this book is that it denies us the two elements of Smith's writing that have made her work so distinctive and enthralling. For the most part, the words are fuzzed and distorted beyond recognition, or else they are incomprehensible collections of consonants, such as "rgthrgtpplkggfbrwnm;" and the punctuation, previously such an inventive treat in her first book, has been largely replaced with tiny devices that, when peered upon, make sounds like musical Christmas cards on crystal meth; that is, they play the interminably sustained and dissonant notes of a thousand synthesizers half-submerged in olive oil.
It has been reported that Zadie Smith spent more than a year writing
just one word that was slated to appear toward the end of the prologue,
then eventually decided not to include it in The Autograph Man.
(Insiders say the word was rascacielos,
but I prefer to think it was another word, one with more 19th-century resonance,
one ballasted by more guttural rootsiness than anything available in Spanish,
but unlike the author I will not rack my brains for a year in its pursuit.)
Regardless, the book is morbid proof that such self-indulgence results
in a weird kind of anonymity, rather than something distinctive and original.
(The copyright page, incidentally, contains a splenetic attack on Tony
Blair, who may feel entitled to ask himself how a writer that spends a
year failing to come up with a single word would have responded to foot-in-mouth
disease.) Nobody is asking Smith not to grow, or change, or do something
different. It would be nice, however, if she recognized that her enormous
gifts are really nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, they might even come
in handy next time around when she writes her first book again, verbatim,
as we all would have preferred she did with The Autograph Man.
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