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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 2 October, 2002, 13:31 GMT 14:31 UK
Smith shows teething problems
Zadie Smith
White Teeth brought literary acclaim to Smith

It must be synchronicity. Zadie Smith's second novel The Autograph Man, in part about the nature of celebrity, is published just as she faces a critical backlash about her own star status.

Commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, among others, decided to put the boot in because Smith wants to take a course at Harvard University, in the US.

Writing in the Independent, she said: "And are we seriously expected to feel sorry for Zadie Smith who leaves us for the United States partly, it is said, because we have dissed her too, too much?

"Excuse me? To get such a break as she did, to have millions of people reading her books, to have award after award piled on her, all this was not enough.

"What was required obviously was blind devotion and infinite patience with the way she chose to handle her public persona."

Betrayed

So strong has some of the media's criticism about her been - in summary, she is far too talented and beautiful for some people's liking - that The Guardian felt the need to defend her in a leader column.

White Teeth (Channel Four)
White Teeth is now a television series

It is odd because the very accusation levelled at Smith, that she has somehow betrayed the relationship between star and fan, or writer and reader, is integral to her book.

Where her runaway success White Teeth was unashamedly emotional - Smith has said she cringes at some of the writing - in her new novel she has compensated by attempting something of an intellectual book.

At face value, The Autograph Man is the story of Alex Li-Tandem, a half-Chinese, half-Jewish professional autograph trader whose life is an endless search for a prized signature of musicals star Kitty Alexander.

Misfortune

Kitty Alexander is the product of the author's imagination and just one metaphor, or symbol, for Smith's central thesis - that we live in a world of meaningful symbols which, in themselves, have no meaning at all yet.

Students who have had the misfortune to do a semiotics course will recognise many of the themes here.

Intellectually, it is an examination of relationships - both between people and between ourselves and language.

Celebrity, the indefinable quality attributed to stars, is the over-arching symbol or metaphor for the book.

Alex's search for the star's autograph - itself a meaningless symbol - is a reflection of our own grapple for meaning in our use of language and our relationships.

Punchy

If it sounds contrived, well, it is. Semiotic in-jokes litter the book and too much of the meat of the novel - characters, plot devices, dialogue, humour - feels like an exercise in ticking points off a checklist.

Fans of Smith's comedic language and punchy cultural observations from White Teeth will find little warmth in this.

The overall artifice of both the style and substance - the book's cover jacket with its mock essay is a case in point - stifles the narrative.

The book is reminiscent of the work of Salman Rushdie but Smith lacks the prowess to carry off both grand story-telling and intellectual rhetoric.

Some of the writing is also strangely casual: death is likened to the hairs on the back of the hand, the book's opening feels light-weight and forced, and odd, perfunctory turns of phrase litter the novel.

Promise

When White Teeth was published many were quick to announce a new literary talent on the scene.

The Autograph Man is a bold novel but the talent Smith undoubtedly has and the great promise her writing holds is still unexpressed and unfulfilled.

Smith wants us to travel from the emotional terrain of White Teeth to the intellectual plains of The Autograph Man but readers may well be unconvinced that the journey was worthwhile, or even necessary.

The Autograph Man is published by Penguin.

See also:

06 Sep 02 | Entertainment
19 Aug 02 | Entertainment
17 Sep 02 | Entertainment
06 Jun 01 | Entertainment
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