One of the most auspicious debut novels in recent years, Zadie Smith's White Teeth laced a tale of intergenerational culture-swirl with tension derived from Smith's real-time growth as a writer. Flailing to grab hold of an ambitious story rooted in the domestic strains and corner-shop talk of multicultural London, Smith turned out to be a moving and funny storyteller. But a big part of White Teeth's magic stemmed from the woozy effect of observing a young author—Smith was 24 when the book came out—careening between knock-kneed uncertainty and prodigious wisdom, often in the space of the same chapter. With her eagerly awaited follow-up The Autograph Man, Smith avoids many of her misbegotten youthful tics. But she also betrays her penchant for color and spark in a monochromatic story too muted to measure up. Set in the same world as White Teeth, the new novel centers on Alex-Li Tandem, a twentysomething Chinese Jew living on the outskirts of London. After learning about the autograph trade on the day his dad died years earlier, Alex makes his meager living as an autograph broker with a special fancy for the elusive signature of '40s movie actress Kitty Alexander. Hopelessly wayward and given to fits of depression, Alex hangs out, smokes weed, and talks God with a group of friends, including a journeyman rabbi, a black follower of the Kabbalah, and a beaten-down insurance worker. Smith casts her players in a series of searching riffs, invoking their silly and serious musings through distilled gems of dialogue and her gift for zoom-in description. But after a promising start, The Autograph Man derails into an unfocused meditation on celebrity, marred by the kind of confounding plot points otherwise reserved for latter-day Woody Allen films. (When Alex goes to New York to search out his beloved starlet, he teams up with a fellow autograph trader who flirted with fame, Divine Brown style, when she gave a blow job to a movie star during her prior career as a prostitute.) But even when it overreaches for energy, The Autograph Man lumbers behind lifeless characters whose shared malaise serves as a means to no end in particular. Smith's thoughts on fame ring hollow in a way that confirms any reasonable suspicions about using fame itself as a premise, and her early meditations on Jewish mysticism go curiously absent throughout most of the book's second half. Even at her worst, Smith is an enormously talented writer whose sentences wring telling truths out of lived-in situations. But her graceful, funny flourishes ultimately gasp for breath in narrative surroundings too airless to accommodate anything but a grave disappointment.
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