The Autograph Man Read online
TABLE OF CONTENTS
About the Author
Other Books by Zadie Smith
Acclaim for Zadie Smith and The Autograph Man
TO MY AMAZING BROTHERS, BEN AND LUKE,
AND FOR MY FRIEND ADAM ANDRUSIER,
WHO KNOWS FUNNY FROM FUNNY
Dig: I’m Jewish. Count Basie’s Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish.
Eddie Cantor’s goyish. B’nai B’rith is goyish; Hadassah, Jewish.
If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish.
It doesn’t even matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York, you’re Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you’re Jewish.
Kool-Aid is goyish. Evaporated milk is goyish even if the Jews invented it. Chocolate is Jewish and fudge is goyish. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime Jell-O is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish.
All Drake’s Cakes are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish and, as you know, white bread is very goyish. Instant potatoes, goyish. Black cherry soda’s very Jewish, macaroons are very Jewish.
Negroes are all Jews, Italians are all Jews. Irishmen who have rejected their religion are Jews. Mouths are very Jewish.
And bosoms. Baton-twirling is very goyish.
Underwear is definitely goyish. Balls are goyish.
Titties are Jewish.
Celebrate is a goyish word. Observe is a Jewish word.
Mr. and Mrs. Walsh are celebrating Christmas with Major Thomas Moreland, USAF (ret.), while Mr. and Mrs. Bromberg observed Hanukkah with Goldie and Arthur Schindler from Kiamesha, New York.
NATURALLY THINGS CANNOT IN REALITY
FIT TOGETHER THE WAY THE EVIDENCE DOES
IN MY LETTER; LIFE IS MORE THAN
A CHINESE PUZZLE.
—Franz Kafka, Letter to His Father
I WOULD ALWAYS MAKE BELIEVE THAT
CLARK GABLE WAS MY FATHER.
My gratitude goes, as ever, to Yvonne Bailey-Smith and Harvey Smith for their peerless support and patience. Thank you to Adam Andrusier and Rachel Miller for the kind of facts that can’t be found in libraries, and to my valued first readers: Michal Shavit, Toby Litt, Adam (again), Tamara Barnett-Herrin, Nick Laird and Paul Hilder. Thank you to Jessica Frazier and Lee Klein, both of whom have the ability to make philosophy an everyday affair. Thank you to Alex Adamson for making everything easier.
I made use of two writers’ retreats and thank both institutions and the remarkable women who run them: Drew Heinz at Hawthornden and Beatrice Monti at Santa Maddelena. I am indebted to Georgia Garrett, Simon Prosser and Ann Godoff, who make books happen and keep me sane.
Zohar, The Wrestling Match
He has the ability to imagine himself a minor incident in the lives of others. It is not an abstract thing. He would not know quite what you meant by “abstract”: he is twelve. He simply knows that if he imagines swimming in the sea, well, while most children will think immediately of the cinematic shark below them, Alex-Li Tandem is with the lifeguard. He can see himself as that smudge on the horizon, his head mistaken for a bobbing buoy; his wild arms hidden by the roll of the surf. He can see the lifeguard, a bronzed and languid American, standing on the sand with his arms folded, deciding there’s nothing out there. Alex sees the lifeguard wander off down the beach in search of those German girls from yesterday, and a cold drink. The lifeguard buys a Coke from a passing vendor. The shark severs Alex’s right calf from his body. The lifeguard sidles up to Tanya, the pretty one. The shark drags Alex in a bloody semicircle through the water. The lifeguard speaks kindly to her ugly friend with the flat chest, hoping for brownie points. Some vertebrae snap. Did you see that? A seal! says Tanya, mistaking Alex’s desperate hand for the turn of a glossy flipper. And then he’s gone. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a seal? No, it’s me, drowning. This is how things go for Alex-Li. He deals in a shorthand of experience. The TV version. He is one of this generation who watch themselves.
Just now, he is in his father’s car, on a day trip. Overhead flies a plane, so low it looks as if it might worry the corrugated roofs of an industrial estate to the left. They are on a minor A-road, in congestion, near an airport. To his right sits his father, Li-Jin, who is also his best friend. From the back seats, two boys repeatedly flick an elastic band at his head for no reason. Now he leans forward out of their reach and puts his pale, fleshy arm out of the passenger window—can he really be seen from up there? Hello! The anorexic February trees stretch towards him on either side. In return he offers an open hand to let the wind shuttle through his fingers. He catches a slick leaf round his thumb like a bandage. Ug ug. Uggarama. They are going to see a wrestling match. This is unusual. Alex is not a very social fellow. His spare time is spent either in front of the TV or accompanying his father to his surgery. He is perfectly content to skulk around the reception area speculating on who has what while Dr. Tandem does whatever he does in the small room with the white door. Alex will take with him a book of crossword puzzles, or a comic, and is always left alone, which is the way he likes it. Foot fungus, angina, the plague: he assigns these diseases willy-nilly to the simply bronchial or menopausal as they slump in the child-sized plastic chairs. No one ever notices him. He’s just a boy, watching. It is like a TV show. Except in the past year he has become conspicuous. He has grown and filled; he’s now soft-bellied, woman-hipped and sallow. His new glasses magnify the crescents of his eyes—does he look more Chinese? His boyhood is falling away. People have started to fuss with him. Constantly he is being grabbed by the shoulder and asked idiotic questions by the elderly. If you are twelve, suddenly everyone has an opinion about you and the open air, and you and a good football game, and you versus the sporty, red-cheeked boys of some godforsaken distant era. The consensus is that he should get out more. Alex has sensed that some kind of day trip, if not this particular day trip, was inevitable.
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN his parents, which he was not privy to, occurred three nights earlier, as Alex slept in a next-door room, at the very edge of his bed, dreaming of cliffs and water. His mother, Sarah, sleepily lifted herself up on one elbow, waited for the drone of a plane to pass them by and then said, “Li, you know, maybe on Saturday we could just do something different with Al, instead of, you know, this silly moping around you all the time—I mean, not that . . .” And this fading sentence concealed an old antagonism between them, for there has not always been enough space for Sarah in this adoring duo of father and son. Now that he is twelve, his mother would like to see Alex, as she puts it, “going up to the world, going into it, and, you know, sort of engaging it, getting that vital interplay . . .”
Li-Jin opens his eyes and groans. What is it she’s reading these days that makes her speak to him like a self-help book in the middle of the night? His head hurts. It’s two A.M. By now he should be stamping dow