took a minute to admire the gentle sun that kept its mildness even as
it escaped a gray ceiling of cloud. On the horizon a spindly church steeple
had been etched by a child over a skyline perfectly blue and flatly colored
in. To the left of that sat the swollen cupola of a mosque, described
with more skill. So people were off to see God, then, this morning. All
of that was still happening. Alex smiled, weakly. He wished them well.
IN HIS BATHROOM, Alex was almost defeated by the discovery of a sequence
of small tragedies. There was an awful smell. Receptacles had been missed.
Stuff was not where stuff should be. Stepping over stuff, ignoring stuff,
stoic Alex turned to the vanity mirror. He yanked it towards him by its
metal neck until its squares became diamonds, parallelograms, one steel
line. He had aged, terribly. The catch in his face, the one that held
things up, this had been released. But how long was it since he had been
a boy? A few days? A year? A decade? And now this?
He bared his teeth to the mirror. They were yellow. But on the plus side,
they were there. He opened his Accidental eyes (Rubinfine's term: halfway
between Oriental and Occidental) wide as they would go and touched the
tip of his nose to the cold glass. What was the damage? His eyes worked.
Light didn't hurt. Swallowing felt basic, uncomplicated. He was not shivering.
He felt no crippling paranoia or muscular tremors. He seized his penis.
He squeezed his cheeks. Present, correct. Everything was still where it
appears in the textbooks. And it seemed unlikely that he would throw up,
say, in the next four hours, something he had not been able to predict
with any certainty for a long time. These were all wonderful, wonderful
developments. Breathing heavily, Alex shaved off three days' worth of
growth (had it been three days?). Finishing up, he cut himself only twice
and applied the sad twists of tissue.
Teeth done, Alex remembered the wear-and-tear deposit he had paid his
landlord and shuffled back to the bedroom. He needed a cloth, but the
kitchen was another country. Instead he took a pillowcase, dipped it in
a glass of water and began to scrub at the handprint on the wall. Maybe
it looked like art? Maybe it had a certain presence? He stepped back and
looked at it, at the grubby yellow outline. Then he scrubbed some more.
It didn't look like art. It looked like someone had died in the room.
Alex sat down on the corner of his bed and pressed his thumbs to his eyes
to stop two ready tears. A little gasp escaped him. And what's remarkable,
he thought, what's really amazing, is this, is how tiny the actual thing
was in the first place. This thing that almost destroyed me. Two, no,
maybe three days ago he had placed a pill on his tongue, like a tiny communion
wafer. He'd left it there for ten seconds, as recommended, before swallowing.
He had never done anything like this before. Nothing could have prepared
him! Moons rose, suns fell, for days, for nights, all without him noticing!
Legal name: Microdot. Street name: Superstar. For a time it had made itself
famous all through his body. And now it was over.
Out in the hall, Alex met Grace. She was crouched on the second step,
looking vengeful. Her tail in the air, her face messy with bird blood.
Protruding from her mouth was the greater part of a wing. Alex saw that
it was no sparrow, either, but a colorful, pinky-blue type of bird, the
sort he might have got sentimental over, built a birdhouse for, with one
of these miniature Welcome Home mats much loved by the widowed of Mountjoy.
But he had come too late for all that. When pushed (she had not been fed),
Grace became a garden terrorist and made no sentimental distinctions between
species in the same genus. A squirrel was as good as a mouse to her, a
parakeet equal to a pigeon. Picking her up, Alex forgave her, kissed her
on her flat head, tugged her tail and slid her down the banister. In return,
she painted a long streak of red, like a design feature, down the length
of pine, punctuated by little hillocks of bird guts. And still he did
not throw up. Ha! Alex was counting this as Personal Triumph of the Morning
#3. The second was walking. The first was consciousness.
Excerpted from The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith Copyright
2002 by Zadie Smith. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division
of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may
be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
We live in
a world of signs.
But not everybody has to trade in them....
sells autographs. A small blip in a huge worldwide network of desire,
his business is to hunt for names on paper, collect them, sell them, and
occasionally fake themall to give the people what they want: a little
piece of Fame. But what does Alex want? Only the return of his father,
the reinstatement of some kind of all-powerful, benevolent God-type figure,
the end of religion, something for his headache, three different girls,
infinite grace, and the rare autograph of forties movie actress Kitty
Alexander. With fries.
Man is a deeply funny existential tour around the hollow things of
modernity: celebrity, cinema, and the ugly triumph of symbol over experience.
Through London and then New York, searching for the only autograph that
has ever mattered to him, Alex follows the paper trail while resisting
the mystical lure of Kabbalah and Zen, and avoiding all collectors, con
men, and interfering rabbis who would put themselves in his path. Pushing
against the tide of his generation, Alex-Li is on his way to finding enlightenment,
otherwise known as some part of himself that cannot be signed, celebrated,
Smith was born in northwest London in 1975 and continues to live in
the area. She won
seven major literary awards for White Teeth, her debut novel published
at age 24, including the 2000 Whitbread First Novel Award, the 2000 Whitbread
Book of the Year Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction
and the 2001 Commonwealth Writers Prize Best First Book award.