The Autograph Man
By Zadie Smith
Published by Random House 
October 2002; 037550186X

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The Autograph Man by Zadie SmithYou're either for me or against me, thought Alex-Li Tandem, referring to the daylight and, more generally, to the day. He stretched flat and made two fists. He was fully determined to lie right here until he was given something to work with, something noble, something fine. He saw no purpose in leaving his bed for a day that was against him from the get-go. He had tried it before; no good could come from it.

A moment later he was surprised to feel a flush of warm light dappled over him, filtered through a blind. Nonviolent light. This was encouraging. Compare and contrast with yesterday morning's light, pettily fascist, cruel as the strip lighting in a hospital hallway. Or the morning before yesterday morning, when he had kept his eyes closed for the duration, afraid of whatever was causing that ominous red throb beneath the eyelids. Or the morning before that, the Morning of Doom, which no one could have supposed would continue for seventy-two hours.

NOW OPTIMISTIC, ALEX grabbed the bauble that must be twisted to open blinds. His fingers were too sweaty. He shuttled up the bed, dried his left hand on the wall, gripped and pulled. The rain had come in the night. It looked as if the Flood had passed through Mountjoy, scrubbed it clean. The whole place seemed to have undergone an act of accidental restoration. He could see brickwork, newly red-faced and streaky as after a good weep, balconies with their clean crop of wet white socks, shirts and sheets. Shiny black aerials. Oh, it was fine. Collected water had transformed every gutter, every depression in the pavement, into prism puddles. There were rainbows everywhere.

 

Alex 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.

2.

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.
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Synopsis

We live in a world of signs.
But not everybody has to trade in them....

Alex-Li Tandem 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 them—all 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.

The Autograph 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, or sold.

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Author

Zadie SmithZadie 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.

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