Fiction & Biography


The Autograph Man (Hamish Hamilton 5312.99)

The pressure on Zadie Smith to deliver as breathtaking a second novel as her first, White Teeth, was considerable. With The Autograph Man she has kept her cool, resisted being too wildly esoteric or overly ambitious and constructed a sensitive and happily human story layered with intelligent and often charming


At the heart of it all is Alex-Li Tandem, a troubled soul, not so much at a crossroads in life but more driving round the suburban roundabout of life unaware of a couple of blown tyres and a wonky offside headlight. Residing in a garret in the attractively named north London borough of Mountjoy, he stumbles along in a floundering ten- year relationship with his much loved but oft

misunderstood girlfriend Esther.

He is untroubled by any skills to control his alcohol and recreational drug abuses and ekes a living as an autograph collector; in particular, those belonging to the stars of the silver screen. Although lauded as a dealer with a keen eye, Alex-Li’s nirvana still eludes him: the signature of 19405 movie star, Kitty Alexander. It is his quest

to obtain this, sort out his hangovers,

relationships and hang-ups about Jewry and Goyishness that untidily drive him to an eventual

spiritual enlightenment.

Alex-Li, despite his best efforts, is not the solo flyer he might think he is. He has the constant if not consistent support of three boys he bonded with at a 19705 wrestling bout at the Albert Hall. Rubinfine is now a befuddled rabbi who somewhat symbolically spends much of his time manhandling outsized furniture into painfully

inappropriate spaces; Ads is Alex-Li’s doting

smoking-buddy and brother of Esther; and Joseph is the ever cautious Doubting Thomas whose early enthusiasm for autographs sparked the fire within Alex-Li.

This is not all as brow-furrowingly religious as it might seem. Smith sews in a sturdy seam of theology into the narrative but at times it feels overplayed and, perhaps intentionally, it takes a back seat as the plot draws to a climax. Its purpose, aside from symbolising the paradoxes in Alex-Li’s life, is to reinforce the godlike status of his late father Li-Jin, whose tragic but comical demise in the company of wrestling behemoths Big Daddy and Giant

Haystacks opens the book.

In truth, the theological debates don’t detract from the



The Crimson Petal and the White (Canongate $17.99) 0.0


(I fi'dn £1)(



Tireless linguistic energy

108 THE LIST IS TX Oct 201)?


A story told in glorious Technicolor

story too much as Smith’s subtle but affecting writing draws you in and, whoosh, 400 pages fly by. Random illustrations and diagrams along with an ornate fold-out book jacket littered with sketches and enlivening, philosophical nuggets reinforce that this is no plain old

Smith possesses an acute ability to capture not only the physical attributes of a character but their complex spirit. This combines with her skill for evocative description - a once glorious hotel whose facade is fading is described as an unkempt grandfather forced into a suit for a

wedding - making this a story, just as Alex-Li might like it

Iain Banks boasted that his latest novel. Dea took him six weeks to bash Out. Jog briskly over to the other extreme. and yOu'll find Michel Faber finally unleashing his magnun‘ opus. a mere 20 years in the writing. Disappomtingly. it is Faber's studied perfectionism that ultimately impairs an Otherwise llT‘QfBSSh/e novel.

The Crimson Petal and the White finds the author recreating VictOrian London as a cesspool of rich stinks. moral corruption and human suffering. These filthy streets and hushed rooms are home to a vivid cast of characters. all of them. trapped. whether by finanCial Circumstances. social convention or by dint of class or gender.

William Rackham takes over a lucrative perfume empire in order. effectively. to buy a yOung prostitute for his exclusive gratification. This object. the exceptional Mss Sugar. is the daughter of norrendous brothel rnada'ii Mrs Castaway. Sugar vents her bitterness at her early induction into the oldest

best, in glorious Technicolor. (Mark Robertson)

profession in the pages of a sensational novel.

At the other end of the social spectrum, Rackhams delicate wife Agnes descends into riiadness. her plight worsened by the gratuitOus examinations of odious Dr Curlew. Meanwhile. Rackham's devOut elder brother veers between self-disgust and a guilty desire for the unconventional Emmeline Fox.

This brief synopSis reads like a year's werth of soap plotlines. Yet. the book's BOO-page-plus length feels almost incidental. It's so heavily descriptve that you begin to long for all the simn‘ermg passions to erupt much earlier than they do. Even, flake of Sugars dn skin. every follicle on Henn, Rackhan‘s hirsute body .s rendered with exgiilsite [)l'OClSIO" and. for a time. much pleasure can be derived iust fron‘ Fabers tireless linguistic energy

But a novel of this length eventually requires varier of pace to bear out its potential inipact. rAllan Radcliffer

Shelf life

Classic novels. revisited. This issue: Inwsrble Man

Published :30 years ago. What’s the story Ralph Ellison's novel is the passionate. exorbitant fictional rendering of the author's eventful early life and a powerful satire on black American politics. The narratOr is an African American who lives in hiding in an underground lair beneath the state of New York. Depressed and uncertain whether to rejOin SOCiety. the Invisible Man reCOunts the circumstances leading to his self-imposed exile. Vivid among these are his expuISion from a renowned black college by the scheming Dr Bledsoe for admitting a white visitor. his struggle to find work in Harlem iincluding a day-long ordeal in a paint factoryl and his involvement with a manipulative black consciousness movement. ‘Brotherhood'.

What the critics said Contemporary American novelist Saul Bellow: ‘It is an iniiiiensely nioving novel and it has greatnessf

Key moment the hero‘s enthusiasm for 'Brotherhood' begins to wane when he comes across the charismatic llarlern youth leader Brothm Tod Clifton selling dancing paper Sambo dolls on a street corner. Simultaneously sickened and saddened. the lnvrsible Man watches as police needlessly murder Clifton.

Postscript Though the author had published a bevw of stories. essays. articles and criticism prior to the novel. the following years were nowhere near as prolific. leading critics to remark that success had rendered l llison inVisible himself. He left one unfinished novel at his 1994 death.

First line test ‘I am an invisible man.’ (Allan Radcliffe)

@ Penguin Modern Classics 6’-

.. ; rei‘r‘inm Ml Iti'lElirLi ; llllltiil

Ralph Ellison