The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith


  “ALL RIGHT—WAIT—LENNY KRAVITZ, LISA BONET—”

  “WHO?”

  “LISA BONET. HIS EX-WIFE.”

  “THAT’S BON-NAY, MATE. FRENCH SPELLING.”

  “ALL RIGHT, OKAY, LOOK HERE—WHOOPI GOLDBERG, PAULA ABDUL?”

  “NO . . . I BET THEY’RE ALL NATION OF YAHWEH, . . . OR ELSE THEY’RE FROM THE COMMANDMENT KEEPERS—”

  “WHO?”

  “MY OLD LOT, AL, MY OLD LOT. MY LOT NO LONGER.”

  Alex thinks about this. After he’s finished thinking, he says: “YOU DON’T REALLY SEEM TO HAVE A ‘LOT’ ANYMORE, ADS, DO YOU? I MEAN, YOU SEEM TO BE SORT OF DOING IT BY YOURSELF.”

  “YEAH, I S’POSE.”

  “BUT JUDAISM ISN’T THE SORT OF THING YOU CAN DO BY YOURSELF, IS IT? ITS NOT LIKE BEING LIKE A JOGGER, SAY . . . OR A PROTESTANT.”

  “IT’S LIKE THIS,” says Adam, and already Alex is regretting asking the question, “THERE ARE TWO ASPECTS OF HA-SHEM, ALEX. HA-SHEM AS HE IS IN MANIFESTATION AND AS HE IS IN HIMSELF. THE FIRST FORMED A COVENANT WITH THE JEWISH PEOPLE, AND THEY MUST TRY TO WALK TOGETHER TOWARDS HIM. THAT’S THE POINT OF COMMUNITY. THAT’S THE POINT OF HASIDISM, FOR EXAMPLE. BUT THE SECOND ASPECT—EIN SOF, AYIN, THE UNKNOWABLE, THE INFINITE NOTHING—THIS CAN ONLY BE APPROACHED BY THE SOLITARY TRAVELER.”

  “RIGHT. AND THAT’S YOU, IS IT?”

  “AND THAT’S ME. ALEX?”

  Adam reappeared, carrying two teas and a box of biscuits in the crook of his arm. His face had changed. “I want to talk to you,” he said. “Seriously.”

  He sat down next to Alex, but leant forward. The picture of concentration, curved and precise, like Fats Waller at his piano. Alex leant forward. Now they were two pianists, poised for a duet.

  “I spoke to your mum,” said Adam in an odd, cautious voice. He pushed Alex’s tea towards him. “A few days ago—don’t get mad—I was just a bit worried about you. . . .”

  “No, fair enough, fair enough,” said Alex, and meant the exact opposite. “And? How was she?”

  “Oh, fine, she was fine. She always, you know . . . she’s so relaxing to speak to. Very Zen, always.”

  “Mmm . . . it’s hard to believe we’re related, I know. Have anything to say?”

  “Um . . . well, you know, talked about Derek, and Shoshana’s fleas—and now they’ve got a puppy apparently. . . . She seems very happy. Went on about her pots a bit—”

  Alex began to suspect where this was going, and he didn’t like it. As an Englishman, he now exercised his right to fold his arms and smile and look as if he were enjoying it so damn much he might explode.

  “Yeah,” he said, grinning, throwing his head back. “Kuh! She’ll do that. Get her started on clay and there’s no end to it. I must actually call her—she’s one of those people, Mum—she’s so undemanding, and so you think you’re in constant contact and then you realize you haven’t phoned for—”

  “Al,” Adam broke in, in that special tone of impending delicacy, “she reminded me what date it is. Next Thursday.”

  “Oh. Right.”

  “It’s the twenty-sixth.”

  “Mmmm.”

  Alex got two biscuits and put one in each cheek. He shut his eyes and listened to Adam saying his piece, the same piece he said every year around this time. And despite its annual regularity, he felt more depressed by it this year than ever before. To have a religious best friend is to expect (is to resign yourself to the fact) that there are certain fixed dates upon which a stilted, embarrassing argument will take place, climaxing in a tense and upsetting détente. Christmas, Passover, Ramadan. Whether you like it or not. But this doesn’t make the argument any easier to have. For Alex and Adam, the argument took place each year on and around the twenty-sixth of February. Usually, in the preceding weeks, Alex steeled himself with rationalist counter-argument, but this time he had been caught off guard. Now he ate three more biscuits in morose silence before Adam, seeing he was getting nowhere, groaned and looked away.

  “But why?” asked Alex, pressing a finger to the table. “I do listen to everything you say, I do. But you never really tell me why I have to do this. What good it will do. I don’t have any pretensions to being a religious man, do I? I mean, I’ll turn up for seder at a push—but that’s just for Mum. I don’t want to be a hypocrite. And I don’t see why—”

  “It’s a ritual,” said Adam, tersely. “I think rituals are their own benefit.”

  “Okay, and I don’t,” insisted Alex. “Can’t we just leave it at that?”

  “Well, obviously you intend to.”

  “I just . . . the whole thing is so perverse. He’s been dead fifteen years, Ads. And he wasn’t even Jewish. I know, I know, before you start—I am. We’ve been here before. Too many times. Please, now. Let’s drop it.”

  Adam shook his head and reached for the remote control. For a minute, the two of them crabbily watched a yellow ball roll with agonizing slowness into the corner pocket.

  “Look,” said Adam suddenly, swiveling round with renewed vigor, “you, the son, are the atonement for where he rests. Don’t you get that? Thus does a child acquit the parent. You bring him peace, you honor him. And all you have to do is go to shul and say Kaddish with ten friends around you. That’s all it takes. Every year I do it, and every time I do I realize the value of—”

  “That’s you,” replied Alex, firmly, and opened the weed box. “That’s not me. I don’t want a row, Ads. Please. I just want to have a smoke, all right?”

  Adam did the International Gesture for the Jewish shrug. And Alex did it back.

  3.

  Haggadah (Pop Quiz #1)

  Q. When Alex and Adam had a smoke, how much of the fun

  was in the rolling?

  A. In the book it is written: Oh, about seventy-eight percent.

  Of the L-shaped school. Always makes a filter, pretty cylinder of colored cardboard—and so Rizla packets are architectural disasters: first no sides, then no back, then no roof, then no packet at all. The rolling is slow, elaborate. Oh, about seventy-eight percent of the fun is in the rolling.

  Are you done yet, Ads?

  No, not yet. Just got to . . .

  Any chance of that smoke, Ads?

  Wrong side of the paper, got to . . .

  Did we already smoke that one?

  No, haven’t lit it yet.

  So Alex just has to sit back and watch it happen. Attempts, second attempts, best of five (“Adam, you do this all day. Why don’t you get any better at it?”). He walks over to the wine crates holding the LPs, gets infuriated with the brutal Luddism of any man who still deals in vinyl and needle. Sits back down and realizes the wrong tune has been chosen. Too lively. You never know with Mr. Gaye, that’s his trouble.

  “Black Jew, actually.”

  “Marvin?”

  “Yeah, no, well, not of a kind I recognize—kind of a Christian cult with a Hebrew fetish. Or the other way around. Can’t remember the specifics. I read it somewhere. Liner notes?”

  Adam sticks his face towards a candle, and the fat end of their smoke crackles like a brushfire. “What a voice, though,” he says. He exhales magnificently. The smoke exits in two great curlicues from his nose like a phantom mustache, “It’s like God took Stevie’s honey and poured it over gravel.”

  For Adam, the world is music. It is a peculiar thing about Adam that films do nothing for him. He sells videos like a teetotal barman makes drinks, with an anthropological curiosity. Film is an artificial, circumscribed box to him—four walls and nothing but empty International Gestures inside it. Precisely the reason Alex loves it. It is dealable with. Whereas music is antennae, infinitely connected, impossible. Movies versus music. The last public entertainment these two men both enjoyed was a wrestling match, fifteen years ago.

  “He’s singing too fast,” says Alex, reaching, prematurely, for the smoke. Adam draws back. He puts his feet on the table.

  “You should get me Sammy Davis,” says Adam, thoughtfully. “There was a Bla
ck Jew. He opened up Vegas for the blacks. He was a trailblazer.”

  “Hmmm,” says Alex, thinking of drugs.

  “Oi. Where’s my video? The Girl from Peking. Where is it? That’s your tenth rental since I bought it. Why don’t you just buy it off me? It’d be cheaper.”

  Alex considers this.

  “If I owned it,” he says, gravely, “I think I literally would not do anything else but watch it.”

  “Only idiots use the word ‘literally’ in conversation,” says Adam lightly. “So, all right, then, give it back. You’re late. You owe five quid on it already.”

  “Let me keep it a bit longer. I think I feel like watching it tonight.”

  Adam shakes his head and applies one hand to his temple as if trying to ease the passage of an idea. “Tell me, what is it about her, exactly? Not just her. All of them. It’s not just work to you, is it? Or to Joseph. I mean, what goes on there?”

  Alex waves vaguely at the record collection, wine crates that reach half the height of the room. “No big deal. What are this lot to you?”

  “Answer the question.”

  Alex snatches the smoke, inhales to the pit of his lungs. He repeats the action three times and closes his eyes.

  “I just want to know what the story is,” persists Adam. “They’re actors. And? Who cares about actors?”

  “You have to understand,” begins Alex, slowly. “It’s not the new ones. It’s the old ones. I don’t give a damn about the new ones. I don’t care if So-and-So makes a convincing paraplegic. I couldn’t give a damn about his stupid, ugly real name—he should change it. So he put on forty pounds and learnt to box. And? So he went and lived with chimpanzees for three months. And? I don’t care if he climbed Everest. I don’t care. All that is useless to me. I can’t watch a film after 1969. They make me nauseous. I like the old ones.”

  “Because?”

  “Because . . . I don’t know, something like because they just play themselves, they play essences of themselves.”

  “Explain.”

  “It’s like when you go on about Hollywood . . . like, saying it’s a false religion that only worships pleasure, and the rest—then if that’s the case, at least do it properly. Right? At least be a false god. Do you see what I’m getting at? Be honest about it. It’s like: be Clark Gable, be god of masculinity. Be Dietrich, the goddess of whatever, I dunno, easy virtue, say. Be Poitier, definitely god of all personal dignity. Et cetera. If you’re going to be Bogart, be Bogart. Be the essence of Bogart. Ever notice how big Bogart’s head was on his body? He looked like a caricature of himself.”

  Adam frowns, nonplussed. “And with Kitty—what is it with her?”

  “She is the most beautiful thing,” says Alex, sheepishly, “that I have ever seen. That’s it. I know that doesn’t mean anything to you.”

  “I think beauty, real beauty, is the realization of the divine on earth. A fresh-cut lawn. A canyon. A clean crack in the pavement. You’re just talking about sex.”

  “Look, I like trees too”—Alex sighs—“and mountains. I like all of that stuff. But all I’m saying is that beauty in women is the realization of the divine in human life.”

  Marvin, at last, is singing something suitable. Adam’s eyes are big and sad. He is clenching his jaw. “Esther said . . . she said that when you crashed the car, the first thing you did was check you still had the . . . whatever we’re calling it—the autograph. The Kitty Alexander.”

  Alex opens his mouth and shuts it again.

  “Alex? Explain that to me, please. What’s she the goddess of? Must be pretty important. You’ve been going out with Es for ten years, Al. Ten years.”

  “That can’t be true—Ads, I don’t remember doing that.”

  “That’s what she said. She never lies, as you know. You’re her whole life.”

  “I know.”

  “Imagine if she’d been thrown forward any harder—if her pacemaker had dislodged. I wouldn’t defend that. I can’t defend you. It’s like you think the world is made up of your name, over and over.”

  “But—I mean, isn’t that just the way everyone—”

  Alex lets it go. Angry, Adam hunches over the coffee table to begin the rolling process again, although the first is not a quarter smoked. Alex hunches down next him.

  “Ads.”

  “What.”

  “Can I just ask something?”

  “What.”

  “Did you see me?”

  “Did I see you what?”

  “Fake it.”

  “Jeez Louise, don’t start this again, mate. Please.”

  “Answer.”

  “Okay. No.”

  “And Joseph?”

  “You know what he says. He says you went to the kitchen and you came back with it.”

  Alex whimpers.

  “Is that all you’re worried about?” asks Adam wonderingly. “The name of someone you never met?”

  Halachah (Pop Quiz #2)

  Q. What is the law concerning the man who is very stoned and the man who is not as stoned as he? How shall these two behave towards each other?

  A. The one who is less stoned shall make the tea, and eventually seek out some food. The one who is more stoned shall have the right—for the period during which he is more stoned—to tell the other man exactly what his problem is.

  “I’ll tell you exactly what your problem is,” says Adam. His eyes are veiny blood oranges. It is late. The curtains are open. Alex has been trying to leave for about three years. He is hovering over the sofa in the pose of a cross-country skier. Outside, the furious sun is plummeting behind the railway sidings. Red is everywhere.

  “Ads, I should go, now, really. I’ve got to eat some food.”

  “Do you or do you not want to know what your problem is?”

  “No. I want to eat. I’m very stoned. Aren’t you?”

  “Yes,” says Adam. “But in a very lucid way.”

  He stands, he walks to the far wall, he places his hands upon it like a healer.

  “The world is broken, Alex.”

  “Fine.”

  “When the world was created,” says Adam, miming an orb with one hand, pointing to the biscuit tin with the other, “He entered with his orbs of light, made from the letters; He filled the world with Himself. But Adoshem is infinite—in order to create finite beings, He had to retract Himself, He had to withdraw. Creation is an act of withdrawal. But when He exited, He—”

  “Screwed it up?”

  “He did not exit fully. He left shards of Himself . . . specks of light and . . . bits—”

  “Bits? Technical term, that, is it?”

  “Bits of essences,” says Adam, pointing to the sefirot. Alex’s head hurts. He could do without the lecture about the bits of the bits. He’s had it before and he’s never understood it. And for a while now, something sad has been creeping up on him, disguised in smoke. It may be Esther’s face. It may be Kitty’s. It is definitely the idea of woman, of a softness he might curl up into. He must get home. Find women. Call them, write to them. Get them to come and hold him, if only for an hour.

  Adam says, “And in the simplest terms that it can be expressed, the problem is this: the godhead is incomplete. He needs us.”

  There is biscuit all over the couch. It looks like Alex has been feeding the couch. His hunger is such that he doesn’t have the patience to chew the biscuits anymore. He just wants the biscuits to become part of him, to cleave unto him, by magic.

  “To put it back together?” he asks, picking speculatively at one crumb. “That’s a big job, my friend.”

  “To reunite,” says Adam, “what has been dispersed. We do this by good actions. The godhead is not finished without us. We accrue merit to the godhead by good actions. The purpose is for us to reward Him, not for Him to reward us—if you don’t get that, you can’t understand Job. Job makes no sense without that. Remember Scholem? A world without redemption—go explain that to the goyim! The Jews heal the godhead, not vice
versa. Kaddish is the same principle. Heal the father.”

  Enough. Their time is up. Alex gets his friend by the elbow, Rubinfine-style, and moves them towards the exit. In the doorway, Adam presses a small bag of something to take home into Alex’s hand, and for a minute they perform the IGs relating to An undeserved gift between friends.

  “Do me a favor. Take this. And think about what we discussed. And call Esther. She has something to tell you. It’s not for me to do it. Call her.”

  Reluctantly, Alex pockets the small bag. “I’ll think about things, yes? And I’ll call Esther this evening. Promise. On my note. Okay?”

  “Thank you. Thank you, Al, really.”

  “Look, look—later—” Alex kisses his friend on the forehead. “I’m leaving, and we haven’t even talked about how it’s going for you. I’ll phone or—I’ll mail . . .”

  “That’s fine. It’s late—I need to study. Anyway, I’m guest-starring in your film today, right? I’m just here for the—”

  “Enlightenment.”

  “Actually, I was going to say entertainment.”

  Adam opens the door. The rain is full again. A fist would barely hold ten droplets.

  He passes Alex an umbrella.

  “Al, remember that thing? When I was going to study the letters of a joke, translate it into Hebrew—permute them? Meditate on them? You know, just to see. Like, the founding joke of all the others?”

  Alex claps his hands.

  “Got to be ‘Shit happens,’ surely?”

  “No, I thought about that, but I wanted a longer joke. I knew I’d get more with a longer joke. It might take me the rest of my life, but I’ll get more. I want to see if there’s any patterns in the numerology—can you tell it in 613 words, for example? That would be a trip. Look, you’ve got to hear this joke, man—I’ve spent weeks choosing it. Come on—it’s not like you have a proper job, is it? Is it?”

  Adam does that little hopping dance of impatience on the doorstep.

  “No? Yes? I’ll even give you permission to use it in the book. Come on now, that’s a good deal.”

  “All right, but quickly. I’ve got rain coming down my collar.”

  “Ok, so it’s about the Pope and the Chief Rabbi. . .”

 
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