The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith


  “Excuse me?”

  “It’s important,” insisted Darvick, getting a firmer grip, “that the rabbi should be allowed to give a proper account of himself—to say his piece, like any defendant!”

  Alex shook himself free and held up his package and drew Kitty from her sheath like a sword. He held her above his head. He felt like the popular film actor John Cusack. He said, “You see this?”—Rubinfine screamed like a woman—“Today this is more important. Okay? Okay. Rubinfine—what’s going on?” asked Alex as Rubinfine sat down where he was and knocked the back of his head three times feebly against the monument.

  “You see what we’re trying to achieve here?” barked Darvick, motioning to the bedstead and the 2CV it was bound for.

  “I see it,” said Alex, simply. “I’m just not interested. Erm . . . hey . . . Rubinfine, are you—”

  “Four rabbis,” broke in Green, looking pointedly at Rubinfine, “entered the Pardes, the paradisal garden. One gazed and died, one became demented, one cut the plants, and only one, Rabbi Akiva, survived unharmed.”

  Rubinfine looked devastated. Darvick chuckled, softly. Green smiled his beatific, full-lipped smile and stepped aside to let Alex pass.

  “Rubinfine—did I—”

  “Go,” said Green. “You’re late already.”

  His heart full of gratitude, Alex began his sprint to catch the train, just audible as it came down from the east, over the peak of the artificial mount from which the great suburb of Mountjoy receives its name. He could hear Rubinfine, his voice carried on the tail end of that same easterly wind, his tone deeply aggrieved. “ ‘Cut the plants’? And that’s meant to mean what?”

  CHAPTER TEN

  Keter

  CROWN • Jimmy’s Antiques • Highballs with Lola-Lola • Conspiracy theories • The youth brand • Zen radio • Flying into nothing • Zen Casablanca •

  The collector saves

  1.

  Late that night, in the queue to check in, Alex-Li reflected with pleasure on the glories of the day. After seeing the rabbis, he had caught the train to the east of the city and walked into Jimmy’s Antique Market (est. 1926) feeling every inch the conquering hero. Through the covered arches he walked, past the ratty stalls hawking every kind of nostalgia; clothes, glassware, records, posters, stamps, badges, coins, autographs. He had known some of these traders for almost fifteen years, from the days when he came as a boy to spend his pocket money. He had always felt a kinship with them, however reluctant. But today he felt different. He had been set apart. How many of them had found the item they dreamt of, their personal grail? Had Lola-Lola worn Marilyn’s air-vent dress? Had Stuart Pike played Hendrix’s guitar? Had the popular writer J. D. Salinger ever once penned poor, devoted Oliver McSweeney a friendly note?

  The peculiar thing about such obsessions is their specificity. Just as a man with a fetish for slight, downy-armed Japanese women is left cold by a big, brassy blonde, so the man who has spent his life in the pursuit of the tap shoes worn by the popular musical star Donald O’Connor can muster no real enthusiasm when the man at the stall to his right shows him the ruffled shirt Henry Daniell wore in Camille. All fandom is a form of tunnel vision: warm and dark and infinite in one direction.

  ALEX TRAMPED THROUGH the market, looking for interested parties. Jimmy himself (grandson of original Jimmy) informed him that Lovelear and Dove were around here someplace, but he couldn’t find them. For the first time in his life, he really wanted to see Lovelear—or at least he wanted to show Kitty to someone who would fall to his knees and clasp his hands together in prayer.

  But Stuart Pike spotted him first. Under duress, Alex stopped at Pike’s stall, with its mountain of twentieth-century tat (Beatles wigs, cocktail shakers in the shape of hula girls), and sat with him awhile, looking through his serial-killer correspondence. One of the more infamous of Stuart’s “friends” had recently been executed in the state of Texas. The man’s trademark had been to carve the name of his victim into her own forehead. On death row he was married twice and proposed to a dozen times. Stuart was inconsolable.

  “Every letter he sent me,” said Stuart, showing him an example, “I could get an American to buy it. Four, five hundred dollars. Roaring bloody trade.”

  Stuart was a Yorkshireman of good family. He had been in a glam rock band, once. He owned three paintings by the popular psychopath John Wayne Gacy.

  “Do you know who Kitty Alexander is, Stu?”

  “Is she the Arizona baby murderer?”

  “No, no, she’s, she was, an actress. In the fifties. Russian-Italian-American. Very beautiful. Actress.”

  “Actresses,” said Pike, as if considering an unusual species variation. “Never been much into actresses. Got the bail bond that Lana signed for her daughter. Actually, I know a feller who’s got Judy’s tranquilizer prescriptions, only signed by the doctor, but still. Better than a kick in the head. Any good to yer?”

  IT WAS IN LOLA-LOLA’S fifties boutique that Alex found Lovelear and satisfaction. Lola-Lola, a peroxide, top-heavy, Muscovite divorcée, was sitting on her pink pouffe, drinking highballs, entertaining Lovelear and Dove with a set of Bettie Page playing cards. Misha, her overworked young man (“moy malchik!”), was out front, frantically looking for the left hand of some white kid gloves a customer had set her heart on. In the back room, the popular singer Bobby Darin sang of an underwater date he’d planned. A buzzing lightbulb cast a red light over distressed minks and limp fox furs, UFO toasters, skirts like open umbrellas. On the back wall, a grainy projection of some unknown American family on a sun-spotted lawn, reliving their heyday at an eternal barbecue.

  Alex sat cross-legged on the floor next to Dove. He laid Kitty in front of them all. He began his story—shortened, by this point, and refined. Lola-Lola gave a shriek of pleasure at the key moment and placed her flat palm over her cocktail glass. Lovelear opened his mouth to say something, looked closer, and remained silent. Dove thumped Alex on the back and gave him a hug, which affected Alex more than he would admit.

  “She just sent it to you,” said Dove respectfully. “No note. No explanation.”

  “No note,” said Alex, choking up. “No explanation. It’s just a gift. It’s a gift. I think she wants to see me. I think she wants me to go there.”

  “Ahlex,” purred Lola-Lola, from the very curl of her throat, “zis is fantastic—after all zis time you deserve it. But still it is not heep to be always smiling like the hep-cat who is eating of all the cream!”

  “If you give me and Dove the return address,” Lovelear said, with some grace in defeat, “we’ll look her up for you when we go. How’d that be? Tell you all about it when we get back.”

  “Thanks, Lovelear,” said Alex, a few seconds before the penny, as the journalists say, dropped. “Nice thought—but you mightn’t be there for months—and I’m actually off right now, no, I mean, actually tonight, for this Autographicana thing, so—yep—flying across—the—great—big—”

  THE GLORIES OF THE day, then, had been tarnished somewhat. Lovelear and Dove were, at present, exactly twenty-three people behind him in the snake that led to check-in. At every bend they waved their arms like a French mime act, an attempt to get simple messages across, stuff like: Bag unzipped and Better not have weed in that suitcase and Look at that fat woman. It caused Lovelear pain not to be able to deliver to Alex his commentary on every stage of this queue and everybody in it. In the final stretch, it seemed to become too much for him; with despair Alex watched him pushing his way through, negotiating his gut around the public’s matching luggage. He was wearing a tight white T-shirt and some famous blue jeans, having read in a magazine that no man can go wrong in such a combination. The article had been illustrated by photographs of the popular film players Marlon Brando and James Dean. Alex would like to send a picture of Lovelear to that journalist.

  “So!” says Lovelear, releasing his massive bag. “What do you think her deal is?”

  Lovelear’s bag flu
mps to the floor and spreads itself over Alex’s feet. Lovelear kicks it but it only shunts an inch into somebody else’s way. Swearing obscenely, he drags it back up, rests it on his hip like a child, and then lunges forward, swinging it onto his back. Lovelear is one of the few in this queue with a bag that requires picking up. Everyone else’s have got the wheels and the cases with the stiff armature, the handle. The goyish guys like Lovelear who lug hold-alls might as well be walking around clasping the necks of dodos. Alex reaches for his notebook but he has left it at home. And as soon as his fingers register the emptiness of his pocket, he feels that he does not wish to make a note, not today. Maybe not ever again. This may be the death of the book. He has grown tired of filing.

  “I was back there,” says Lovelear, “thinking it over, right? And I’m thinking: is it a trap or something? I mean, could it be? Like her guy Krauser’s got some trumped-up harassment charge against you or something? That totally happened to a collector I knew. And then that thing with me and Miss Sheedy, now known as the party of the second part—I’m not saying that’s how it is. I’m just saying we don’t know. We don’t have all the facts. You’re really just flying into the unknown, that’s all I’m trying to say.”

  Since the afternoon, Lovelear had been growing conspiracy-crazy. He did not understand an object’s status as a “gift.” He did not believe, for example, that a film is any more than its publicity, a painting any more than an abstruse way to make a buck. He did not believe that songs or books were in any way substantially different from sandwiches or tires. Product is product. And he did not believe in free lunches. And he did not believe a woman just—

  “You know, like just turns around and does this thing that she’s refused to do for anyone for twenty years, without a reason? I mean, does that even make sense to you?”

  Alex tells him the same thing he told him three hours ago and has tried, in one way or another, to tell him since their acquaintance began: this is not a film.

  IN THE PLANE, ALEX is relieved to find he has been seated on his own. He is in an aisle seat with Esther’s absence next to him. Illegally reclining, he opens his plastic bag, a gift from the plane. The plane is a famous brand of plane, part of a worldwide brand that reaches as low as cola and as high as a jumbo jet. This is a plane for young people and/or the young at heart. With intellectual leanings. And natural style. It is a brand that employs the most shameless flattery to get what it wants.

  Our youth is but a brief night: fill it with rapture!

  So it is written in a peculiar font on the plastic bag. Alex feels no rapture when he opens this bag; he feels nothing, nothing, not even recognition. Who is this bag for? Who is this youth? What does he want with individually wrapped facial cleansing wipes? Why does he like all fonts to be bold, and all colors in flat, uncompromising blocks? What does he do with such a miniature writing pad—what notes is he making?

  Alex tries the earphones. Over the radio, the youth can choose from three genres of music, none of which Alex enjoys. Then a comedy channel, whose comedy derives from a feeling of familiarity with a youthful comedian’s life (So you’re doing the washing up, yeah? And your girl walks in, yeah?), the recognition of which resemblance makes Alex feel suicidal. Finally, a sub-Zen relaxation tape that consists of an L.A. therapist whispering koans over the sound of the sea. The sea has been enhanced in some way so as to lend it a musicality it never seems to possess when you are standing at its edge worrying about pollutants.

  “A distraught mother,” says the lady, “begged Buddha to heal the dead child in her arms. He did not perform a miracle. He said ‘Bring me a mustard seed from a house where no one—’ ”

  “Could you please do your belt up, sir? The light hasn’t gone off yet,” says a stewardess to Alex, who had not even noticed they were in the air.

  2.

  The autumnal quilt retreats (England is always autumnal from the air); now they are above the clouds. Alex sits in the plane, imagining himself from the perspective of a bored child sitting in a car, looking up. They should swap; this plane is designed for the very young and the very bored. All Alex is required to do for the next six and a half hours is eat and watch television and fall asleep for a while. All this is so earnestly wanted for him, of him. No one has desired his comfort and sleep this badly since he was a baby.

  Everything possible is being done to make him feel that nothing momentous, like flight, is occurring. At no point does anyone suggest that he and three hundred other strangers of unknown mental health status are trapped in a four-hundred-ton aircraft flying thirty thousand feet up in the air relying on equations of energy and velocity that no one aboard could sketch out in even their most basic form. Everything in this plane is an interface, like the windows on his computer. Nothing on this plane has anything to do with flying, just as his desktop doesn’t have anything to do with the processing of information. Pretty, pretty pictures. Lovely, distracting stories we tell each other. If Alex leans far out into the aisle, he can get a glimpse of the brilliance of the illusion: this private experience he is meant to be having is replicated as far as the eye can see. The same meals, the same detritus (the missing sock, the broken biro, the twisted blanket, the plastic water glass quite exploded), the same angle of recline, the same TV screen showing the same father and son playing catch, the same vigilant mindfulness of one’s personal space. In this context, leaving the interface, crossing over the white line, is pretty unthinkable. It’s a hero’s job—or a madman’s. Accompanied by birdsong, the Zen lady says, “Knowledge is the reward of action, because it is by doing things that we are transformed. Executing a symbolic gesture, truly living through a role, this is when we come to realize the truth inherent in the role. When we suffer its consequences, we fathom and exhaust its contents.” Alex turns to channel 6 in preparation for watching the popular cinema classic Casablanca.

  GOD KNOWS (THINKS ALEX about an hour and a half later, when he is washed in joy) Europe has made many American movies, but America has only ever made one European film: Casablanca. Ah, Casablanca! Rick plays chess, not cards. Every European immigrant actor who was in town at the time is in the cast. The music, the script, the cinematography—European ears, and minds, and eyes. Look at the miracle of it! An American movie with no happy ending, made by Europeans, mostly European Jews, in the middle of a World War! Alex can think of no better example of the accidental nature of great art. He knows all the legends. The chaotic set, where the script was written daily; the actors who did not know what their lines would be until they were handed them. Alex puts his chair back one more notch (he has been saving this notch) and marvels at the size of Bogart’s head. He mimes along with lines that seem, to him, almost Zen-like in their purity:

  RENAULT: I’ve often speculated why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think that you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me.

  RICK: It’s a combination of all three.

  RENAULT: And what in Heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

  RICK: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

  RENAULT: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

  RICK: I was misinformed.

  Facts. When Bergman and Bogart kiss, what looks like a moon turns out to be a searchlight. When Lorre is up against the wall, his eyes completely revolve. Did you know that Ronald Reagan was seriously considered for the role of Rick? That Play it again, Sam is never said? That Bergman thought Bogart a bore?

  “That the mechanics—you see the guys round the airplane? In the final scene? They were midgets, actually. People don’t know—the facts just get lost. Seriously, it’s a fact. The plane was just a cardboard cutout and they couldn’t get the perspective right, so they hired midgets to play the mechanics, can you believe that?” Alex asks his right-hand neighbor, who is simply trying to watch the film in peace. The collector is the savior of objects that might otherwise be lost.

  BOOK T
WO

  Roebling Heights

  THE ZEN OF

  ALEX-LI TANDEM

  You see, this is my life! It always will be!

  There’s nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark.

  —Sunset Boulevard, screenplay by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and D. M. Marshman, Jr.

  In the twelfth century the Chinese master Kakuan drew the pictures of ten bulls with a written commentary.

  The bull is the eternal principle of life, truth in action.

  The ten bulls represent sequent steps in the

  realization of one’s true nature.

  —Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

  CHAPTER ONE

  The Search for the Bull

  1.

  “The longest Sabbath of my life,” concluded Tandem, and cursed Lovelear, whose bag he was carrying. Pausing, he dropped it to the floor, opened his hand and peered into a swollen landscape of red ridges, bloodless islets, like an aerial view of Japan. For the second time today, it was very early on a chilly and unforgiving Saturday morning. What more confirmation does a man need of the bitter futility of international travel?

  He bent down once more and seized the bag. Dove beside him was on a peculiar kind of autopilot, pushing a trolley with his eyes closed through a dead president’s airport. Lovelear, despite the bravado, was in fact deeply terrified of flight and had repaired to a nearby restroom, to vomit with relief.

  “Look, Ian: New York,” said Alex, as they approached the huge revolving door.

  “New York, yeah,” said Ian.

  “Ever been to New York, Ian?”

  “Can’t say I have, no.”

  “Interested in looking at it?”

  “Everything looks . . .” muttered Ian, and stepped out. It was snowing. Alex opened his mouth to ask a question, but a sweep of it met him full in the face, lacing his tongue with a dirty, metallic taste of heaven.

 
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