The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith


  “I’m thinking of quitting,” confirmed Joseph languidly, picking a sinking fly from his eggs. “Sun did it. Sun gave me a weird epiphany.”

  “That’s the trouble with this bloody sun,” said Rubinfine, frowning and pointing to it with his fork.

  “What was the epiphany?”

  “Umm . . . something like: can’t spend rest of life in total misery.”

  “Right. Good one.”

  “I thought so.”

  “What will you do instead?” asked Alex, accepting his plate and a generous portion of egg and toast.

  “Be irretrievably unemployable. That’s the plan so far.”

  “I had that plan once,” said Rubinfine wistfully. “Didn’t come to anything, though.”

  “That’s because you’re a quitter.” Joseph raised a beer to the sky. “I’m in this for the long haul. Bloody hell,” he said, turning to look at Alex for the first time, “You look terrible.”

  “I think,” said Alex, looking over Joseph and Rubinfine to Adam, seeking him out, his understanding, “Esther might be leaving me.”

  Adam looked alarmed and then averted his eyes as from an intimacy between parents. Joseph opened a beer and passed it to him. Rubinfine said, “Everyone leaves everyone in the end.”

  Alex scowled.

  “Yes, but this isn’t the end, you Gaylord. That’s the point, isn’t it? I think she might be leaving me midway.”

  “Only God is constant,” affirmed Rubinfine, and snatched the pepper from Joseph’s hand while the man was in mid-sprinkle. “The thing he gave us is endings. Things end, here. They don’t end there.” He pointed to the sky. “That was his gift to us, endings. Now, you might say to me: Yeah, nice gift, but can I take it back to the shop and exchange it? At which point, I would say to you—”

  “Roob, please save it, will you?” groaned Joseph. “Who’s that speech for?”

  “For my cheder group. I’m giving it on Saturday,” said Rubinfine, chewing a nail off and spitting it over the wall. “Ten- to fourteen-year-olds. You don’t like? I mean, there’s a lot more to it than—”

  “It’s not that I don’t like. . . . Roob, if someone had spoken to you like that when you were fourteen . . . No, look, it’s not that bad. It’s just that you express everything so damn clumsily—look, do you have a pen? Let’s go over it, let’s tidy it up.”

  “We need more egg,” said Adam ruminatively. “Alex, come and help me make more egg.”

  He walked straight past the kitchen, though, and Alex followed him into the lounge. In front of the alphabet Adam gripped him by the shoulders. His eyes were an essence of Adam: the look you always hoped he’d give you, the one that turned up now and then and that you waited for. Clear, agonizingly honest, puckish, joy-seeking and full of the determination to take your pains on as his own. Alex put his hands in his pockets like a schoolboy embarrassed by unexpected praise.

  “Are you ready?” asked Adam.

  “For?”

  “Tonight!”

  “Oh . . . sure, yeah, ’course.”

  “Did you see Rabbi Burston? Wasn’t he useful?”

  Alex made a helpless face, and in turn Adam’s own look faded to be replaced by the same injured disappointment his sister had laid on Alex a few hours ago.

  “It doesn’t mean the same to me,” said Alex, pulling his hands from his pockets, dropping into the sofa. “To me it’s a gesture, you know? Nothing more.”

  Adam looked confused.

  “What’s more important than a gesture?” he asked.

  Adam knelt down where he was, and for a second Alex feared he was going to ask him to meditate or pray and he now knew—with more certainty than ever before—that those two acts were beyond him, no, more than that: he didn’t want them. He wanted to be in the world and take what came with it, endings local and universal, full stops, periods, looks of injured disappointment and the everyday war. He liked the everyday war. He was taking that with fries. To go.

  “What’s . . . ? You dropped—Oh, it’s your note,” said Adam, picking it up. He came over and sat down on the sofa. “It’s all scrunched,” he said, giving it to Alex. “I was going to bring mine too, for tonight. Seemed right to me as well.”

  Alex remembered now, vaguely, ripping it off the wall, last night. He took it from Adam and straightened it out with his fist against the table.

  “They’re similar, aren’t they?” said Adam earnestly. “I mean, you really write alike.”

  Alex frowned. Picked up a pen and neighboring TV schedule and wrote his own signature perfectly on the back of this.

  “Look how similar,” murmured Adam. “His T is exactly the same as yours—and that funny M.”

  “I used to copy his,” said Alex, touching the note, remembering. “I’d make him write it out so I could copy it. I’d make him write it over and over again, so I could watch the way his hand moved. Small hands. They were weirdly small and . . .”

  Alex could not stop that trapdoor swinging again. He clutched at his own hair.

  “I thought,” he said shakily, “I thought you said all this was going to make me feel better. I don’t feel better. Telling Esther about Boot, that didn’t help. And this thing tonight, talking to Rabbi Burston, none of it, it’s not resolving anything, it doesn’t cure anything. I miss him. I still miss him. All the time. I miss him so much. I don’t feel better.”

  “I said it was going to be better, not feel better,” said Adam, and he was deadly serious. “It is better, even if you can’t feel it.”

  Alex laughed sullenly and set about a cuticle with his teeth. “There’s no other good but feeling good,” he said, shaking his head. “Ads, that’s what good is. That’s what you’ve never understood. It’s not a symbol of something else. Good has to be felt. That’s good in the world.”

  Adam relinquished the argument with a parting of his hands, but as ever, nothing changed in that quiet, definite, iridescent shell that covers the religious, that home they carry with them, everywhere.

  Alex sighed and stood up to get Adam’s weed box from its place on a shelf, where it obscured the bottom half of Adam’s little autograph tree.

  “I was thinking,” began Adam in a cautious voice, “about making a Kitty autograph the final branch, if you’d like that, if you have any left. Like, as a mark of respect. Be a way to keep it safe—in case you got tempted to sell every precious thing you own. I mean, say if that’s a bad idea, but—”

  Alex laughed. Adam frowned and tilted his head, and that same second sunshine hit the blinds and divided the room into paragraphs of dusty light and sentences of shadow. If anything is going to make you religious, it’s this stuff. Timing. Coincidence.

  “I sold them all,” said Alex contentedly, and let the facts lie, for the moment, where they were. “There’s none left. Ads, you’ve got a halo.”

  Alex opened the box and shuffled it around, looking for a little lump of brown. Adam stood up suddenly, closed the lid.

  “Better not, mate. Be clear today. Be there. Be there completely, don’t you think?”

  “Hmm,” said Alex. His mind was now—as the teachers like to say—elsewhere. The sun had washed the wall and made things look different. Feel different. That’s the problem with the sun.

  “And for when you see Esther. She wants us to stop smoking, you know. She’s scared to tell you, but I know that’s what she wants. Of both of us. But I don’t know about that, man. That’s a tall order. That’s where I found the understanding,” Adam said, making the International Gesture of transcendence (brief upwards nod, eyes set on the ceiling). “That’s how Shechinah opened up to me, how things became manifest. That’s how I climb.”

  He eased the box from Alex’s hands and returned it to the shelf.

  “But for today, she’s got a point. I think we need to be present today, fully present. Alex?”

  Alex bent down slowly for the note, straightened up again, and inveigled a tiny pinch of Blu-Tack from behind the autograph of Jimmy St
ewart. He put one dot at each of the four corners of the note and stuck Li-Jin in the empty sun-faded spot, midway between—and elevated above—the popular philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the popular writer Virginia Woolf.

  EPILOGUE

  Kaddish

  Suppose I weren’t allowed the gestures people make when they don’t know what else to do: clicking the buckle of my wristwatch strap, unbuttoning and rebuttoning my shirt, running my hands through my hair. In the end I’d have nothing to sustain me, I’d be lost.

  —Peter Handke, The Weight of the World

  Standing up was the Autograph Man, Alex-Li Tandem. From where he was, he could see of all them. He could see everything they did. Sitting down were his friends Adam Jacobs, Rabbi Mark Rubinfine, and Joseph Klein, his girlfriend Esther Jacobs, Rabbi Green, Rabbi Darvick, Rabbi Burston and his mother, Sarah Tandem. Also sitting were two people unknown to him, Eleanor Loescher and Jonathan Verne.

  Magnified and sanctified (said Alex-Li, but not in these words)

  May His great name be

  In the world that He created.

  As He wills,

  Rubinfine was stripping the skin from his right thumb with the nail

  Of his left hand forefinger,

  And may His kingdom come

  In your lives and in your days

  And in the lives of all the house of Israel,

  Joseph was worrying his nose with a knuckle

  And then trying not to, and then doing it again,

  Swiftly and soon,

  And all say Amen!

  Esther smoothed her skirt down

  With her hands and twisted the seam until

  It rested correctly!

  Amen! (said the sitting people, but not in these words)

  May His great Name be blessed

  Always and forever!

  Blessed (said Alex-Li, but not in these words)

  And praised

  And glorified

  Rabbi Burston was swinging his feet

  To some internal beat,

  And raised

  And exalted

  Rabbi Green sniffed,

  And honored

  And uplifted

  Rabbi Darvick closed his eyes

  And then opened them twice as wide,

  And lauded

  Be the Name of the Holy One

  Adam smiled and performed

  A discreet thumbs-up,

  He is blessed!

  Above all blessings

  And hymns and praises and consolations

  That are uttered in the world

  And all say Amen!

  May a great peace from heaven—

  And life!—

  Be upon us and upon all Israel,

  Sarah cried and made no attempt

  To disguise it,

  And all say Amen!

  May He who makes peace in His high places

  Eleanor Loescher held her small

  Belly with both hands.

  (And Alex wondered what this meant.)

  Make peace upon us and upon all Israel,

  Jonathan Verne yawned shamelessly.

  (And Alex wondered what this meant.)

  And all say Amen!

  ZADIE SMITH

  THE AUTOGRAPH MAN

  Zadie Smith was born in northwest London in 1975. The Autograph Man is her second novel. Her first, White Teeth, was the winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, and the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize. She is currently living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

  ALSO

  BY

  ZADIE SMITH

  WHITE TEETH

  ACCLAIM FOR ZADIE SMITH AND

  THE AUTOGRAPH MAN

  “A preternaturally gifted . . . writer [with] a voice that’s street-smart and learned, sassy and philosophical all at the same time.” —The New York Times

  “Savvy, witty and exuberant.” —New York Daily News

  “Smith is . . . a master of style whose prose is playful yet unaffected, mongrel yet cohesive, profound yet funny, vernacular yet lyrical.” —Los Angeles Times

  “Smith is young and smart, and . . . she proves to be an amazingly gifted writer.” —The Washington Post Book World

  “Smith writes sharp dialogue for every age and race—and she’s funny as hell.” —Newsweek

  “[Zadie Smith] possesses a more than ordinary share of talent.”

  —USA Today

  “Absolutely delightful.” —Alan Cheuse, Chicago Tribune

  “Smith’s clever, aphoristic observations and snappy dialogue are so delightful they tend to become addictive. . . . [The Autograph Man is] always entertaining.” —Elle

  Copyright © 2002 by Zadie Smith

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in hardcover in the United Kingdom by Hamish Hamilton, a division of Penguin UK, in 2002, and in trade paperback by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, in 2003.

  Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint material from other sources:

  Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.: Excerpts from Kaddish, by Leon Wieseltier. Copyright © 1998 by Leon Wieseltier. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. The author would particularly like to acknowledge the importance to The Autograph Man of Leon Wieseltier’s wise and poetic memoir.

  Douglas Music Corp. c/o Don Williams Music Group, Inc.: Excerpt from The Essential Lenny Bruce. Copyright 1967 © by Douglas Music Corp. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

  Paulist Press: Excerpts from Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment, translated by Daniel Chanan Matt. Copyright © 1983 by Daniel Chanan Matt. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, www.paulistpress.com.

  Warner Bros.: Excerpt from Casablanca granted courtesy of Warner Bros.

  This is a work of fiction. All incidents and dialogue, and all characters with the exception of a few well-known historical figures, are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental. Where real-life historical figures appear, the situations, incidents, and dialogues concerning those persons are entirely fictional and are not intended to depict actual events or to change the entirely fictional nature of the work.

  The Library of Congress has cataloged

  the Random House edition as follows:

  Smith, Zadie.

  The autograph man : a novel / Zadie Smith.

  p. cm.

  1. Autographs—Collectors and collecting—Fiction. I. Title.

  PR6069.M59 A97 2002

  823′914—dc21 2002069705

  www.vintagebooks.com

  eISBN: 978-1-4000-3443-7

  v3.0

 


 

  Zadie Smith, The Autograph Man

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