Byline: Malcolm Jones
Zadie Smith is thinking seriously about hanging it up. Never mind that at 26 she's published two novels in two years, starting with the best-selling "White Teeth," which copped pretty much every first-novel prize in sight, beguiled the critics and then sold more than a million copies. Her new novel, "The Autograph Man" (Random House), which hits stores here next week, is already a critical hit in her native England, where she's one of the 24 candidates for this year's Booker Prize. So what's next for Smith? Graduate school.
Kidding, right? Nope, she's a graduate fellow at Radcliffe this fall, dithering like an eager freshman over which courses to take. Maybe an Eliot seminar, maybe a class in literary theory. You listen to her over lunch in a cafe just off Harvard Square, and you keep waiting for the punch line that never comes. She's dead set on studying. Maybe she'll find time to work on a book of essays, but there are no plans for another novel. "I want to be a great writer, and I'm not one." She doesn't care about money, or fans, and being merely very, very good's not good enough. "I'm enormously ambitious about being a part of English writing. But I don't feel as though I've written a book that has even a long shot of doing that."
The one aspect of all this that fits the Smith profile is that once again she's confounded everyone's expectations. "When I wrote 'White Teeth,' I knew what people expected from a girl like me"--that would be a Cambridge-educated child of middle-class parents, mother a psychotherapist, father a photographer--"so I wrote what they didn't expect." That would be a boisterous comic novel about two middle-aged, working-class pals in London--one English, one Bengali--and their wacky families. One of the mothers sews piecework at home, assembling dominatrix outfits without a clue as to what she's making. What got everyone's attention, though, was the then 24-year-old author's ability to climb effortlessly inside the lives of characters ranging from aging waiters to twenty something stoners to terrorists. But don't ask her to do it again. "When I wrote 'The Autograph Man,' I wrote the book that was as far from 'White Teeth' as I could imagine."
True enough, about the only things the two books have in common besides the name on the spine are a keen feel for modern London's polyglot ethnicities and a profoundly comic sensibility. "White Teeth" dealt with questions of cultural identity; "The Autograph Man" graphs a spiritual pilgrimage. Alex-Li Tandem is a young Chinese-English Jew who makes his living trading in celebrity autographs. His obsessions are old movie stars and fame, and at the story's outset he's a mess, inside and out: "Everything he wore looked as if it had been flung at him by an irate girlfriend in a hallway." Inside of what Tandem describes as "the weirdest week of my life," he has to make peace with his girlfriend, track down an aging movie star (think Norma Desmond with a sweet disposition) and say kaddish for his dead father. …