It's Back to School for Zadie Smith: Honest. Her Second Novel May Be Her Last-For Now
Jones, Malcolm, Newsweek
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." …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: It's Back to School for Zadie Smith: Honest. Her Second Novel May Be Her Last-For Now. Contributors: Jones, Malcolm - Author. Magazine title: Newsweek. Publication date: September 30, 2002. Page number: 64. © 2009 Newsweek, Inc. All rights reserved. Any reuse, distribution or alteration without express written permission of Newsweek is prohibited. For permission: www.newsweek.com. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.