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The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith. New York: Random House, 2002, 400 pp., $24.95 hardcover.
Anyone with a disposition toward the so-called novel of ideas (generally so-called only by writers of jacket copy and book reviews) might shriek with delight at the prospect of a novel claiming to be organized by the principles of Kabbalah in its first half and those of Zen Buddhism in its second.
But any yearning for mystical underpinnings quickly dissipates in the thick of The Autograph Man, British writer Zadie Smith's second novel. Instead of philosophy one wants story. Instead of story one gets a menagerie: there are characters, representations, popular controlled substances; there are celebrated people, places and products. There is Alex-Li Tandem the Autograph Man, Chinese and Jewish and on top of these British--specifically a North Londoner. There is his father Li-Jin, who is dead. Three childhood friends who with Alex-Li form a motley Jewish slapstick comedy troupe include a dreadlocked former black Israelite-turned-ganja-kabbalist, a boisterous rabbi and a maligned, "repressed" insurance agent. Never mind the midget rabbi, or the bizarre and thinly-veiled cameo of Divine Brown (of Hugh Grant and the famous back seat) as the fellow autograph trader (and Zen Buddhist) Honey …