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Sophomore Plunge 

Zadie Smith trades in brilliance for lit stardom

Zadie Smith scorched the literary world two years ago with her debut novel, White Teeth. In her mid-20s, of mixed race and hailing from northwest London, the young author won kudos here and in Britain. Invariably, Smith and her novel were described as dazzling, beguiling and inventive. She became a celebrity, said some mildly outrageous things (telling one interviewer that a British literary judge could kiss her behind) and flitted between dowdy prodigy (glasses, afro, humble assessments of her work) and hip celebrity (hair extensions, no glasses, haute couture and haughtier confidence). The British press began following her the way we obsess over, well, no writer, certainly. Perhaps the American fascination with American Idol would be a fair comparison.

Which brings us to The Autograph Man, a slimmer, less sprawling novel that aspires to ward off the dreaded sophomore jinx. Its premise is, yes, beguiling: Alex-Li Tandem, a Jewish-Chinese slacker who trades in authentic and forged celebrity signatures, wants something more than his hollow existence. Imagine a sadder version of the Hugh Grant character in Nick Hornby's About a Boy.

This novel, too, is about a boy. In this case, Alex is a boy without a father. He died when Alex was a boy.

The novel opens with a delightful narrative following father, son and several of his teenage friends to a wrestling match at the Royal Albert Hall. Verbal dexterity, sharp dialogue and a pleasing whimsicality take center stage. Smith sets the scene with verve. The petty, if no less painful and deep-seated, rivalries of the boys, the agony of the father who, while suffering from cancer, is striving to make the outing a flawless day of glory. Then, too, there is Royal Albert Hall itself. Smith imagines what each seat has seen, recounts the famed performance hall's creation (Queen Victoria and her husband, Albert, decreed its necessity) and reminds one and all of its past lowlights and highlights.

Albert wanted arts and sciences, and Victoria delivered them year after year, and when she left this world somebody else delivered them year after year, until they too retired and passed the job to somebody new. And so it goes. There are many ways to remember the dead. One of them is to have Tracy Baldock, a dancer from Scotland who is down on her luck, and somewhat too large to achieve her dream -- contemporary dance with a well-established European troupe -- dress up as a mouse. . .Another is to have poor Mark Knopfler please his audience by playing "Money for Nothing" for the God knows how manyeth time, though he hates to do it, though it's killing him inside -- have Mark sing the words "We gotta install microwave ovens, we gotta move those color TVeeees," and let Albert hear them, wherever he is.

Once the novel leaves the Albert Hall, alas, we all begin to feel like Mark Knopfler. One hesitates to label Smith as Rushdie-lite because it's been done so many times. Reading this novel shows why her pseudo-Rushdie tag is ubiquitous: It's true.

There are so many multicultural pop- cultural convergences here -- some successful, some not -- that it feels as though The Autograph Man was written by Zadie Rushdie. That, though, is a minor problem.

Smith can be dazzling and, no doubt, possesses extraordinary talent. Yet her second novel lacks heart. It's supposed to be a meditation on spirituality and faith in a celebrity-crazed, consumer-driven society. After enduring the typical wayward symbols -- recreational drugs, binge-drinking, general self-loathing -- the resolution doesn't seem at all sincere.

None of the characters, save Alex's (literally) heartsick on-and-off girlfriend, Esther, seems interested in much of anything. Alex, finally coaxed into a reading at a Kaddish ceremony for his long-dead father, makes a sacrifice at the urging of a childhood friend. The sacrifice? Not smoking pot before the ceremony begins.

Smith offers a painfully extended riff on (really) Lenny Bruce's riff on things that are Jewish and things that are goyish. Perhaps it was funny in the 60s, not so 40 years later. It's not offensive, it's just there -- much like watching MTV for more than 10 minutes.

MTV, as it happens, is a mighty contributor to the dialogue. That works, to an extent, since there is no denying its pervasive influence the past 20 years. Still, when everyone speaks in knowing, self-conscious slang every minute of every day, the novel lapses from cool to caricature.

The plot contrivances -- Alex, for example, convinces a reclusive film star to become his roommate -- make the sloganeering seem, by comparison, delightful. Aptly enough, galleys of The Autograph Man include Smith's own quote on celebrity worship, taken (no irony here) from an issue of Vanity Fair. The pairing is prescient: Much like that magazine, this novel carries the occasional hint of promise, a lot of semi-sophisticated blather and, at its core, a self-awareness and congratulatory air that overwhelms all else.

The good news? The talented Smith still hasn't turned 30, and, if she can take a detour from paparazzi and parties, she may yet write a load of terrific novels. The Autograph Man, however, won't be among them.

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