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Celebrity Hunting: The "Shorthand of Experience"

Celebrity Hunting

by ANIS SHIVANI

The Autograph Man. By Zadie Smith. Random House, 2002. 347 pages. $24.95.

Two years ago, Zadie Smith made one of the most auspicious modern literary debuts for a young writer. At only twenty-four, she came out with White Teeth (Random House, 2000), a London compendium of multicultural zaniness resolving itself in humor, harmony, and hip conundrums. The fundamentalist terrorist plot in that novel comes to nothing. It was Rushdie minus the terror, or even fright. Readers loved it, although the Booker judges perhaps felt that too much of this sumptuous multiculturalism gave the appearance of having been painlessly tossed off. Events since then have proved that two other books published around the same time, Michel Houellebecq’s apocalyptic Atomised (Heinemann, 2000) and Joe Eszterhas’s blustery American Rhapsody (Knopf, 2000), had a better grasp of the shape of things to come in the new millennium. Now we have Smith’s second novel, subjected to the usual merciless lashings about the sophomore jinx. Rather than the second novel failing to live up to the ravenous potential of the first, what has actually happened is that Smith has faithfully followed up on the first one and met a dead-end. (She has accepted a fellowship at Radcliffe, and denies any intention to write another novel.) The Autograph Man suffers from the same weaknesses as White Teeth, as great and entertaining as that first effort was. But not having the saving graces of White Teeth’s careening and wildly looping plot, Smith’s weaknesses are more evident to see here.

There is no doubt that Smith is a great and unusual talent. Her Dickensian capacity to capture the tones, accents, and attitudes of different classes of people–particularly the at-loss young and unmoored minorities–has been well-noted. In The Autograph Man, she borrows from Nick Hornby’s immaculate rendering of the perpetually uncommitted young man, to give it a different, well-meaning twist. (In both her books, she almost seems more comfortable inhabiting the male mind and body, rather than the female, although she is no slouch with the female form either.) She gets popular culture, in a way that only a young writer probably can. Her vast capacity for comedy cannot but create enormous affection for her. If the world ran according to Smith’s sensibility, there would never be war, let alone genocide. If Dickens saw class difference as secondary to universal love, then Smith also commits herself religiously to a love that knows no particularist difference. As with Dickens, this is both her saving grace and fatal flaw.

Given these predilections of hers, and given how the different cross-currents of multicultural expression end in a higher synthesis in White Teeth, what might we have expected for her second novel? It seems that Smith is naturally resistant to a dark turn. In White Teeth sinister machinations were shown up to be harmless, mindless protests against what can ultimately be interpreted as the unconquerable, benevolent republic of egotists. Having shown her hand–shown what she can do to accomplish pleasant narrative closure even with the dark twists of mind of the momentarily illiberal–it seems that there is nowhere for Smith to go except iteration of the all-too-familiar stylistic sense of benign atomized disorder. There is good cheer all around, as much as in White Teeth, but in The Autograph Man it becomes a bit too depressing to bear. In this suddenly declinist era, both physical and perceptual, Smith has offered a novel that brings us down because it works in getting us up! We resent having to smile–if not laugh–repeatedly at the characters’ sense of wholeness in their present world and confidence in what’s to come.

This book is deeply at odds with present reality, so much so that the postmodern scaffolding itself–almost a gratuitous add-on–assumes an aura of imposition external to the writer’s deepest drives. She seems to have needed the postmodern kinks for her own distraction while writing the book. The multiculturalist linkages seem forced and necessitated, rather than innovative–they assume the proportion of clich?s. So do the kabbalistic structural overlays introduced, it seems, to make the narrative more complex than its content can withstand. The narrative germ is so protean that much more could have been done with it–but we get the sense that Smith is limiting herself, almost disdainfully telling her critics and readers: See, I can be satisfied with a less than superhuman effort! I can try to live myself down. We wonder in the end if this book is not a pleasant appraisal of her own youthful global celebrity. Alex-Li Tandem is the hero of the book through whose prism Smith fails to fully reflect the dark side of celebrity in the age of globalization. In the end the problem is that Alex-Li is not enough “of this generation who watch themselves.”

We first meet twelve-year-old Alex–the son of a Jewish mother and Chinese father–in the company of what will be his lifelong friends, Adam Jacobs (a black Jew with parents who came from Harlem) and Mark Rubinfine, who ends up becoming a rabbi. They all live in the middle-class north London suburb of Mountjoy. Alex’s father, Li-Jin, is taking the children to a wrestling match between Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks at the Royal Albert Hall. Already, the children are making the International Gestures for vomiting and masturbation. Smith plays this gig all the way through the book, until we have a veritable dictionary–or two–of International Gestures. This gets tiresome, but Smith seems compulsive about it. The notion of “gesture” and what that might symbolize in all its different meanings in a culture of surface and imitation is repeatedly introduced, but the full extent of its potency never explored. We take our cues for all our actions–including our most profound gestures, like falling in and out of love, having faith in God and losing it–from a cultural apparatus that provides ready-made symbols for our choosing. That’s obvious enough, but it is mostly presented as it is, without a sense of what might lie beyond borrowed gestures. It is in that respect that the characters fall apart, the more we get exposed to them.

Alex’s father is at the moment of introduction living his own gestural life. He is dying of a brain tumor (at the age of thirty-six), but has chosen not to reveal this fact to his family, so that he can enjoy the rest of his short time with Alex without this dread coming between them. Two years ago, a Chinese doctor in Soho has told him that he suffers from the tumor because he loves his son too much: “Li-Jin was loving Alex in a feminine way instead of a masculineThis had caused the disturbance.” This is no mere gratuitous remark. This is a book of superficial opposites–the premise of multiculturalism being, of course, that there are no real opposites, and that even if there are superficial differences everything can be assimilated into a life-giving whole. In Alex’s case, it is as if his father has to die–literally sacrifice himself–in order for Alex’s adult self to be redeemed. But here perhaps we give Smith too much credit for conception. Alex’s entire life is determined by the events at the moment of climax in his first consummated instance of celebrity hunting. As Alex and his company wind their way through the crushing crowd to meet Big Daddy and get his autograph, Alex’s father suddenly collapses and dies. Before that, however, Alex’s father has taken under his wing another Jewish kid named Joseph Klein, who is already an autograph hunter of significance at his tender age.

When the prologue is over, we find Alex at twenty-seven, a professional autograph man, living in a perpetual Hornby-defined funk, having an off-and-on relationship with Adam’s sister Esther, often drunk or stoned, and generally being clueless about where he has come from and where he is going. The child collector prodigy Joseph has become an insurance man bored with his job, while Alex–as if to earn his father’s affection in eternity–has taken over the mantle of celebrity hunting from Joseph. Alex’s biggest crush is on Kitty Alexander, an elusive, second-grade Russian-Italian Hollywood actress of the 1950s, whose film The Girl From Peking Alex considers the greatest movie ever made. Alex has been writing weekly fan letters to Kitty for thirteen years, without getting a single reply. Starting with the standard fan request for an autograph, he proceeds to inventing touching little vignettes of what Kitty might be feeling and thinking, a steady flow of which he keeps up during his entire adulthood (for example: “Dear Kitty, When behind a young man on a bus, she finds herself staring at his neck. The urge to touch it is almost overwhelming! And then he scratches it, as if he knew.”). Although Alex’s mother Sarah is not in the picture at all, Alex’s friendships from childhood and his environment from then are all completely intact. Nobody has moved away or inward! Alex and his friends and professional colleagues carry on pleasant banter throughout, and there is nothing really violent or cataclysmic that ever happens (that’s for American culture and American novels). As in other comic British novels, lots of people get very drunk, but it’s all speedily erased.

The crisis in Alex’s life appears when Kitty finally responds. As it happens, just at that time Alex has been invited to the Autographicana Fair in New York, and he chooses to go to this show, and possibly look up Kitty in New York, instead of staying back in Mountjoy for Esther’s pacemaker replacement surgery. In the ensuing escapades, Alex will never be able to get away from the feeling that all his gestures are preconceived–borrowed from well-worn movies and television shows. But before this happens, we are trained by Smith to accept as natural Alex’s diversionary dichotomizing tendency. This doesn’t present much difficulty, since we are already prone to view ourselves–when we catch ourselves borrowing gestures from the products of spectacle–as acceptably normal. Alex’s Big Five List of fears is the first one, and we notice that it consists entirely of frightening things we’re taught by TV and movies to be anxious about:

1. Cancer 2. AIDS 3. Poisoned Water System/London Underground Gas Attack 4. Permanent Neurological Damage (in youth, through misadventure) 5. Degenerative Brain Disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Etc. (in old age)

The fact that Alex should continue to be so traumatized, above all by his father’s death, well into adulthood is a popular culture clich? of monumental proportions. Smith could have used this idea to subvert popular culture’s presentation of what these traumas supposedly signify for our mental health, but she chooses to remain within popular culture’s boundaries. Although the first part of the book, where we move through Alex’s desultory life as an autograph man before the Kitty thunderbolt strikes, works its way upward in chapter headings from the kabbalistic foundation of Shechinah or Presence to its top at the Crown or Nothingness, we fail to see what this has to do with the flatness of Alex’s emotional state. Smith shows she can have some fun with chapter headings, reminders of earlier centuries’ protocol, and one of the most entertaining exercises is to go back at the end of chapters to see how the encapsulations eccentrically correlate with the events of the individual chapters. But this serves no discernible artistic purpose. The same with the intersection of the tetragrammaton to separate narrative sections in the prologue, in both Hebrew and English letters. Smith’s enfolding exercises are done for their own sake. The entire book is an exercise in listing opposites–the dominant key here being things that are supposed to be Jewish and Goyish–even as their comic reconciliation is implied. Multiculturalism comes off as just about as mystical as the kabbalah–and just as insubstantive. Hornby’s males obsessively list things, although not those consisting of oppositions, to make the serious point to themselves about their immaturity. Smith’s males make lists of opposites as if to laugh off their own insubstantiality, while bowing to the lists’ talismanic omnipotence.

Smith seems to have become insecure about developing her own unique categorizations (Is this what multiculturalism leads to in the end? How can we tell if this is Smith’s smart move to outmaneuver multiculturalism’s imposed oppositions, or her succumbing to it?). The extended epigraph preceding the novel, by the comedian Lenny Bruce, goes like this:

Dig: I’m Jewish. Count Basie’s Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor’s goyish. B’nai B’rith is goyish; Hadassah, Jewish.

If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn’t even matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York, you’re Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you’re Jewish.

Kool-Aid is goyish. Evaporated milk is goyish even if the Jews invented it. Chocolate is Jewish and fudge is goyish. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime Jell-O is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish.

All Drake’s Cakes are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish and, as you know, white bread is very goyish. Instant potatoes, goyish. Black cherry soda’s very Jewish, macaroons are very Jewish.

Negroes are all Jews, Italians are all Jews. Irishmen who have rejected their religion are Jews. Mouths are very Jewish. And bosoms. Baton-twirling is very goyish.

Underwear is definitely goyish. Balls are goyish. Titties are Jewish.

Celebrate is a goyish word. Observe is a Jewish word. Mr. and Mrs. Walsh are celebrating Christmas with Major Thomas Moreland, USAF (ret.), while Mr. and Mrs. Bromberg observed Hanukkah with Goldie and Arthur Schindler from Kiamesha, New York. Smith is able to do nothing funnier in the rest of the book. Compare Lenny Bruce’s jokes with Alex’s later commentary:

Jewish books (often not written by Jews), Goyish books (often not written by Goys); Jewish office items (the stapler, the pen holder), Goyish office items (the paper clip, the mouse pad); Jewish trees (sycamore, poplar, beech), Goyish trees (oak, Sitka, horse chestnut); Jewish smells of the seventeenth century (rose oil, sesame, orange zest), Goyish smells of the seventeenth century (sandalwood, walnuts, wet forest floor).

As with the best of anything else in popular culture, the original always seems to have inherent limits of imitation. One-time exploration equals exhaustion. Smith can keep making Jewish versus Goyish lists–Alex is writing a book called Jewishness and Goyishness–and it won’t add anything to what we’ve quickly sensed, and laughed off. Perhaps Smith is at a roadblock in her writing career–if we’re to take her at her word–because this sort of multiculturalist appropriation only goes so far. She created a lot of inventive ethnic categories in White Teeth, and she’s borrowed a lot more in The Autograph Man. What other weird combinations remain? And if more can be come up with, what would be new about them?

Is there any advance in comic strategy? On the surface, these Jewish-Goyish classifications make sense, but if you think about it you could argue for any classification. Alex’s book on the subject is in crisis because he’s suddenly come to the realization that “Judaism itself[is] the most goyish of monotheisms.” And then, of course, you could argue its opposite, depending on what symbols you choose to study. You could fill the slots of the kabbalah, or your autograph-hunting network, with any names and ideas that you choose. And it would all make sense within its own zones of observance.

The use of the kabbalah as structuring device is similarly hackneyed–to the extent that Harold Bloom in his most recent book, Genius, has abused it. The frontispiece of The Autograph Man is the “Kabbalah of Alex-Li Tandem,” which has Alex-Li Tandem for Presence, Muhammad Ali for Foundation, Bette Davis for Eternity, John Lennon for Splendour, Jimmy Stewart for Beauty, Fats Waller for Love, Franz Kafka for Power, Virginia Woolf for Wisdom, Ludwig Wittgenstein for Understanding, and the Crown blank. To sympathize with Jews by borrowing the kabbalah, their least offensive and particularistic religious contribution, has become an academic exercise now, a clich?d writerly International Gesture to show affiliation with the most multiculturally abused people of the twentieth century. The kabbalah as strategy to declare hipness has just become too banal.

Smith’s comments about Jewishness and the kabbalah come off as book knowledge–a small amount of research will unmask these blank observations gloating as insider insights. Anyone having grown up in the Jewish tradition would not speak as Alex, Adam, Joseph, and Mark do. The episode about the four rabbis in paradise (“One gazed and died, one became demented, one cut the plants, and only one, Rabbi Akiva, survived unharmed”) is so well-known to anyone approaching even an introductory kabbalah text that it strains credulity to think that it would be an item of interest to Alex’s friends. For a wonder-seeking multiculturalism, every additional fact is a revelation. It is to establish one’s compassionate bona fides that one assumes the identity of a Jew today.

Particularly if there is nothing at all distinctly Jewish about the character. It is understandable that Smith would choose as protagonist someone not with a traditional career, since popular culture has a hard time dealing with this reality. And to make the character conscious of his own irrelevancy in the larger scheme of things frees us of the need to feel superior–about the only emotional demand that popular culture makes of us. Alex ponders about his smallness:

He was twenty-seven years old. He was emotionally undeveloped, he supposed, like most Western kids. He was probably in denial of death. He was certainly suspicious of enlightenment. Above all, he liked to be entertained. He was in the habit of mouthing his own personality traits to himself like this while putting his coat on; he suspected that farm boys and people from the Third World never did this, that they were less self-conscious. He was still, still slightly thrilled by the idea of receiving post addressed to him and not to his mother.

We all–at least the males–think like this a lot of the time, and there’s nothing to it. It’s how we live now. It’s how we pretend not to be superior to anyone else, especially those so remote that we can never see them. If we get to the bottom of our identities (so pervasively defined by popular culture), we might find nothing there–just as the beautiful actress at the other end of the autograph-chasing letter, or the actual content of the rule-making Jehovah, if hunted down beyond its invisibility, might equally well disappoint.

Smith indiscriminately adores cultural aphorisms of every sort, including Rabbi Rubinfine’s Talmudic riddles. This promiscuous affection holds back her growth as a novelist able to reckon with things that cannot be listed as mysteries. For Alex, equally indiscriminate in his affections, we know the conundrum from the beginning of the book: Will Kitty, once the inevitable encounter occurs, be able to make a man out of him? The answer, it turns out, is not really. This is because the essence of fame is to distance oneself from heedless fans. When the distance between mortal and immortal gets bridged–occasionally–the shock consists in seeing, for the first time, that even celebrity is not beyond the compulsion to classify things into their well-known opposites, beyond list-making to articulate disorders before they have occurred, or beyond stating preferences to enjoy without experience. Smith has shown in White Teeth that she doesn’t need to borrow from anyone to be riotously funny; but The Autograph Man’s secondhand feel doesn’t take us beyond the “desire network, historical flotsam” that autographs, and writing that is theologically appreciative of pop culture trivia, both signify. The vocabulary of the desire network, when it infects personal relationships, has been explored with a much sharper edge by other writers. To Esther’s demand for commitment, “Alex rolled a cigarette and listened as she spoke the careful discourse of modern relationships–time apart, reevaluation, my needs, your needs.” Smith adds nothing new to what we already understand about our borrowed discourse in the most intimate of settings.

If Smith weren’t to settle for taking inspiration from the silencing language of postmodern non-choice, she could escalate her prose from fine but indiscriminate description to tragic inward opposition. Notice the subterranean pleasure of roughness in so trivial a bit of description as an Italian waiter making a run for Alex and Adam’s table as soon as the two are seated in their favorite cake shop because “[p]eople in the center of the city were known to be callous and impatient.” Smith needs to build on this. We’ve known for a while that “everything’s a symbol of everything else.” Alex knows it too at a verbal level, but can’t really let it get through to his consciousness: “It is all a sort of horrible betrayal of himself, of his whole life. Life is not just symbol, Jewish or goyish. Life is more than just a Chinese puzzle. Not everything fits. Not every road leads to epiphany. This isn’t TV, Alex, this isn’t TV.” As soon as he says that, however, Alex realizes that he’s “having an epiphany about the importance of not having epiphanies.” Except that what he’s experienced is so trivial–for a twenty-seven-year-old–that it’s not in the category of epiphany but an idea from TV.

Smith ultimately fails to deal with the most powerful illusion of celebrity culture–that “famousness[can] cheat Death of its satisfaction: obscurity.” Her novelistic manifesto can be deduced from Rubinfine’s observations:

In his own small way he had wanted to carry things forward. Like the continuity man on a film set. At the time, this was an analogy that had not satisfied Adam, who thought the call to the rabbinate should be entirely pure, a discussion a man has with God. But God had never spoken to Rubinfine, really. Rubinfine was simply, and honestly, a fan of the people he had come from. He loved and admired them. The books they wrote, the films they made, the songs they had sung, the things they had discovered, the jokes they told. This was the only way he had ever found to show it, that affection. His childhood therapy had pinpointed the Rubinfine problem; personal relationships were not his strength. He was always happiest dealing with a crowd. The people of Mountjoy! The people! He never expected to add anything to them, to the people, never imagined he could offer any great rabbinical insight–he hoped only to carry them for a short time. Between the rabbi who came before him and the one who would come after.

These sentiments could easily have been uttered by Alex too. And it is how Smith views her own novelistic project. One possibility not explored by Smith is that if the trivial obsessions gifted by popular culture were to be taken away, more massive, dangerous, debilitating obsessions might well take hold. And then, would it be a physical war of all against all? In one sense, Alex’s not growing out of his small obsessions is a sign of growth–the only kind of growth that postmodernist culture offers. The narrator’s remark that “all fandom is a form of tunnel vision: warm and dark and infinite in one direction” stands alone, not making any demands on the reader, as is the banal observation that “[t]he collector is the savior of objects that might otherwise be lost.”

The chapters of the section where Alex visits New York and finds Kitty are labeled according to Zen categories, not kabbalah: true multicultural harmony. Perhaps it’s only that Smith has run out of sefirot attributes for chapter headings. The sense of living in a movie escalates in the New York section, but it hardly bothers us. Smith hints funnily at what might be the real motivation of the community of autograph seekers (as of other virtual communities):

People Alex had met only virtually appeared before him now in hideous material form: Freek Ullman from Philadelphia, Albie Gottelmeyer from Denmark, Pip Thomas from Maine, Richard Young from Birmingham. All these people now had their bodies, their faces. He traded with them all, listened to them. They needed to talk. Maybe the business itself was simply an excuse for this need. Alex learnt of the dissatisfactions of wives in towns he had never visited and never wanted to. The grade averages of various children passed under review. Richard Young told him he could never truly love a flat-chested woman, no matter how kind she might be to him. A stranger called Ernie Popper told him that most days he wished he were dead.

If you’ve ever experienced the surprise of virtual community members sharing intimacies with near strangers, rather than with family and neighbors, you can relate to this. Again, however, this insight doesn’t add up to, link up with, anything. Like Rushdie’s recent failed attempt to imagine New York after living there, Smith seems to falter in the shoals of American pop culture. Perhaps the only way to get it right is if you’ve internalized it to the extent that it is neither an object of affection nor derision. It becomes so much a frame of mental reference that it dissolves into greater possibilities without so much as notice.

In New York, Alex is supposed to meet Honey Richardson, who’s really Honey Smith, and resembles the prostitute Hugh Grant was scandalously associated with, for an autograph trade. Making no demands on Alex, Honey helps him find Kitty. It turns out that Max Krauser–Kitty’s fan club gate-keeper, and as it turns out one-time short-lived husband, although he is homosexual–has never shown Kitty any of the letters Alex has written to her. Alex has heard from Kitty and got two autographs in the mail a few days before his arrival in New York only because Kitty has just then, for the first time, come across some of his letters stashed away in Krauser’s apartment. Alex and Honey don’t give up on the hunt for Kitty when Krauser obstructs, and happen to bump into her during their frantic search in Brooklyn. So now we’re finally ready to meet Kitty. She is still beautiful, but she tells Alex, “I am such a fan of yours,” because of the touching letters of his that she’s read. As Kitty says, “I am not so grand to ignore so many letters.” Once the celebrity admits mortal feelings of this kind, the charm goes away. As with all other objects of worship, only distance lends wonder. It is true that the fan gets turned off by the knowledge that the celebrity is just as needy as the fan, but at another level this insight is false. The fan can never have the acclaim of a star.

Once the celebrity is removed from her arena of performance, she becomes apparently equal to the spectators. Kitty says about Alex’s letters, “They are nothing of movies. Nothing about that. They are just a woman, walking in the world. This is beautiful.” Kitty herself is laid-back about her celebrity (but again, this has layers of mystery about it, since it is easy to be cavalier about something that is irrevocably in one’s possession). Kitty says she hates the very word fan, although her greatest fan of all–even greater than Alex–is Krauser, who is so compulsive about having her all for himself that he’s started sending her stalking letters to keep her isolated, but whom Kitty still doesn’t want to let go. Had Kitty been able to read Alex’s letters from the beginning, Alex’s obsession wouldn’t have developed to the extent that it does. Is the greatest favor of the celebrity, then, to remain at a distance, in order to provide her fans with the motivating obsession? The kernel of truth in this irony undermines anything but a comic perspective in Smith’s handling of the whole subject of celebrity. When Alex revisits Kitty his last night in town, without Honey, they end up spending a chaste but charged night watching TV, just as Alex has spent his one night together with Honey watching TV: the “channel of history[where] the only history is the history of Hitler,” “the channel of entertainment,” and the “channel of nostalgia.”

Dependency becomes a contingent, two-way street, when celebrity comes into direct contact with fan. Kitty good-heartedly–and almost too readily–agrees to let Alex rescue her from her financial difficulties by auctioning off her signed memorabilia. Alex takes Kitty with her to England for a week, succeeding in pulling in 150,000 pounds, thanks in part to a false news report–probably coming from Max, of Kitty’s death on the day of the auction–that dramatically boosts the value of the merchandise. Alex goes through dramatics (getting hopelessly drunk, and being forgiven quickly by friends), afraid that Kitty will take her own obituary poorly. But Kitty doesn’t really mind. Alex goes through dramatics again while fretting about reciting the Kaddish on his father’s Yahrzeit in front of everyone he knows. But if there’s one thing popular culture teaches us–both celebrities and fans–it is how to handle performance anxiety. Alex does well.

Smith has chosen a great subject, but fails to explore its explosive implications. The meaning of gestures in a culture of spectacle is merely stated, not ironically extended and embellished. A more intelligent Nick Hornby is occasionally in sight, but never pursued to his lair. The zone of reality outside TV gestures, TV consolations, intimations of TV love-making and breaking-up, remains the exclusive and unseen purview of the writer at work. Perfunctoriness just doesn’t seem to be too much of a tragedy in the end for Smith. Her own vision is distinctly goyish (comic) as she ostensibly talks about Jewishness (tragedy). To Alex, the “distinctions between coach and business class seemedworldly manifestations of the goyish conception of heaven.” The trouble is, Smith’s own vision of the world is a perfect goyish heaven, where nobody clashes with anybody else’s inviolable feelings. Gestures add some style, but they are not really a betrayal. That’s a pretty bizarre conclusion for a hip writer of the twenty-first century to own up to. In a way, Smith has succeeded only too well in capturing the aura of fame, come so close to it in appreciative terms that her value as unsentimental writer is compromised. As they say to put you down, Smith has lately been watching too many films.

ANIS SHIVANI studied economics at Harvard, and is the author of two novels, The Age of Critics and Memoirs of a Terrorist. He welcomes comments at: Anis_Shivani_ab92@post.harvard.edu