It's Back To School For Zadie Smith

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. But the breakneck plot is just the clothesline on which Smith hangs a book-length meditation on faith, fame and identity. It's like a screwball comedy with a Ph.D.

"There's no accident in the fact that the breakdown in faith and the rise in the ob--session with fame go side by side with one another," Smith says over coffee. Lunch is long gone; eating, writing--she does everything lickety-split. This includes her reaction to the fame that hit her with the publication of her first novel. "White Teeth" made her famous, and she was not one bit ready for her close-up. "I can't imagine what it's like to be Tom Cruise. It's like a living death, it's horrible." This from a woman who refuses to understand why the British press wastes ink gabbing about her hairstyle and her looks. Fine, we won't say a word. But she makes her point: "I remember once being in the street in London and watching a bus go by with my face on it, when 'White Teeth' had just come out, and the way that made me feel. It was a sort of mixture of pumped-up, false power, vanity and terror. And to multiply that, and to actively want it in your life, seems to me horrifying. It's about the emptiest thing on this planet, and I wanted to write about that."

OK, that's her agenda. But what you're just as likely to savor are the bits and pieces of prose on just about every page that stop you short with their acuity. It seems there's nothing she can't nail, from the smell of a hospital ("decay's argument with disinfectant") to a movie star's beauty ("Her forehead melts into her nose like buttermilk down a ladle, as it did on Garbo"). Plainly, she's one of those artists who can't stop taking in the world with a greedy, devouring eye.

What really sets Smith apart, though, is the ruthlessness with which she approaches her material. She loves her characters, but never indulges them. And she's just as hard on herself. Near the end of the interview, she pauses to call her dad, in a London hospital. She explains that he's lost both kidneys and he's eaten up with cancer. You stare at her. Like the old fellow in her novel who's lost his kidneys and...? She nods. "It's what a writer does. It's not pretty. You take your father's disease and you give it to this person or you take some other attribute and give it to another character. I know it's wrong, but it's just the way your brain organizes things. And if you do it with love..." She breaks off, stares out the window. "I dunno. My stupid job." Just this once, you want to say, she's wrong. It's not stupid. And yes, she might do it differently. But she couldn't do it any better.