Globalisation and Over-Identification in The Autograph Man

Too many of our actions and reactions today, Tandem recognizes, utterly lack

authenticity, owing largely to the ubiquity of media images. As he covertly tails a

man, for example, whom he hopes will lead him to Kitty Alexander, he reflects, “It is

impossible these days to follow a man or quit a job without an encyclopedia of

cinematic gestures crowding you out” (225). The same principle, Tandem discovers,

obtains for any number of his human interactions, especially with regard to his

romantic entanglements (Furman 2005: 14).

 

In the above extract, Andrew Furman argues for the contamination of registers so that no pure meanings and experiences are possible. Discuss.

 

With the ever-increasing reach of media, the dissemination of races, religions and cultures worldwide and the ease of communication across the planet, people have become so much more than their heritage. The global village phenomenon means that although one may be born a white, Christian, Afrikaans South African, you may choose Buddhism as your religion once you are old enough to decide, you may do yoga every Friday evening and eat at a Nigerian restaurant on Wednesdays. There is no reason for people to limit themselves to their immediate culture anymore, because there are so many fascinating and new experiences possible. Every person is a globetrotter, regardless of whether they have ever been out of their hometown. The reason for this is that Mohammed no longer has to go the mountain – the mountain has come to Mohammed.

 

However, this same phenomenon has led to another consequence – that of over identification with the media images with which we are flooded. In Alex’s case, his following of the man is too reminiscent of a hundred spy films, TV series and cartoons to ignore. In fact, his actions are no longer his own, but a pop culture cliché, instantly recognizable and incalculably capable of mockery, as even he uses the word “cinematic” in his description of his gestures and the way they may be perceived.

 

Just as contamination has occurred across religions, cultures, languages and being, so the ubiquitous nature of the media has caused it to contaminate our lives in that our gestures, phrases and even the way we look has been decided already. Far past the intentional influence of the advertising media, there are stereotypical ways in which to dress, walk, and talk that denote a number of characteristics which may or may not be true for the individual. Sadly, theses gestures may not be true of a certain individual, but they will be recognized as “x” and treated accordingly by the rest of society. If society is treating you in a certain way, then that is basically what you are – society decides on your individuality, and the way you want to be perceived is only controlled by you, because the way you present yourself will elicit a certain reaction. Therefore, it is up to each individual to present themselves in the way that they would like to be perceived.

 

Contamination across cultures and experiences is clearly shown by one moment in The Autograph Man. Alex has arrived in New York, with fellow autograph men Lovelear and Dove. As they walk out of the airport, this dialogue follows:

 

‘Feels like I’ve been here before, a bit,’ said Ian, levering his eyes open at the moment a cab stopped before them, and wound down its window. ‘Familiar, like from another life or something. That’s weird, innit? Considering I…’

 

At which point, Alex reels (pardon the pun) off a list of films which have been set in New York, as does the taxi driver.

 

‘Everyone’s been here before, Dove,’ said Alex, opening the cab door.[1]

 

This is a clear illustration of the ubiquity and pervasiveness of media, causing someone who has never been to New York to recognize the city, to have that feeling of déjà vu in a place you have never stepped foot. In fact, it is common knowledge, almost trivia, for one to know New York as intimately as one does their hometown. One knows what they eat there, what kind of people live there and in which specific areas, the restaurants and the attractions. We have an idea of what New York feels like, the fast-paced metropolitan lifestyle which has been influenced by so many nations all over the world. Perhaps it is exactly that multitude of influences which make it so easy to imagine – our nation might be one of those.

 

Furthermore, on the limousine ride from the airport to their hotel, Alex reflects on how dirty the upholstery and the rest of the limousine is. How many blowjobs, thought Alex, and how many champagne corks? How did so many people come to believe that these things are to be done in limousines?[2] However, even Alex knows the answer to his thought question – movies. TV. People associate hedonism and decadence with limousines, and especially with a limousine that is taking you in to New York City, even if only because that is how limousines are portrayed in the popular media.

 

In fact, it is almost impossible to have a pure experience any more. Unless one has been living beneath a rock, it is safe to say that the media will have removed any and all mystery from most places one may visit or experiences one may wish to have. One has an idea of almost everything, enough of an idea for the experience to be tainted with expectation, anticipation and ideas. A completely new and undiluted experience is almost impossible.

 

Even Alex’s wish to find Kitty Alexander and thank her for the autograph is shadowed by the fact that his actions, desires and experiences are facsimiles of film, repetitions of gestures that have been played out many times before him and will be played out countless times in the future, all because of the influence of the media. Upon realising that he does not know exactly where Kitty lives, he formulates the following plans:

 

He would simply have to go up there and ask around, like the popular detective Philip Marlowe. If that didn’t work, he had plan B, which consisted of going to the Lower East Side, finding Kitty’s fan-club president Krauser and beating it out of him, like the popular actor Jimmy Cagney. Yeah, like Jimmy Cagney, god of all scrappers.[3]

 

Note that Alex never decides to just go to the Lower East Side and ask around – he decides to do it like the popular detective Philip Marlowe. Plan B does not just consist of finding Krauser and beating Kitty’s address out of him, but beating it out of him, like the popular actor Jimmy Cagney. This quote, if no other, serves best to demonstrate the over-arching cinematic value of gestures. In each of his plans, which might have occurred to anybody looking for a location (except the second, perhaps), his course of action has already been played out by a character in either a movie or a TV series. This theme is repeated numerous times throughout the novel, such as when Alex meets Honey for a tradeoff:

Honey brought back her chair, looking him dead straight in the eyes, like a cowboy. Alex had the sense that she had made all these gestures, in the same order, many times before. Either that, or she had seen them in a film.[4]

 

Again, the pervasiveness of the media into everyday life and the subsequent tainted experience one has is clear. Despite Alex having never met Honey before, her gestures are familiar to him – he therefore assumes that they are either well-practiced or plagiarised from a film. His belief that anything familiar to him that he can’t remember the origin of must have come from a film is indicative of the nature of the media. Several of master director Woody Allen’s films are based on the premise that people have identified so much with a character in either a TV series or a movie that they begin to blur the line between what happened to them and what happened to the character. Furthermore, this situation is not limited to the world of actual film – it has been known to happen to avid followers of TV soaps and other viewers. Perhaps  it happens more to people who are living more vicariously than actively.

 

However true this sense of déjà vu may be of real life, it seems a little obvious that it would be especially true of Alex’s life, because of his profession. Autograph men are embroiled in the media, as it is the lifeblood of their income. Whether the celebrity is a movie star, TV star, famous model or the star of an advert is irrelevant – all famous people are fair play in the land of autographicana. Therefore, Alex would be far more aware of films, and compare his life to films a lot more, than people who worked in, say, an office and only saw films for recreational purposes.

 

In The Autograph Man, there is another nod to the belief that there is contamination across gestures and meanings, namely Alex’s so-called International Gestures. Although some of his gestures are indeed International (the following, for example: ‘Ah, this is the life,’ said Lovelear emphatically, making the awkward International Gesture of luxury (hands behind head, legs extended with feet cross). ‘I mean, this is the life.’[5]), others of Alex’s so-called International Gestures are completely subjective. However, even these are taken from films, which provide the international and codified language of gestures. Gesticulations can be saturated in meaning, but one’s understanding of, and even perception of, them is wholly influenced by the types, variety and number of films you have watched.

 

In terms of Alex’s romantic entanglements, especially as regards Esther, the influence of films is clear. Alex has a deep love for Kitty Alexander, and repeatedly watches one of her films, marvelling at her beauty. However, her beauty lies in the fact that it is captured on celluloid – she will not change, age, die. Alex feels much the same way about Esther, but is consistently plagued by thoughts of her ageing. …he was tortured by the idea that she would grow old![6] He is terrified at the thought of his lover growing old, not calculating into the equation that not only is aging inevitable, and that an actress in a film is incapable of growing old, but that he will too.

 

He understood that in all likelihood this sort of thinking would lead him to die lonely, without anyone. He told himself that this was the great tragedy of his heart. The great tragedy of his heart was that it always needed to be told a story.[7]

 

He imagined his love on a screen in front of a preview audience; he saw them watching her and ticking the boxes. Yes, he wanted his love at a distance, physically close but in some other way hard to reach. The stranger’s initial impression of his love – as an African princess or the look-alike of this or that actress – appealed to him in a way that her various realities could not. He wanted to meet her for the first time, over and over. He wanted to always be at the beginning of the movie – not in the car park but in the classroom. He was in awe of her beauty and he never wanted to lose that awe. Yes, Doctor, yes. I want to be her fan.[8]

 

These two extracts reflect Alex’s ‘cinematisation’, if you will, of his lover. He places her on a pedestal in that he views her, and their relationship, as a movie. Whether that means that everything is, to him, an act or not, is impossible to tell. However, beyond his wish that she should never age is his desire to meet her for the first time, over and over. This is very reminiscent of a hundred romance film, in the characteristic scene where our two lovers meet and although they’re not aware of anything, we know that they will fall in love etc. Alex’s desires (such as the stranger’s initial impression of his love…was something that appealed to him in a way her various realities could not and he wanted to meet her for the first time, over and over) put one in mind of watching a film over and over again, much like he does with The Girl from Peking. For Alex, the beauty of a film can be so all-encompassing that the joy is in the watching, as opposed to the twists of the plot or the surprises along the way. Alex loves the idea of being in love, the process of falling in love, the manner in which love is portrayed in films. However, the reality of love is quite far away from the situations shown in romcoms.

 

One should already realise that. Alex has already made it clear to us that the stranger’s inital impression of his love…was something that appealed to him in a way her various realities could not. Alex has been straightforward from the outset – reality does not appeal to him. Even his job states categorically that Alex loves symbols, is a fan of things that are beyond market reach, that do not change. His love of one old film, obsession with a movie star whom he never imagines aging, and rejection of reality through drugs and submersion in the land of Autographicana all point to the fact that Alex is not a man who loves the real. Esther, however much he may love her, is not his lover because of her fantastic beauty, her intelligence or the chemistry that lies between them. Alex has chosen her because she enables him to imagine that he is the star of a film, the Jimmy Cagney or Humphrey Bogart to her Lauren Bacall.

 

Therefore, the whole of The Autograph Man makes it clear that Alex holds symbol above reality – he shows us this through his over identification with the world of cinema, through his ‘cinematisation’ of his lover, his categorising of the world into Jewish and Goyish and his penchant for symbol over solid fact. His actions and reactions completely lack authenticity because he is a slave to film, and the ubiquity of media images have given him a map, so to speak, which he imagines he can follow in order to achieve his Zen. All of his experiences have been tainted by the imaginary world to which he will never gain entry, and therefore Alex, and almost everyone else, has lost the ability to have a pure experience or to say or do something with a pure meaning. Gestures, words and even life itself, have all lost the ability to be new, fresh, filled with mystery, because we all already know what’s coming.

 

References

 

Smith, Z. The Autograph Man. England: Penguin Books, 2002.


[1] P. 226. Smith, 2002.

[2] P. 227. Smith, 2002.

[3] P. 230. Smith, 2002.

[4] P. 237. Smith, 2002.

[5] P. 226. Smith, 2002.

[6] P. 100. Smith, 2002.

[7] P. 100. Smith, 2002.

[8] P. 100. Smith, 2002.

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