Wednesday Book Club: On Beauty

Wednesday, 29 April 2009 — 11:00pm | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: On Beauty (2005) by Zadie Smith.

In brief: Smith’s comedy of intellectual warfare in a New England college town dazzles with its ventriloquial feats of dialogue. Yet the novel is more insightful as a study of personal aesthetics, and how artistic principles motivate individual actions, than of American politics, which here seem oddly transplanted from a British sensibility.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on On Beauty, keep reading below.)

1.

On Beauty is the kind of novel that would be nothing without its prose. This probably comes off as an absurd tautology—of course there’s no book without the words—but I think it is a good way to put it. Here is a character-driven slice-of-life/spice-of-life comedy in the extreme: its plot, if you wish to call it that, comprises a disjointed series of unlikely coincidences that exist solely to dump the players in a pot and stir. It’s Smith’s lively narration that keeps the novel afloat, making it that uncommon literary pleasure that leaves no page without a sentence to fall in love with or giggle at, but is never pretentious and rarely boring over its distended length of 443 pages.

It’s the same trick Smith pulled in White Teeth, the joyous breakout debut that destroyed the self-esteem of budding writers everywhere when they discovered it was written by a twenty-something wunderkind. Beautiful sentences that propel you forward instead of slowing you down; light, fluffy, but smart.

Unlike White Teeth, On Beauty is not a multigenerational family saga of thunderous ambition, but a more restrained and collected Kulturkampf comedy set in Wellington College, a fictitious liberal arts university for overachievers that bears an uncanny resemblance to Harvard. Its central characters are the families Belsey and Kipps, whose professorial patriarchs take their Rembrandt very, very seriously and fight over it in public.

In one corner you have the art historian Howard Belsey, stodgy Englishman and voice of the proud left-wing establishment called the Humanities department, whose erudite denunciations of humanism, genius myths, and representational art are no help at all when it comes to keeping his dick in his pants around women who aren’t his wife. In the opposite corner is Monty Kipps, populist conservative Christian aesthete of West Indian extraction, who (unlike Howard) actually finished his book about Rembrandt, and whose proposed lecture series entitled “Taking the ‘Liberal’ Out of the Liberal Arts” offers some clue as to his agenda.

On Beauty is Howard’s book, or at the very least a book about the Belseys, which leaves Monty cast in the background as a distant ideological villain. This is not to say that Monty doesn’t get a fair hearing: while his appeal to commonsense presumptions about Great Art and his opposition to affirmative action on the grounds that it patronizes minorities add little to the bag of worn-out talking points, there is no suggestion that they are, on principle, wrong. Both men undermine themselves with an equal share of moral hypocrisies; it’s merely easier to root for Howard because we bear witness to more of his foibles.

2.

One’s mileage with this novel will vary as a function of one’s tolerance for outrageous contrivances in the plot.

We are meant to believe that Howard’s son rebels against his father by converting to Christianity, taking up practical studies like economics, and very nearly running off with Monty’s temptress daughter, which is a pleasant way to get the book started, even if the incident ends almost as soon as it has begun.

Then we are meant to believe that Monty joins the faculty of Wellington College, moves into the same neighbourhood as the Belseys, and engages in ship-to-ship combat with Howard in various publications of note while their spouses become friends. This is an interesting turn of events, though it stays behind the scenes from that point on and doesn’t go anywhere until the inevitable verbal showdown near the end.

Then we are told that their children just happen to take courses with their parents and each other’s parents; that both families wind up in London for Christmas and converge on a conveniently placed funeral; that Howard accompanies Monty’s daughter to a college formal the same day as the aforementioned verbal showdown (with no apparent conflict). This is pushing it.

Thank goodness the writing is superb. It doesn’t make any of the setups plausible, but it does make every scene fun. Nothing will stop me from wishing that Smith gave her readers a thread of continuity instead of flitting about from one incident to the next, dropping in on her characters only when they gather under the same roof in volatile combinations. But it’s a testament to her gift for building characters and letting their voices leak out all over the narration that one doesn’t much care how they survived the empty space from one predicament to the next. What matters is that they’re in the scene and perpetually ready to explode in a shower of repressed anxieties.

3.

On Beauty is a masterclass in dialogue writing. Every character has a manner of speech imprisoned by the way they think; some of them try to escape it, and none of them succeed. Howard fumbles his way through his marital difficulties in his personal comfort zone of semiotic jargon; Claire Malcolm, the university’s resident distinguished poet (and other half of Harold’s onetime conference tryst), has a head so lost in the clouds that she inflects everything with italics; Zora, Howard’s sophomore daughter, who calls upon her unhealthy enthusiasm for university policy to muscle her way into Claire’s poetry class to pad her grad school profile, speaks as if life is one big job interview.

The characters have a natural habit of trailing off when they tiptoe around uncomfortable truths, but the reader gets a chance to know them well enough to read into every ellipsis with astonishing accuracy and figure out exactly what someone is afraid to say. That’s when you know the characters in a book have become your friends: when you can peer into their souls. (No authorial spoon-feeding required.)

Many of them do it to each other, too, getting to the bottom of things by reading faces instead of having to hear the truth. Faces are important in this novel: the debate over the value of Rembrandt is the centre of gravity for the book because it is, on a greater level, a question of whether there is anything behind a face—whether it provides access to a human behind the canvas, or leads nowhere at all.

Some of the characters are in on Smith’s impersonation game. One of the book’s most memorable passages is when Victoria Kipps, Monty’s daughter, provides us with a way to parody a given arts course’s particular ideological schtick. She challenges Howard to say the words, “I like the tomato”—then explains what the game is about:

“It’s our shorthand for when we say, like, Professor Simeon’s class is ‘The tomato’s nature versus the tomato’s nurture’, and Jane Colman’s class is ‘To properly understand the tomato you must first uncover the tomato’s suppressed Herstory’—she’s such a silly bitch that woman—and Professor Kellas’s class is basically ‘There is no way of proving the existence of the tomato without making reference to the tomato itself’, and Erskine Jegede’s class is ‘The post-colonial tomato as eaten by Naipaul’. And so on. So you say, ‘What class have you got coming up?’ and the person says ‘Tomatoes 1670-1900.’ Or whatever.”

[…]

“But your class—your class is a cult classic. I love your class. Your class is all about never ever saying I like the tomato. That’s why so few people take it—I mean, no offence, it’s a compliment. They can’t handle the rigour of never saying I like the tomato. Because that’s the worst thing you could ever do in your class, right? Because the tomato’s not there to be liked. […]”

And that is the heart of the book: the problem of whether acknowledging the beauty in something is compatible with the task of intellectualizing it.

The sheer exuberance of the novel leaves Howard’s deconstructionist posture with a lot of egg on its face. Smith’s prose bubbles over with eagerness to show us what happens when her characters make cautious contact with the sublime, and as far as we can tell, there’s beauty everywhere.

4.

Not that anyone knows what to do with it. An early scene finds the Belsey family in a Mozart concert, where Kiki, Howard’s wife, doesn’t quite know what to make of the Requiem, first electing to let it consume her before retreating to the safety of the programme notes and wondering if she really gets it. It’s a majestic three pages of writing that opens with an impression of uncertainty for an indefinite, universal “you”:

Mozart’s Requiem begins with you walking towards a huge pit. The pit is on the other side of a precipice, which you cannot see over until you are right at its edge. Your death is awaiting you in that pit. You don’t know what it looks like or sounds like or smells like. You don’t know whether it will be good or bad. You just walk towards it. Your will is a clarinet and your footsteps are attended by all the violins. The closer you get to the pit, the more you begin to have the sense that what awaits you there will be terrifying.

Then it seamlessly narrows the experience to the meaning particular to Kiki as a listener:

In the pit is a great choir, like the one you joined for two months in Wellington in which you were the only black woman. This choir is the heavenly host and simultaneously the devil’s army. It is also every person who has changed you during your time on this earth: your many lovers; your family; your enemies, the nameless, faceless woman who slept with your husband; the man you thought you were going to marry; the man you did.

And then there’s Smith’s own peculiar spin on what it’s like for Kiki to drift in and out of focus and understanding:

It is surprising how dramatic the fight for your measly soul turns out to be. Also surprising are the mermaids and the apes that persist on dancing around each other and sliding down an ornate staircase during the Kyrie, which, according to the programme notes, features no such action, even in the metaphorical sense.

I call attention to this passage because it is, in my limited experience, an excellent account of what it must be like to grapple with something that you are pretty sure is Great Art, without having the toolkit to explain why that is so. Kiki’s solution is to concede that her practical, middle-class mind may not understand the Requiem, but she can fantasize all day long about telling black mothers everywhere how proud she is of raising sophisticated children who can.

And to follow this train of thought to its recursive conclusion, it doesn’t take a literary scholar integrating Zadie Smith by parts to recognize that the Mozart passage is a stunning piece of writing.

5.

The last thing I want to draw attention to in On Beauty is the political landscape of Zadie Smith’s America, which is a strange beast indeed.

Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, will be best remembered (in political histories of literature, anyway) as an optimistic paean to late-twentieth-century British multiculturalism, all too happy to report that in a diaspora a generation or two removed from the landing of the Windrush, the myth of cultural authenticity has become so meaningless that we are all safe to cast it aside. Some called it naïve, but I liked its vision.

On Beauty, published five years and two fewer World Trade Center towers after White Teeth, is a tamer, more collected book; yet there is no escaping this pervasive feeling that the New England of Wellington College is really Old England displaced. America may be the most suitable battleground for liberal academics to spar with conservative pundits, but Zadie Smith gives us the digested America of Economist headlines rather than showing us something new about the country, something we might not have observed. The treatment of racial tension is a sack of Windrush politics airlifted from London and dumped on American soil, being entirely concerned as it is with Caribbean immigration and the odd bit of urban poverty.

My complaint may here sound as spurious as the absurd claims that Barack Obama isn’t really black because he wasn’t descended from slaves, but I maintain that my argument is different in substance. For a book that apparently aspires to be about America’s culture war, On Beauty comes off as a cop-out.

Now, let me emphasize that I like how the characters are very rarely conscious of race: in the educated class, colour-blindness is a perfectly believable norm. It’s real, but at the cost of robbing the political tension of its power. White liberals like Howard and black conservatives like Monty are long past the point of being subversive or surprising characters. Levi, the youngest Belsey child and the one who escapes into the hip-hop mythology that there is something authentic about being an impoverished urbanite (and attaches himself to some Haitian activism along the way), does so out of an identity crisis over socio-economic class more than colour. Debates over values boil down to established talking points. In short: this is not a politically daring book.

There is another novel, also from the 2005 crop, that does a far better job of using art history and canonical Western culture to appraise the situation of American mixed-race children. It is by Richard Powers, and it is called The Time of Our Singing.

Let me be clear that I do not think there was any obligation on Zadie Smith to perform the same task simply because she built On Beauty around a family of mixed-race characters: in the generation that she depicts, the Zadie Smith ethos is that heredity doesn’t really matter, nor should it. It is merely a disappointment to see the issue flagged, then glossed over.

The abstract sparring over the nature and existence of Beauty Itself sees far more development, and that is what the book presents best. On Beauty isn’t perfect, but I like the tomato.

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4 rejoinders to “Wednesday Book Club: On Beauty

  1. On Beauty is the kind of novel that would be nothing without its prose.

    Quite so, and then there are Dreiser’s novels, which might well be everything if the prose was surgically removed.

    (Could you possibly change the foreground colors of your text? As it stands, your text is gray and the quotations you highlight are in dimmer gray. These 50-year-old eyes have trouble following either of them, even blown up to 180% of default size. Black type on white paper is a Good Thing.)

    Saturday, 2 May 2009 at 12:38pm

  2. Contrast tweaked as requested. Is that better?

    Saturday, 2 May 2009 at 5:22pm

  3. Yes. Thank you.

    Thursday, 25 June 2009 at 4:37pm

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