Friday, August 08, 2008

On Beauty, part 2


Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, when it appeared in 2000, was a remarkable debut, a literary sensation. This British wunderkind, the daughter of a white Englishman and a black mother, wrote the novel while still an undergraduate at Cambridge University, and it was published to wide acclaim. Though not perfect, the novel’s flaws were overpowered by its bravado and comic sophistication. It had a bevvy of multi-racial, international characters, witty dialogue, a Dickensian scope, and a zany, madcap conclusion which bordered on overkill but was also impressive for its sheer audacity. White Teeth was the quintessential bellowed announcement of a bold new talent in contemporary literature.

Smith’s second novel, The Autograph Man, was not as well received critically. I have not read it, so I can’t comment on it directly. From what I can glean about it, however, though it may have tried and failed on some levels, it doesn’t appear to be any less confident or ambitious than White Teeth. It must be very difficult to be hailed as a new sensation with one’s first book – you would be under enormous pressure with your second. Inasmuch as The Autograph Man seemed to tackle broad cultural subjects like the nature of celebrity and the influence of popular culture on one’s identity, I can only conclude that Smith was not cowed by high expectations. However successful that novel may or may not have been, it wasn’t timid, and seemed to demonstrate Smith’s confidence in her own abilities.

Then came On Beauty, her third novel, published in 2005. I am late to the party on this by a wide margin, but I’ve had my eye on it since it was hailed by some critics as a near-masterpiece. Sometimes it just takes me a long time to get to the books I want to read. But I am now finally reading it for the first time and I wanted to offer a few reflections on the novel. The book deserves some thought. It is hard for me to imagine another young novelist (Smith is younger than I am) who is as talented and as advanced in her understanding of craft and literature as Zadie Smith, on any side of the Atlantic, and irrespective of gender. There are a lot talented young writers in the world today, both male and female; Smith stands up against, and more than likely surpasses, any of them. I must admit that I am fairly devouring On Beauty, not only making my way through it rapidly, but doing so with relish and the pure joy that comes with reading very good fiction. I feel compelled to examine why I find the book so pleasurable.

The plot has been rehashed and condensed in so many available reviews that it doesn’t make much sense to go into it in detail. Let’s just say the novel is set in New England and in London, and concerns the intertwining destinies of two familes whose patriarchs, both academics, are arch rivals. One family is headed by Howard Belsey, a white Englishman and a liberal professor with a cynical and disappointed view of the world. The other belongs to Sir Monty Kipps, a black intellectual and a conservative Christian. They both have multiple children of various ages. The event that sets the novel in motion is that Kipps agrees to take a position in America at the same small New England college where Belsey teaches art history, and so the two families suddenly find themselves in close quarters with one another.

Smith taught for a year at Harvard while composing On Beauty and clearly has a lot of fun sending up academic life, American culture, and other easy targets such as the Creative Writing workshop. She has the intelligence to approximate the language of such environments and the cultural awareness to be able to contrast it with urban dialect, rap music, and the cynical, information-saturated outlook of college students today. Possessing both a wonderful ear and a wicked sense of humor, Smith demonstrates these to ample effect throughout the novel in exchanges of sharp and often hilarious dialogue. The result is crackling comedy, but I think it’s her concerns with deeper themes that elevate her novel above most others.

The title of the book comes from an essay by Elaine Scarry, and Smith takes on the daunting topic of beauty in a few different ways, exploring everything from body image and female psychology to fine art and specifically the study of Rembrandt. It’s also clear that Smith has compassion for all of her characters and wants to do more than just create a plethora of different voices. As she has said in interviews, she is interested in the souls of these people. She uses the relationship of these characters to the ideal of beauty, as found in both objects of art and in human beings, as a means of discovering what is true about both art and humanity.

These concerns bring the novel a certain heft that it would be lacking without them. It is like the difference between picking up a piece of gold-plated metal and a piece of solid gold. The weight of the thing is evidence of its quality. One gets a similar sensation while reading On Beauty. It may not be flawless, but it has gravity, purity, and grace. A good reader can perceive this a short distance in. But it takes a very talented writer indeed to be able to give a novel that sort of weight to begin with. And it’s doubly unusual in a writer who is still under 35 but whose words bear testimony to a surplus of insight and sophistication.

Of course, it frustrates me as a person who aspires to write novels that I am still scrapping for increased quantities of both, and that it will probably take me many more years to acquire them, if it’s even possible. But I can’t hold that against Zadie Smith, who is blessed with prodigious talent, but has also obviously put in the necessary work to take full advantage of it.

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