Wednesday, June 10, 2015

On Beauty

On Beauty is a 2005 novel by British author Zadie Smith. It takes its title from an essay by Elaine Scarry (On Beauty and Being Just). The story follows the lives of a mixed-race British/American family living in the United States. On Beauty addresses ethnic and cultural differences in both the USA and the UK, the nature of beauty, and the clash between liberal and conservative academic values. A short article in The Observer has described it as a "transatlantic comic saga".

The novel was shortlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize on 8 September 2005. Smith won the Orange Prize for Fiction in June 2006.

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Among the many tasks Zadie Smith sets herself in her ambitious, hugely impressive new novel is that of finding a style at once flexible enough to give voice to the multitude of different worlds it contains, and sturdy enough to keep the narrative from disintegrating into a babel of incompatible registers. Its principal family alone, the Belseys, comprises its own little compact multiverse of clashing cultures: the father a white English academic, the mother a black Floridian hospital administrator, one son a budding Jesus freak, the other a would-be rapper and street hustler, the daughter a specimen of US student culture at its most rampagingly overdriven. Still more worlds open up beyond them as their lives unravel out through the genteel Massachusetts college town to which they have been transplanted: Haitian immigrants, hip-hop poets, New England liberal intelligentsia, reactionary black conservatives ...

White Teeth had a similarly heterogenous cast, but whereas in that novel Smith kept it together by keeping it light, with a knockabout comic style (Dickens, by way of Rushdie and Martin Amis), here the intent is to live more inwardly with her characters, and the model, alluded to throughout, is EM Forster.

Forster's style, which looks simultaneously backward to the epigrammatic polish of Jane Austen and forward to the looser, more discursive amplitude we favour today, resonates strongly in the leisured cadences and playful figuration of the many beautiful descriptions and gently ironic authorial interjections that frame and connect the bright pieces of Smith's mosaic. You can hear it in everything from the stately scene-setting passages (particularly where rooms or houses are being evoked) to the most incidental moments, for example where the lovelorn elder Belsey boy joins his mother and her middle-aged friends at an outdoor festival: "Jerome, in all his gloomy Jeromeity, had joined them. The ill-pitched greetings that compassionate age sings to mysterious youth rang out; hair was almost tousled then wisely not ... "

More specifically, the plot of Forster's Howards End, ingeniously re-engineered, underpins much of the storyline of On Beauty. The unruly Belseys, like Forster's Schlegels, become embroiled with another family whose conventional household seems the stolid opposite of their own. In both cases the wives form a surprising friendship that leads to a valuable legacy being bequeathed by one woman to the other. And in both cases the family of the deceased woman conceals the legacy from her surviving friend.

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Even if she had not made it explicit in her acknowledgments, Zadie Smith's homage to EM Forster's Howards End announces itself in the opening line of her third novel: 'One may as well begin with Jerome's emails to his father.' It would be reductive to call On Beauty an updating of Forster's novel - configurations of relationships are altered, melodrama excised, new themes introduced - but the central concerns of Howards End, the conflict between two families of opposing political and moral sensibilities, issues of class, behaviour, ambition and opportunity in a society with proscribed rules and roles, are also the framework that supports Smith's exceptionally accomplished novel.

To simulate the stratified society of Forster's turn-of-the-century England, Smith has chosen an equally hidebound world, the knowingly archaic and insular landscape of an upscale, east coast American university outside Boston, not dissimilar to Harvard, where the author spent time on a visiting fellowship. Wellington College, with its petty feuds, judgments, professional and sexual jousting and self-congratulating affluence, prides itself on its liberal principles but remains almost wholly estranged from a world in which prejudice, poverty, crime, terror and fear are the forces that move those outside the academic bubble.

Smith has added an extra dimension to Forster's scrutiny of class by stirring elements of race and nationality into the mix; how far blackness determines identity is a question asked by most of her characters at one time or another. Many are also troubled by the question of the use or value of art and literature in a post-9/11 world where all established values seem to have been upended; neither the 'high' culture of the academy, nor the 'low' culture of the street escape this interrogation, while the notion of distinguishing between them is also dissected.

At the centre of the novel is the Belsey family. Howard, 57, is a world-weary, liberal academic whose work, a deconstruction of the myth of Rembrandt's genius, has never quite had the impact on the wider world that he might have wished. Married to Kiki, a warm-hearted, generously proportioned black woman from Florida, middle class in her own right but without his academic education, he is the father of three children, earnest Jerome, 20, insecure Zora, 19, and Levi, who, at 16, is rebelling against his background and will only speak in the cadences of gangsta rap.

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Smith has filled On Beauty, possibly too much so, with complicated relationships between the Kippses and Belseys. Subplots involving Howard and Monty, Jerome and Victoria, Kiki and Carlene Kipps (Monty's wife), and lastly Howard and Victoria crowd the novel and occasionally redirect attention away from the most interesting among them, particularly the blossoming friendship between the two mothers, which is the most drawing, but, unfortunately, the least fleshed out as Carlene's character is never quite brought to full light.

While On Beauty may not be a perfect novel, it is filled with so many entertaining and poignant vignettes that Smith's ability as a novelist is always clear. Her characters are alive, and their actions, with few exceptions, totally realistic. It's an accomplishment that Zadie Smith, at her young age, can get inside the head of Kiki and express her self-doubt as an aging, overweight, mother, often lost in the shadows of her overbearing intellectual husband. That at twenty-five, Smith can effectively and acutely describe the deteriorating relationship of a couple married longer than she has been alive is not to be underestimated and speaks remarkably of her range as a novelist.

It is odd, then, that the youngest characters sometimes feel the least convincing. Particularly Levi, the Besley's high-school-age son. Levi, unlike his siblings, shuns his father's academic prowess, preferring more "teenage" things like girls and rap music, and rejects his family's affluence, equating blackness with being "street," something his parents surely are not. Unfortunately Levi only comes out as a partial character in the novel, and a late interest in radical politics (sparked by his introduction to Boston's Haitian immigrant community) never feels quite believable.

While possibly a bit overcrowded with characters and subplots, On Beauty is an intelligent look at personal politics-racial, social, economic-and their effect on families. That she has chosen a wealthy family of mixed race to show these makes these politics even more complicated. Smith not only pulls it off, but does so while creating memorable characters, as real as the people next door.

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