The social novel has enjoyed a comeback among American readers in recent years. For their part, after generations of interior voyaging, novelists who want to capture the tone and the personal consequences of our troubling political and economic arrangements are suffering through a reawakening. The temptation to resort to Dickens-like caricature, bray one’s arcane knowledge of pop-culture and high-tech trivia, and display excruciatingly complex plot virtuosity is strong indeed, as is the lure of authorial sermonizing and breathless hyper-journalistic pacing.
Zadie Smith’s first two novels, White Teeth (2000) and particularly The Autograph Man (2002), were not immune to such criticism. And yet all agreed that here was a talent that one day might well match the genre’s monumental ambition. In On Beauty, the 30-year-old Jamaican-British writer achieves greater dimension and restraint, giving readers a social novel that is true both to the times and to the mysterious workings of beauty itself.
The story is set primarily on the liberal-arts campus of Wellington College and in nearby Boston. Although the book participates in the minor literary industry of academic-culture-war send-up, Smith rescues the tale from cliché via demographical reversals like making the conservative professor black and, as in her earlier work, exploring characters of hybrid national and ethnic backgrounds bound by the tensions of family love.
White British national and professionally floundering poststructuralist art-history professor Howard Belsey is horrified enough that his nerdy, alienatingly Christian mixed-race son, Jerome, has had his first (failed) love affair with the ravishing daughter of his rival, Anglophile black conservative Monty Kipps. Worse still, he learns that Kipps has won an appointment at Wellington. Adding to Howard’s misery, his wife Kiki, a former Florida black activist turned faculty wife of 30 years, has discovered that he’s had an affair. Soon into the novel, just as she’s making peace with Howard’s betrayal, the now-overweight Kiki discovers that he committed his indiscretion with a faculty colleague and family friend, the provokingly slim and WASPishly attractive poet Claire Malcolm. Meanwhile, almost by accident, she rediscovers friendship outside marriage with Kipps’s ailing wife, Carlene, who has the free spirit of a natural aristocrat. Their friendship is forged through their shared appreciation of a painting that hangs unnoticed in her home and that later becomes central to the plot, à la E.M. Forster’s Howards End.
Howard and Kiki’s marital precariousness forms the backbone of the novel, and you don’t know till the very last whether or how they’ll make it. The same is true of the many characters implicated in this marriage, notably their young-adult children: callow Jerome; louche-suburban hip-hopper Levi, who ditches his subservient retail job for Haitian street politics; intellectually ambitious, socially aggressive yet tone-deaf Zora.
Each character unfolds through encounters — often collisions — with beauty in various forms. A Rembrandt scholar, Howard doesn’t even like Rembrandt, whose work he’s reduced to jargon-laden theoretical abstractions. Yet the irresistible shock of feminine beauty in the flesh threatens to undo both him and his marriage to Kiki, whose "face" he had fallen in love with years before. Kiki repeatedly assails Howard for being too "head," in contrast with her more "practical" approach to life and love, and yet she struggles to reckon with the obdurate truth of her own large, middle-aged body. Inhabiting the beautiful human form — or not — offers opportunities for both grace and corruption, and in Smith’s handling, we are rarely innocent of the power of either.
The twinned quest for social justice and ordered private meaning helixes through these complex cross-cultural and intergenerational stories, and so, too, does the power of æsthetic form. By exploring the ways beauty in and of itself moves us to act, Smith has written a social novel that rings that much more true.
Issue Date: September 23 - 29, 2005
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