On Beauty by Zadie Smith
I remember emailing my Canadian friend (and erstwhile editor and fellow reader) to tell her I thought Zadie Smith a beautiful genius. I was in the middle of her ‘White Teeth’ at the time. I’ve just finished reading her next book, ‘On Beauty,’ which, according to its author, is an homage to E.M Forster, whose book, ‘A Room with a View,’ once made her cry. This was an added bonus for me since he happens to be one of my favorite authors as well.
On Beauty is very different from White Teeth. Re-reading the former book led me to realize just how well-planned and structured it is, told in a linear fashion; as opposed to White Teeth, which defied time and history and jumped back and forth from the present to the past. At first reading, On Beauty comes across as being spontaneous and for this reason generates many surprises.
The novel tells the tale of two families—the Kipps and the Besleys--that are each fathered by a distinguished professor. Like Smith herself, they originally hail from England; but eventually both families find themselves at a university on the outskirts of Boston, at a fictitious place called Wellington, with its university that is nearly but not quite Ivy League. The two professors are diametrically opposed in their politics and views on culture; one could indeed call them mortal enemies. Their main argument is over one of Rembrandt’s paintings. Montague Kipps is a traditionalist conservative who keeps his family entirely black (to the point that his son Michael spends a great deal of time in finding a suitable, black Christian wife for himself), while Howard Besley is white and married to a black woman named Kiki. Their children are of course, mixed-race.
Smith is a born novelist. She tells a good story that at the same time manages to entertain and illuminate. Because she herself is black she has a lot to say on subject of racism. And since I am Mexican/Canadian and went to a predominantly white university in Canada, I am also interested in racism. But while my experience of racism was mostly theoretical and second-hand (because I’ve either been blessed or cursed with the ability to pass); Smith’s is more concrete and visceral. She manages to convey her own feelings and a reaction to racism in a way that makes the reader feels as if she herself is victimized by racism. (And I use the ‘she’ ironically here, it’s a pro-feminist trick I acquired at university, as well as one of the many things Monty Kipps would call a liberal self-delusion).
Smith is a master of understatement. The way she lets us know that Kiki Besley has an ample bosom is to describe the woman at a fair deliberating over whether or not to buy a pair of sliver earrings from an African vendor. While the vendor holds up a mirror for her to see how the earrings look on her, she tells him, “Excuse me, brother—a few inches higher than that.”
After she purchases an ankle bracelet instead, she runs into a colleague of her husband’s, a poetry professor named Claire, a petite white woman and therefore her opposite. Kiki on this day is wearing a very bright ensemble, which causes Claire to declare, “Kiki, you’re setting [in the way of the sun].”
Kiki replies, ‘“Honey,” [moving her head from side to side in a manner she knew white people enjoyed] “I’ve done set already.”’
On Beauty is populated by a diverse (culturally, economically, and racially) cast of characters, which are linked more than superficially by circumstance. At Wellington College there are some professors who feel obliged to accept students without the appropriate qualifications into their classes out of what Monty Kipps would call ‘liberal guilt.’ Thus Smith is able to contrast the university milieu with the milieu of the ‘average Joe.’ This contrast provides her novel with its most comical moments, as well as its most political.
Near the end of the novel several eagerly awaited confrontations take place, and the fact that Smith would write these scenes is in obvious deference to her readers. They constitute the gift of a voyeurism that’s part and parcel of contemporary entertainment. That is to say, they’re not strictly necessary for the novel and the course that it takes, but something to mark Smith as ‘down with her readers.’ I was surprised when I realized that On Beauty made the New York Times’ Bestseller list. I knew that she’d won several awards for her writing already, but I had no idea that she was now, more or less, a celebrity (check her out on Youtube). She is a writer of substance who manages both to educate and entertain. And if she’s managed to capture the attention of a sizeable American audience, it can only be a good thing.