Zadie Smith, On Beauty
Okay, I’ll be honest: this was profoundly not my sort of thing. And yet I kept reading it anyway, which is a testament to Smith’s skills as a writer, I think. Because I can assure you that it’s certainly not a testament to my high threshold for boredom, since I have roughly the attention span of a gnat. An immature gnat.
On Beauty follows the Belsey family and their interactions with the Kipps, a family on the opposite end of the political spectrum: the Belseys are liberal, and the Kipps are most emphatically not. The book begins with the eldest Belsey child, Jerome, sticking it to his liberal atheist parents by rooming with the Kipps family and throwing around his Christianity like it’s going out of style. He further irritates his mom and dad by announcing his intention to marry Victoria Kipps-knowing full well that his father, Howard, and her father, Sir Monty, are sworn enemies (although frankly, Howard apparently has a lot of sworn enemies).
At the end of the day, though, this book is not about the dynastic clash between two families. The Kipps play important roles in the Belsey family drama, but they are more…props than anything else. We get perhaps one or two scenes where the Kipps interact only with each other and wherein their motivations are revealed to the reader; elsewhere we-like the Belseys-just kind of have to guess. This novel, then, is primarily about the Belsey family and its internal tensions (which are many and myriad). Howard Belsey is a self-centered, philandering academic. Kiki, his wife, is watching the life she created for herself slowly crumble away to nothing-all because she made the mistake of building it on the very shaky foundation that is her relationship with her husband. Jerome doesn’t get too much face-time after the first few chapters-he’s away at college, after all-but his younger sister Zora (a dumpy, overly-intense college sophomore) plays a vital role. Levi, the youngest child, is searching for some sort of “authentic” life: biracial in a largely white college town (Kiki is black; Howard is white), he isn’t at all scholarly and therefore can’t take shelter in academia the way his older siblings have. He spends a lot of his time searching for “authentic blackness,” convinced that the life he’s leading isn’t it.
The action in On Beauty revolves around the squabbles, the petty triumphs and the larger tragedies of the Belseys, but the novel is really about perception. As Smith flits from Howard’s to Kiki’s to Levi’s to Zora’s viewpoints (and so on and so forth), the radical and minor shifts in what is “true” are astonishing to behold. The two easiest places to see this are the portions of the book dealing with issues of race and class. Smith does a wonderful job of showing many different perspectives on race and what it means to different individuals. Zora and Jerome Belsey don’t really seem to think about it very often, but the issue is front and center for Levi, who gets stared at by his white neighbors and rejected by other young black men. Howard Belsey, for all his liberal views, isn’t willing to acknowledge that his children are going to experience life very differently than he did simply because they’re not white. In fact, when his children or his wife bring up the fact that it’s hard to live in an overwhelming sea of whiteness, he insists he doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Given his obstinate cluelessness, the fact that he spends a good deal of his time at board meetings arguing for affirmative action is just…kind of hilarious, frankly. The perception shifts about class are very interesting as well: Kiki is very aware of the fact that if not for a bequest that enabled her family members to get educations and therefore move into the middle class, she would never have the life she now leads. Howard is from a British working class family, and while he feels affection for his “humble roots,” he’s not willing to actually spend time with his racist old dad. Levi wants to bond with the Haitian men he meets on the streets of Boston, but-as they make clear to him-beyond skin tone and the hostility of white people, what do they really have in common with this middle class, North American boy who speaks only English?
Ultimately, I didn’t particularly care for this novel: Smith is so invested in presenting her characters with all their negative traits exposed that almost all of them quickly became completely unappealing, and the book wound up being seriously depressing. It’s not that the characters were unsympathetic: Howard Belsey is a bumbling dumbfuck, and yet I still felt for the guy and wanted him to straighten himself out, so it’s not that he or anyone else was completely unlikeable. It’s just that Smith always takes care to point out the least attractive qualities of any of her characters; the fact that Zora’s body is apparently lumpy and that her taste in clothes is unfortunate, for example, comes up several times. I understand why Smith did it-this is, after all, a novel about perceptions, about seeing things from many different angles and from many different vantage points, and not everyone looks at you and thinks that you’re gorgeous and svelte when you’re actually short and have chubby legs. I get it, but I can’t say I enjoyed it.
This is one of those cases where I have to pretend to be mature and admit that something is a good work of art, just not to my taste. Well, then. On Beauty is a good novel, but it was not my cup of tea. Maybe it will be yours.
Recommended for: People who can stand watching characters fuck up colossally in the most mundane but excruciatingly embarrassing ways.