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The still confoundingly young novelist Zadie Smith is talented, famous, and—if the publicity stills are any indication—very beautiful. As a 30-year-old with nothing much left to prove, Smith has permitted herself a final luxury, of being ambivalent about her own good fortune. She has complained to interviewers about all the attention that accompanied White Teeth, her first novel and a raging succ ès fou, and in 2003 went one extraordinary step further and indicated that all the hoopla had been, by the standards of genuine literary distinction, undeserved. “I don’t have the physical and mental will to be a great [novelist], which is a shame,” she told the Boston Phoenix. “I know what I’m not going to be now. There’s a sadness connected with that, and then there’s also a sense of, what am I going to do?” Cue strings, woe is her: Smith has come out with her third novel, and it has already been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. (Would that eminence stalked us all so pitilessly.) Idle chatter about sadness and greatness might seem to mark Smith as a coy diva, but she does appear committed to an older ideal, by which you tune out the cozening of the Event Fiction machine, get back to your desk, and do Keatsian battle for posterity’s reward. Taking her at her word, I’m responding with something that’s less a book review than an open letter on her behalf. Dear Booker Committee: I wholeheartedly recommend that you deprive Zadie Smith’s new novel, On Beauty, of your esteemed award. I recommend this not because Smith isn’t richly, almost absurdly, talented—which she is—and not because On Beauty isn’t a good book, because it is. I offer my recommendation because Smith, being so young, is too content to write well only in auroral bursts; too ready to concede a character to stereotype; and, in the presence of serious ideas, too quick to be woolly-headed and imprecise. Fair enough, these are hallmarks of the not-great. But Smith has picked an odd way to settle into her not-greatness, as On Beauty is, from its opening sentence on, a contemporary reworking of E.M. Forster’s Howards End. (It is also a racial comedy of manners and a fairly straightforward university procedural, all rolled into one.) Virginia Woolf rightly saw Howards End as Forster’s masterpiece and rightly also understood that Forster still couldn’t fully shake his own worst tendency, which was to repeatedly tap his reader on the shoulder. Forster’s problem was this: “How to connect the actual thing,” as Woolf wrote in “The Novels of E.M. Forster,” “with the meaning of the thing and to carry the reader’s mind across the chasm which divides the two without spilling a single drop of its belief.”In Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, here is the actual thing: a marriage, between Kiki Simmonds and Howard Belsey. Kiki is an American black woman who has become, over time, a walking Ansel Adams—all mountainous body, with an ancient, beautiful face. For 30 years, she has been married to Howard Belsey, a white Englishman and an itinerant academic. Here Smith is carving intricately. Where Forster had been able to assign the Schlegels, the Wilcoxes, and the Basts a definite and perspicuous position within the social hierarchy of Edwardian England, Smith understands that class functions far more subtly, if no less insidiously, in modern America. And so her Kiki works as a hospital administrator, a low-status but still white-collar job; her Howard is a humanities professor unable to secure tenure, even at the age of 57, hooked on at a decent college in the Boston area, a kind of fictional Wellesley. Howard’s professional life lends him and Kiki the trappings of respectability—Ivy-ish surroundings, prestige friends, well-schooled children. Kiki, meanwhile, has given them something more critical: a house. Surveying photographs on her wall, Kiki notices:
After the children come four generations of the Simmondses’ maternal line. These are placed in triumphant, deliberate sequence: Kiki’s great-great-grandmother, a house-slave; great-grandmother, a maid; and then her grandmother, a nurse. It was nurse Lilly who inherited this whole house from a benevolent white doctor with whom she had worked closely for twenty years, back in Florida. An inheritance on this scale changes everything for a poor family in America; it makes them middle class.
So far, so very good. The actual thing: a man, a woman, a house. The meaning of the thing: love, regret, status insecurity. And not a drop of belief has spilled from the reader’s mind. Here the book takes on larger ambitions. For, as it turns out, Howard is a kind of genial monster, a man at once too precious and awkward to fully accommodate himself to modern life—he can’t negotiate a cell phone or a microwave—and yet brutally unsentimental, thanks to what he believes is his prow-forward positioning on the academic vanguard. He is, in short, an anti-aesthete, someone who despises Mozart and representational painting, and who stands before a crowd of credulous undergraduates spouting Foucauldian bromides 10 years out of date. Smith nails him perfectly: “Seventeen years earlier, when Lennon died, Kiki had dragged Howard down Central Park and wept while the crowd sang ‘All You Need Is Love’ and Howard ranted bitterly about Milgram and mass psychosis.” So far, still pretty good: Noam Chomsky on the TV, a kid named after Primo Levi, willfully inhuman art on the walls. This is the modern drawing room, the open-plan kitchen of the shabby-genteel academic.
Here the reader’s mind may begin to hesitate and tip, spilling drops of precious belief. The Belsey’s oldest son, Jerome, is an apostate, which in the Belsey family means he is a believer: a Christian. Having accepted a fellowship in England, he lives for a while with the Kipps family, headed by Monty Kipps, a Trinidadian academic-pundit who has turned himself into a blimpish English Tory. Jerome sleeps with Kipps’ daughter, and, because he is naive and fails to understand that he has been seduced for her sport, reports back to his parents that he will be getting married. Chaos ensues, then settles, then reignites when the Kipps family relocates to the Belsey’s suburb upon Monty’s appointment as a visiting scholar at Howard’s university. Here belief has sprung a leak: Both Howard and Monty are writing books on Rembrandt. To make matters worse, Smith portrays all academics as sniffy rhetors, as stiff-backed and weirdly sprung as Monty Kipps’ Edwardian furniture. “Even given the extreme poverty of the arguments offered, the whole would of course be a great deal more compelling … ” begins a blah blah letter-to-the-editor Kipps writes, demolishing Belsey.
Now, the surprising thing about humanities professors is how smart the smart ones are, and how not smart the not-smart ones are. The not-smart ones in On Beauty are fun, as Smith has an ear for club-witted faculty banter. But Smith’s smart ones aren’t, well, smart enough. Kipps, supposedly the eminent black iconoclast reactionary of his generation, palms off this can of yesterday’s wisdom on Kiki: “Liberals never believe that conservatives are motivated by moral convictions as profoundly held as those you liberals profess yourselves to hold. You choose to believe that conservatives are motivated by a deep self-hatred, by some form of … psychological flaw.” Uh, OK—expand, dear professor? “Monty’s Rembrandt book was, in Howard’s opinion, retrogressive, perverse, infuriatingly essentialist … ” Well, he would, wouldn’t he? Claire Malcolm, the grim pseudo-eminence known as the university poet, tells an administrator, “My class rewards talent. I’m not teaching molecular biology, Jack. I’m trying to refine and polish … a sensibility.” The meaning of the thing has started to overwhelm the thing itself.
But this was unnecessary, and on two counts. The first is simply that the question animating the novel—what happens to a university, or a soul, when it abjures aesthetic pleasure?—is real, and painful, and still painfully unresolved. Dusk, vespers, and the first bite of sweater weather in the air—a campus novel is one place to ask whether one can indulge all the reveries of academia without also succumbing to a nostalgia for an ancient, class-bound hierarchy. But Howard is passive and humorless, tripping his way into and out of two damaging affairs. At the twilight of a career that has hardly begun, he seems to hold no idea passionately—that is to say, dialectically, and in the face of a passionate doubt. What if Smith had portrayed him clinging to his rhetoric of disenchantment as if it were a religion? What if he believed, passionately, that social justice were not possible in a world that fetishized aesthetic beauty? That disinterested modes of appreciation actually mask highly interested habits of social disesteem? (Howard’s father, after all, was a butcher.) And better yet, what if he then harbored a skepticism religious in its depth and sincerity, in his darkest moments suspecting that a Mozart sonata or a “Mont Blanc” could be uniquely ennobling?
The second reason On Beauty might have rescued itself from its own tendency to topical banality is simply this: It is written by an exquisite writer, who has mistaken her admirable pooh-poohing of a lot of foolish publicity for a free pass to get by as an overcelebrated mediocrity. Therefore, Dear Committee, I plead with you to assist in removing the cameras and quote-mongers from Zadie Smith’s life and help prevent her from blowing up into an even larger global literary darling, prone to even more gratuitous Hamlet-like maunderings, and let the woman who could write the following develop into her appointed greatness:
“Always off somewhere, yes,” said Howard genially, but it did not seem to him he traveled so very much, though when he did it was more and further than he wished. He thought of his own father again—compared to him, Howard was Phileas Fogg. * Travel had seemed the key to the kingdom, back then. One dreamed of a life that would enable travel. Howard looked through his window at a lamp-post buried to its waist in snow supporting two chained-up, frozen bikes, identifiable only by the tips of their handlebars. He imagined waking up this morning and digging his bike out of the snow and riding to a proper job, the kind Belseys had had for generations, and found he couldn’t imagine it. This interested Howard, for a moment: the idea that he could no longer gauge the luxuries of his own life.
Correction, Sept. 15: The name Phileas Fogg—the principal character in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, to whom Zadie Smith alludes in the quoted passage—was mispelled in the original version of this article. ( Return to the original sentence.)