On Zadie Smith’s ‘On Beauty’

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Okay, this is a book review/commentary/lazy threadbare attempt at analysis. Now I know book reviews aren’t something that I’ve done on this blog, but in my defence it does fit in with the depreciated literary component of this blog, present only sparingly in the short stories I posted far too many years ago and in my translation of Dazai Osamu’s An Urgent Appeal half a year ago. I had briefly considered translating another story by Dazai, Jorui (‘Womankind’), in which he talks about inciting a female lover into suicide, but my schedule was full and my interest didn’t last. Zadie Smith is an author whose writing has consistently lit up my mind, albeit only in my shallow experience of her, and now that I’ve been enough inspired by her book to write something on it, I’m trying to get it down before this fire fades too.

If you’re a properly literary type and not just a poseur like me who reads Hamlet and thinks himself the next Harold Bloom, you’ll probably know Zadie Smith. Possibly you’ve read On Beauty (2005) as well. I admit that I’m behind the times on Smith—I should be writing about Swing Time (2016) to be fashionable, or White Teeth (2000) to be chronological—but On Beauty was the one I read. I did read White Teeth, two years or so ago, and while I loved every page of its scalding academiac humour, when I gave it my enthusiastic recommendation to a good friend, my friend only displayed polite interest and never picked it up. My friend, for the record, was a properly non-literary type who made no pretensions about her disinterest in academia, which may give you, if you have not read White Teeth, some idea of what the book is like. In the case of On Beauty, the academiac humour only intensifies. You know those irritating “If you’re a 90’s kid you will get this” memes that used to parasitise your Facebook feed? On Beauty is like that but for academics. If you are one, the novel is glorious.

On Beauty is about two families living in a small town near Boston on the US East Coast, the patriarchs of which are art history professors at the same university who subscribe to rival ideologies. I’ve read that the book is based on E. M. Forster’s Howards End, and indeed one of the patriarchs is called Howard (uneducated guess: this novel is his “end”), but since I haven’t read Forster’s novel I won’t be making any comparisons here. The two wives of the family, unlike their husbands, find solidarity in each other, and in the meantime, the first son of the first family (there are three kids: one son, one daughter, and then a son) sleeps with the beautiful daughter of the second, the father of the first sleeps with his colleague even though neither were in love, the daughter of the first wants to sleep with a handsome street rapper who is invited into a class at the university despite not being a student at the university, the father of the first sleeps with the beautiful daughter of the second (her again!), the handsome street rapper (him again!) sleeps with the beautiful daughter of the second (her doubly again!), and somewhere in the midst of that ideological arguments are hurled on race, on class, on affirmative action, and on the nature of artistic genius. There’s a lot of sleeping around in this book. Readers familiar with Zadie Smith may recognise the kind of absolute belief in the power of sexual desire that was present in White Teeth: we recall that White Teeth’s protagonist Archie falls head over heels for his first wife because of she was “truly like the sun… spreading warmth and the promise of sex”. There, the focus on sexual desire was played largely for humour (or it could be an inherent component of Smith’s worldview—who knows?), but in On Beauty, symbolised by the duo of the absurdly beautiful daughter of the second family and the ridiculously handsome street rapper who go around collecting dick/pussy like so much spare change, it ties nearly into the concept of beauty that Smith is trying to problematise with her ideological rivalry between the two families’ patriarchs.

In brief: one side (Monty, the father of the second family) believes that great artworks are born from genius and that they are inherently beautiful, while the other (Howard, the father of the first family) believes that great artworks are the product of artistic traditions that have been retrospectively understood as great; there is no inherent beauty in a work of art other than what had been read into it. Monty corresponds to what I know from literary theory as a structuralist theorist who prioritises the author’s subjecthood as a creator of a text; Howard corresponds to a poststructuralist theorist who prioritises the author’s objecthood as a mere receiver and channeler of traditions (eg. the conventions of genre) that go into creating a text, and furthermore as a mere canvas for critics to discursively impose their readings and their judgement of genius on. For one the author creates art; for the other, tradition and criticism create the author. The conflict between their two ways of seeing a work of art underlies much of the drama and the internal conflicts of this novel’s characters.

For instance, to believe as Monty does that genius is inherent is to believe that there are smart people and stupid people, and that stupid people should not be given the opportunities of the smart. It is to be elitist and conservative, qualities which determine his opposition to affirmative action and his general snobbishness for anyone uneducated. Conversely, to believe as Howard does that genius is constructed is to believe that anyone can be great if given the right opportunity (=affirmative action). It is to believe that there is no beauty in art but what we read into it—to echo that axiom of Hamlet’s (feigning mad, but striking gold), that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”.

A corollary of Howard’s worldview is that he mistrusts the forces held to be fundamentally human in a person. If beauty is constructed we might as well say love is, too. As a seasoned poststructualist art critic, Howard expects to be able to reduce the mechanism of love and sexual attraction to cerebral processes, a matter of taste and immediate physical and emotional need, something that can be controlled, taken apart and replicated in a lab room, in the same way he might reduce a Rembrandt painting’s beauty into its economic circumstances of production or conformance to genre. But the novel challenges this worldview continually with the dilemma of that beautiful daughter of the second family, Victoria. Victoria drips sex. She wins his easy approval in his lectures by her subconscious voluptuousness, she sends him nudes with provocative messages begging him to let her “suck it”, she comes onto him at the wake of her mother’s funeral (!): even as he knows that he is dooming his marriage, poor Howard cannot resist. Victoria’s beauty is not something he can explain away. Its implacable attraction is what prior to this drives Howard’s son, Jerome, to fall in love and lose his virginity with her (before embarrassing himself by proposing marriage and being sent roundly away), and it is the same attraction which drives Howard’s daughter, Zora, to fall irresistibly in love with the handsome street rapper even though he cares nothing for her. Sexual attraction—the proverbial “beauty” of the title—proves to be a fundamental force.

At the same time, when Howard crosses the line with Victoria, he finds the sex a disappointing afterimage of porn. The girl’s learned so much from porn—to talk dirty, or to moan at the slightest touch and to fake orgasm from penetration—that fucking her feels no more than fucking an assemblage of porn scenes, not a real girl. If her beauty exerts an absolute, fundamental hold over Howard then it also has a constructed dimension, a fact that Victoria acknowledges when she accuses Howard at their breakup:

‘I know you think,’ she said, each word tear-inflected, making her hard to understand, ‘that you… know me. You don’t know me. This,’ she said and touched her face, her breasts, her hips, ‘that’s what you know. But you don’t know me. And you were the one who wanted this—that’s all anybody ever…’ She touched the same three places. ‘And so that’s what I…’

She wiped her eyes with the hem of her polo neck.

As a beautiful girl—as someone perceived as beautiful, received as beautiful—she is subject to the endless objectification of interpretation, an interpretation which ignores how this beauty has been emphasised (constructed) to meet the expectation of beauty that someone saw in her in the first place… So beauty, although it may be received as an absolute unexplainable force, is shown to be a positive-feedback cycle of reading beauty into something, the something responding by emphasising those elements initially seem as beautiful, and more beauty consequently being read into the thing… Smith shows that nothing is beautiful by itself, negating Monty’s worldview, and also that beauty cannot be constructed from nothing, negating Howard’s. It is a partnership between the artwork and critic that begets what later generations will experience one-dimensionally as “beautiful”.

So much for my own attempt to read something into this novel—let’s move onto comments. Smith does excellent work with the third person narrative perspective. The apparent objectivity of the narration lulls you into thinking that whatever is said must be true, but in fact the narration is tied to the subjective perspective of individual characters, giving us a depiction of reality we need to be wary about trusting. One such moment is when Howard’s children sit down to tea and are silent – the narration, tied to the perspective of the sensitive and maybe slightly homesick eldest son, understands the silence as the intimate, content kind between close friends, but an astute reader will notice the second brother glancing repeatedly at the clock until at last he makes his abrupt and laconic departure. Furnishing her characters with their individual perspectives and their individual worlds, which don’t always intersect in a recognisable objective reality, makes this story both more believable and more engaging. Smith is an expert at character creation, such that while I was reading this her characters felt like real people whose opinions I could take seriously. She creates a little compelling universe that I couldn’t get my head out of – I blew through the novel, anxious to find out what was going to happen next to these people that felt as real as my own acquaintances.

And yet… for all that it was engaging and fun and was loaded with ideological jokes and academic references and literary allusions… It seemed, just like with White Teeth, only as if Zadie Smith had ingested the contents of a liberal arts degree and reproduced it in novel form. It’s something I might recommend to someone wanting the experience of a liberal arts degree but not something I would want to wrap on a pedestal for posterity. It’s clever, witty, its characters are well made, it’s a good story, I was entertained, I should have nothing to complain about… but ultimately it lacks profundity. This book is like a evening out with some very intelligent friends. It’s amazing while it lasts but it doesn’t give the same lasting sense of Romantic sublime of a Keats poem or the grandness of a Steinbeck story, nor even the condensed emotion of a thirty one syllable tanka. It’s tons of fun but not life-changing. It’s self-contained. It’s art that’s quite happy being well-made without being inspiring.

On which note I give this five Rembrandts out of five, with the caveat that for everyone who loves the man and thinks his art the work of genius, there might also be someone out there who only thinks him a skilled craftsman excessively favoured by history. As with this book. I’m sure there’s someone out there who sees a masterpiece in this too.

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