- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 12, 2005

ON BEAUTY

By Zadie Smith

Penguin, $25.95, 446 pages

REVIEWED BY VINCENT D. BALITAS

With her third novel in five years, 29-year-old Zadie Smith has secured her position as one of the most important new novelists to appear in several years. “White Teeth” (2000) put the literary world on notice that her voice demanded attention, and its quality and accessibility garnered awards, critical praise, and a large readership.

Her second novel, “The Autograph Man” (2002), less expansive and more compact than her first, was greeted with mixed reviews. Some readers, perhaps expecting a repeat of the free-flowing, wide-ranging “White Teeth,” were disappointed by its structural tightness, its limited focus. A blockbuster it wasn’t, but the strength of Ms. Smith’s writing, her command of her subject, and her thorough grounding in the art of fiction were obvious. “The Autograph Man” is a solid second book, not a sophomore slump.

In “On Beauty,” Ms. Smith improves upon her earlier novels. Once again, we meet characters of mixed-race who must deal with their “otherness” by adopting strategies to exist in a multicultural world. Unlike her previous novels, which were set in a London she knows intimately, her latest takes place primarily in Wellington, Mass., where most of her characters operate within and against the confines of the elite local college. Two dysfunctional families — are there any other kind? — occupy center stage, although a host of interesting minor figures enliven the novel.

The central family, the Belseys, consists of Howard, a white Englishman who is an expert on Rembrandt, even though he hates representational art and seeks to deconstruct it into politically correct contexts; his wife Kiki, a 250-pound black woman; and their three children: Jerome, who rebels against his father’s liberalism; Zora, who wants to become a part of the establishment her father represents; and, Levi, who want to be “street” even though his ‘hood’ is a far cry from what his bros daily face.

The other family is headed by Sir Montague Kipps, a neoconservative black scholar who rails against affirmative action and wants to take “the ‘liberal’ out of the Liberal Arts.” Kipps, like his enemy Howard, is a specialist on Rembrandt, and his book on the artist was not only published, unlike Howard’s, but also acclaimed. His wife, Carlene, is a frail, enigmatic woman who establishes a bond with Kiki, and his sexy daughter, Victoria, anything but Victorian, has relationships with several different characters.

It must be said that Ms. Smith is not a master of plot. She is, in the very best sense, a novelist of ideas who uses plot lines to move the reader along. This often results in some contrived scenes, especially as the novel approaches its conclusion and the author rushes to tie up loose ends. This is not to say the novel is plotless, but that the plots are secondary to the ideas she wants us to consider.

Not only is “On Beauty” (the title echoes a philosophical treatise) a novel of ideas, it is also a comic novel full of satire and farce. Several episodes are devilishly funny, and satiric twists support Ms. Smith’s serious consideration of inter- and intra-racial tensions and cultural differences. For example, she compares and contrasts the struggles of poor Haitian refugees who sell drugs and pirated DVDs on street corners, or who work for pathetically low wages serving privileged faculty members, with the Belsey children. There is one minor though important character, Carl Thomas, an uneducated but very talented hip-hop composer and performer, who experiences the difficulty of crossing from the streets to the hallowed halls of Wellington College (where all is not well) when he is hired as a music archivist. He quickly recognizes the hypocrisy and phoniness of an academic life in which race and class are more divisive than on the streets.

While spending time as a Radcliffe fellow at Harvard, Ms. Smith was exposed to the wars fought by pompous professors protecting their ideological turfs. “On Beauty” gives us a withering look at how absurd the cultural wars are, no matter waged by the right or the left. A good example of the latter is Howard’s approach to Rembrandt. Thinking about the artist’s “The Sampling Officials of the Drapers’ Guild,” Howard dismisses how the painting has been seen by humanists: “Iconoclastic Howard rejects all these fatuous assumptions.” They are “Nonsense and sentimental … an anachronistic, photographic fallacy … so much pseudo-historical storytelling, disturbingly religious in tone. Howard believes that “All we really see there are six rich men sitting for their portrait, expecting — DEMANDING — to be collectively portrayed as wealthy, successful and morally sound. Rembrandt — paid well for his services — has merely obliged them.”

To Howard, the painting “is an exercise in the depiction of economic power.” No wonder his book goes unfinished. Who would want to read it? Monty Kipps, on the other hand, pays tribute to the power of art to stir human imagination, even though he feels that he alone has the key to understanding art, and only he knows how far we can go. To the public Kipps, everything is for the glory of God; that is, his version of God. Howard and Monty are just sides of the same coin: Both are hypocrites who betray their marriages; both fail as fathers, though Howard is more genuine in his feelings; and both are narrow-minded lackeys of ideologies.

“On Beauty” has its faults, though it is a better novel than most published this year. Following E. M. Forster, her acknowledged influence — readers familiar with his wonderful novel “Howard’s End” will recognize much in “On Beauty,” including their opening sentences — Zadie Smith connects the world she knows and imagines with readers who will close her superb novel knowing more about themselves, and about how to live in a world that is stranger than fiction.

Vincent D. Balitas is a poet, teacher and critic in Pottsville, Pa.

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