Zadie Smith is a talented young writer who may yet produce great fiction. Her third novel, "On Beauty," has its moments but its satire of the academy is laboured and its imitation of EM Forster unsubtleby Robert Alter / December 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Precocious success can often be a burden to a writer, and this appears to be the case for Zadie Smith. Her ambitious first novel, White Teeth, published when she was barely two years out of university, won wide and richly deserved acclaim from critics and readers. It bustled with energy, revealed a rare generosity of imagination and rendered the multicultural scene of contemporary London with unflagging satirical zest as well as sympathetic understanding. One readily forgave the moments—and there were more than a few of them—when the book’s profusion of florid detail began to seem a little excessive because the book as a whole was such fun to read.
Afterward Smith was evidently anxious to prove that White Teeth was no flash in the pan, and so in short order, with unfortunate results, she produced The Autograph Man. The main characters stagger through much of this novel dazed by drugs or alcohol, which is about as interesting as being seated next to a garrulous drunk at a dinner party. Smith’s idea of lining up the story with various aspects of the Kabbalah’s theosophy never really got off the ground, or rather, off the chapter headings. The immersion of the characters in a particular current of fandom and popular culture mainly conveyed an inadvertent sense that popular culture is a tawdry and tedious affair.
Now, in On Beauty, Smith has produced a novel very different from both its predecessors. It is certainly more accomplished than The Autograph Man: her reservoir of real talent is undeniable. But the new book has problems of another sort. In sharp contrast to the big urban panorama of White Teeth, Smith has chosen to set this novel within the narrow confines of the academy—a fictitious liberal arts college called Wellington, in a prosperous suburb of Boston. Still more unexpected is her decision to model the book on Howards End. Some of the major lines of the plot follow those of Forster’s novel; quite a few scenes are explicit recastings of scenes from Forster; the self-educated working-class character of Howards End, Leonard Bast, reappears here as a rap poet from the black ghetto; a walk-on role is given to a couple named Wilcox, in a wink to the Wilcoxes of Forster’s novel; and the first name of the protagonist is Howard. Even the opening sentence is virtually the same as Forster’s.
Beyond these games of nomenclature…