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 and correspondence, Smith intends a 21st-century replay of Forster’s theme of male hypocrisy about sex. This is a tricky business, because sexual behaviour and attitudes toward sex, as she is well aware, have changed so much since 1910. In any case, the parallels with Howards End are more important (and perhaps also more amusing) for the writer than they are likely to be for the reader. It is hard to see how they add a significant dimension of meaning—as does, say, Fielding’s use of the Aeneid in Amelia, or Joyce’s use of the Odyssey in Ulysses. Smith’s unsubtle imitation of Forster remains puzzling, superfluous and perhaps a little precious.
The title of On Beauty is borrowed from On Beauty and Being Just, the title of Elaine Scarry’s rather mechanical effort to apply perceptual psychology to the aesthetics of fictional representation. The pertinence of Smith’s title is that Howard Belsey is an art historian dedicated to deconstructing the beauty of great paintings, chiefly Rembrandt’s, as masks of ideology and profit-seeking, even as he himself becomes caught by the lure of carnal beauty after decades of devotion to his wife (she is black and American; he is white and British), who with the years has expanded to corpulence but remains, in her fleshly abundance, beautiful after her fashion. This is an academic novel that is also a book about a conjugal disaster.
Howard Belsey is represented quite convincingly as a social and psychological type, but he also turns out to be peculiarly unappealing as a principal character. Though he seems well-meaning enough at the start, before long it becomes clear that he is an irredeemable mediocrity, intellectually and morally. At the age of 57, after some academic wanderings, he has spent ten years at Wellington College without ever publishing his promised study of Rembrandt, and hence without tenure. (Ten years tenureless and yet still holding on to a position is an unlikely institutional indulgence at an American university, but Smith goes out of her way, in this respect as in others, to emphasise the continuing muddled failures of Howard’s life.) Belsey is a perfect exemplar of academic conformism. It is scarcely surprising that he is unable to produce a book, because what intimations we get of his thinking on art are no more than the mouthing of formulas promoted by left-liberal academic fashions. His analysis of one of Rembrandt’s most celebrated paintings is depressingly familiar: “the Staalmeesters are not looking at anyone; there is no one to look at. The painting is an exercise in the depiction of economic power—in Howard’s opinion a particularly malign and oppressive depiction.”
Howard is given a counterweight in a black Trinidadian-born art historian named Monty Kipps, with whom he has had acrimonious written exchanges, and who is eventually appointed to a position at Wellington College. Monty is in all respects an uncompromising conservative—a practising Christian, a man with a fondness for three-piece suits, someone who thinks that affirmative action encourages a culture of victimhood and that pigmentation is skin-deep, without any bearing on personal identity. He is also obnoxious as a person, in a style altogether different from Howard’s. He is smug, preening, speaks “with the rhythmic smoothness of self-quotation,” as the narrator nicely observes, and seems to Howard’s daughter Zora “like a man constantly on the lookout for the camera he knew must be filming him.” One is inclined to infer that he is probably a good deal brighter than Howard.
The antinomy between Howard and Monty, though it generates some interesting moments, is something of a missed opportunity because the foreground of the narrative is dominated by Howard while Monty is for the most part left to posture in the background, never becoming a fully realised figure. A serious confrontation between the personalities and their outlooks might have thrown the contemporary academic scene that Smith means to represent into instructive focus, but it never quite happens. The one episode in which they actually clash is founded on a blatant improbability, as I shall explain.
On Beauty illustrates a general problem of the academic novel. Most academic novels are in one way or another satiric for obvious reasons: the contemporary university is, by and large, a small world populated by puny souls, a world fissured with petty politics and vehement but often trivial rivalries, insulated from the wide realm of culture and politics on which it pretends to exert influence. What is often problematic about turning all this into satiric fiction is that it amounts to flogging a dead horse. The satire becomes clichéd, a belabouring of the obvious, or it goes way over the top. The latter option is especially tempting to a novelist, since there are so many aspects of academic life that are likely to trigger impatience or fury in an imaginative writer, and so most novelists who have passed through academe have been provoked by the blight in its groves. One might recall Malamud in A New Life, or Philip Roth in Letting Go and later in The Human Stain. An especially symptomatic instance is Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, a book in which virtually everything about the novel’s college—the faculty, the students, even the institutional procedures—proves to be hypocritical and oppressive, in the end humiliating and banishing the protagonist, who is, of course, a novelist.
Smith’s version of the academic scene is not quite so vitriolic, but is animated by a plague-on-both-your-houses feeling, as one can see in the pairing of the mealy-mouthed, ineffectual progressive and the arrogant, self-admiring conservative. One may concede that there is a basis in reality for this attitude, but the academy, like other spheres of life, is more complicated than such a simple disdain allows. And much of the dialogue assigned to the faculty members and the college administrative staff at Wellington is too cartoonish in diction—Smith is not quite a master of American speech—and in substance to be credible.
The culminating improbability to which I alluded earlier is the confrontation at a faculty meeting between Monty and Howard. The conservative scholar is scheduled to give a major public lecture at the college, and because Howard, as his progressive adversary, fears that the talk may include such harmful heresies as a critique of affirmative action, he argues to the assembled faculty that Monty should be compelled to submit a draft, or at least an outline, of his paper in advance for the censorship of his colleagues. The proposal is voted down—another humiliation for the hapless Howard—but the notion that any measure of this sort would be put forth at an American college is highly improbable. Granted, there are manifestations of oblique political coercion on our campuses, much of it the work of so-called progressives, but such an attempt at the open imposition of censorship seems unlikely, and damages the narrator’s authority. And the scene unwittingly tilts the balance between Howard and Monty as equally but antithetically off-putting types, because against Howard’s heavy-handed attempt at suppressing freedom of expression, Monty appears, at least for the moment, sensible and almost dignified.
Smith’s reflections on her characters, and in some instances her visual depiction of them, are managed with more intelligence and persuasiveness than her scenes and dialogue. The role of the narrator in this novel is, in fact, one of its biggest surprises. White Teeth appealed to many readers because it seemed such a full-throttle expression of a postmodern sensibility, given to energetic improvisation, to an extravagant mélange of people and situations, and to a deliberate and delightful looseness of form. On Beauty, by contrast, is a frankly old-fashioned novel. Perhaps the idea behind it was to do a kind of ventriloquistic homage to Howards End, though in some places the book sounds more Victorian than like something written just before the first world war.
The action is mediated by an unabashedly obtrusive narrator who does not hesitate to begin chapters with sentences such as, “We must now jump nine months forward, and back across the Atlantic.” This narrator informs us, as once upon a time the narrators of novels were wont to do, how we behave in general and how society usually works. “Obviously disappointed, as we sometimes are when the things we profess to dislike don’t happen, she looked up abruptly and smiled at him.” Or, as an introduction to a party at the Belsey home: “It is an unnatural law of such parties that the person whose position on the guest list was originally the least secure is always the first to arrive.” The invention of non-existent social laws, enforced by the weight of the narrator’s rhetorical authority, is virtually Balzacian, and so is the claim of universal validity for generalisations about character and society: “Like any wife of a superficially attentive man, she was admirably self-contained, apparently without external social needs.” A distinctly 19th-century “we” of inclusion crops up with surprising frequency: “The older we get the more our kids seem to want us to walk in a very straight line with our arms pinned to our sides, our faces cast with the neutral expression of mannequins… They must find it comforting.”
Propositions about how people in general act may not be entirely true, or may not hold in a good many instances, but as the mannequin image suggests, they are often articulated in this novel with a certain energy of metaphorical imagination. Indeed, much of the liveliness of Smith’s novel is focused in the way its running commentary on the characters deploys figuration: “The pomposity of the young man seemed to Howard to be concentrated in his jaw, which he worked round and round as they walked, as if ruminating on the failures of others.” “That lively, surprising woman [just deceased] whom Howard had met a year ago in this very room was presently being piously preserved in the aspic of low voices and bland anecdote, pickled in perfection.” “The Wilcoxes owned a preppy clothes chain store, gave generously to the college, and looked like the shells of two Atlantic shrimp in evening wear.” The wit of these moments almost persuades one that the novelistic manner of an era long gone is still viable, though the certitude of the generalisations, however engagingly phrased, may at times strain credence. Early in the book, Howard’s wife, responding to his alarm over the matrimonial plans (which will quickly be aborted) of their older son, exclaims, “Oh, God, this isn’t 1910,” and the reader may be inclined sometimes to share that sentiment. This novel by this daring young writer seems insufficiently daring, even anachronistic in its ideas and its methods.
Ultimately, On Beauty is not a novel about the academic world or about racial politics, important as both are in the book. Its deeper subject is how men treat women, and about the purported differences, both moral and psychological, between men and women. Howard, a faithful husband for three decades, betrays his wife twice, first with a female colleague (a well-known poet, white, very lean, and decidedly of a certain age) and then with a 19-year-old student (black, extravagantly beautiful, and the initiator in the sexual encounter). The erotic scene with the teenager, which is both riveting and troubling, is done with great panache. Whether it is entirely credible I cannot claim to judge. Had such an episode occurred in a novel by Philip Roth, it would be dismissed as the self-indulgent fantasy of an ageing white male. But this eager young beauty seducing an over-the-hill male professor in Smith’s novel was conceived by a 29-year-old woman of colour, so perhaps one should not be sceptical.
The novel shows us men—Howard is not alone in succumbing to injudicious carnality—behaving questionably with much younger women and badly toward their wives, even as they spend their days professing political and intellectual rectitude. This story does engage the imagination for a good while because it is, after all, an understandable story about how the weakness of the flesh, whatever the pretensions of the spirit, gets people into deep trouble. As the plot evolves, however, it comes to seem more and more didactically insistent. I am not sure whether Smith had a feminist purpose in mind—she does not seem to be an ideologically driven writer in other respects—but the moral chasm between the sexes as the narrative plays out is too wide to command full credence. There is not a single male character one could call attractive.
Smith’s men are namby-pambies, hypocrites, egotists, manipulators or phonies. Of the three Belsey children, the oldest son is a flaccid convert to Christian piety, the younger son a silly would-be denizen of the ghetto ready to perpetrate any stupidity in order to please his brothers in the hood, and only the struggling daughter evinces a certain courage about appropriately asserting herself in the world. Since the perspective of the book is largely satiric, some of the minor female characters are also exposed to the light of ridicule; but in the end the only authentic bond between two characters is the one between the wives of Howard and Monty, each suffering in a different way from the small and large indignities of life with a self-absorbed and ultimately obtuse man.
The novel ends with a conjugal train-wreck that is utterly dismaying, though I suspect that it is meant to seem a moment of liberation for Howard’s wife. In the last scene, Howard appears rather like a villain in the concluding pages of a Dickens novel, rejected by his earth-mother wife, who has plenty of women’s solidarity to make up for his loss, reviled in a vulgar gesture by his three children, on the brink of being forced from his job, and about to lecture on Rembrandt’s Hendrickje Bathing, a subject he is incompetent to discuss because he does not grasp what beauty really means.
Finally, On Beauty is an odd mixture—alternately amusing, perceptive, even emotionally absorbing, with some of the narrative zest of White Teeth, and then too often schematic, insistent, or simply not quite credible. The American academic setting, which Smith knows but perhaps not well enough, and the emulation of Howards End, which is an interesting idea that does not altogether fit this fictional world, may have led her astray. As a novelist, she can marshal shrewd understanding, stylistic flair, vivid description and a lively sense of comedy. All this may yet enable her to produce great fiction, but On Beauty is far from that.
Smith’s decision to emulate Forster’s novel reminds us how much the ground of fiction has shifted since 1910. Everything in Howards End is predicated on fine gradations and distinctions between classes, and it is the writer’s intimate knowledge of the class system that enables the authoritative pronouncements of the narrator. When Margaret Schlegel meets Leonard Bast at a concert (a scene replayed by Smith), the first thing we are told about him is that “his class was near enough her own for its manners to vex her.” Much of what we learn about him later belongs to the same category of knowledge: “Leonard Bast stood at the extreme verge of gentility;” he was “one of the thousands who have lost the life of the body and failed to reach the life of the spirit”; and so forth. Contemporary society lacks this sort of clearly articulated class system. Character now is a function of something as crude as ideology or style, or as elusive as individual temperament. On Beauty certainly registers an awareness of this change, but a less authoritative, socially assured tone would better represent our world, nearly a century after Forster wrote his masterpiece.