Facility is the most dubious of gifts. On Beauty is Zadie Smith’s third novel in the past five years (she’s still only 30), and it boosts her total page count above 1,200. Hers is clearly a mind that teems with characters, plots, situations, ideas. What she seems to lack, however, is a sense of restraint–or, more to the point, a sense of form. In the acknowledgments, she thanks her editors, “without whom this book would be longer and worse.” The phrase suggests horrors. Given how long and rambling and thematically incoherent the novel is in its final form, one can only imagine what the manuscript must have looked like.
The problem may be fame as much as facility. It can’t be easy to rein in a writer as successful as Smith, and with the level of acclaim she’s achieved, it can’t be easy to curb oneself, either. Her debut novel, White Teeth, was received with a frenzy of adulation: Showered with awards and translated into more than twenty languages, it vaulted its author into the forefront of young British novelists. Smith’s personal story didn’t hurt: The 24-year-old daughter of an English father and Jamaican mother, she’d signed the book deal while still at Cambridge. Her looks didn’t hurt, either: Smith takes a great publicity shot. In fact, her ascent was part of the late-’90s fad for beautiful young women novelists with Commonwealth roots (itself a subset of the post-cold war globalization frenzy). Smith made a third with Arundhati Roy, whose God of Small Things won the Booker Prize in 1997, and Jhumpa Lahiri, whose Interpreter of Maladies, published in 1999, won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.
Did these works live up to their billing? Roy’s certainly did. The God of Small Things is an undoubted masterpiece, the finest debut novel in the language since Thomas Pynchon’s V. in 1963. Unfortunately, at least for literature, Roy has turned to political activism and may never write a novel again. Interpreter of Maladies is a more difficult case. Its nine stories exhibit a high degree of competence, but it’s the kind of competence that makes you want to call for the abolition of writing programs (not to mention the Pulitzer Prize for fiction). The pieces in Interpreter of Maladies are crafted–no, machine-tooled–to within a millimeter of their tiny, calculating lives; their writing-handbook devices–the inciting event, the governing symbol, the wry turn, the final epiphany–arrive one after another, exactly on time, with the subtlety of a pit bull and the spontaneity of a digital clock. Lahiri has since published The Namesake, a dull, studied, pallid novel that says remarkably little about the immigrant experience while elaborately fetishizing the consumption patterns of the liberal upper-middle class.
And White Teeth? The novel is certainly impressive, especially for a young, first-time author, but not for the obvious reasons. The hypercaffeinated tone, which is supposed to come across as exuberant and sassy, is slick and glib and ultimately exhausting, a salesman’s relentless enthusiasm. The sprawling multifamily plot, while admirable for its ambition, is also a gigantic mess, to which the novel’s many divisions and subdivisions (each with its catchy little title) give only the illusion of coherence. The postcolonial thematics–history, memory, identity, hybridity–which could have seemed fresh only to someone who’d been living in a cave for twenty years, are served up with the baldness of an undergraduate essay. And all of this, along with the novel’s postmodern coin tricks, is so obviously a Rushdie rip-off it’s excruciating. But White Teeth exhibits two great strengths, neither of them the kind one expects from so young a writer: the acuteness of its social satire and the brilliance with which it inhabits perspectives utterly different from its author’s. Smith gives us aging Indian waiters, bookish teenagers, high-handed liberal moms and a dozen or two others, all with a wicked ear for dialogue and a gimlet eye for the dodges and poses of the social comedy. This was not your typical first novel. White Teeth wasn’t a great work, as so many claimed, but it was a work of great promise.
In the unjustly maligned Autograph Man, her sophomore effort, Smith began to fulfill that promise. By narrowing her scope, she not only created a more thematically coherent and architecturally streamlined work but also got closer to her material. Her characters are more deeply felt, more intimately known, than in White Teeth, and so seem more autonomous and unpredictable, less an emanation of their creator’s ideas–and this without Smith’s having forsworn her satiric edge or the comic sparks she’s so deft at striking off it. The earlier novel’s arm-waving self-consciousness has moderated into a bracing wit and snap that’s akin to Martin Amis’s, but not so much as to seem derivative. And Smith’s uncanny ability to intuit her way into minds radically different from her own is even more startlingly on display. The novel’s protagonist is a young Jewish man, and Smith writes from inside his perspective so convincingly–including, ironically, his familiar Jewish obsession with dividing everything in the world into “Jewish” and “goyish”–that she seems to have been inhabiting it her entire life. Whatever value Smith may be thought to have as a poster girl for multiculturalism, her work is a stunning refutation of all attempts to partition culture or consciousness along any such lines: male and female; gay and straight; black, brown, yellow and white (or Christian and Muslim, for that matter, the Allies and Axis of the cultural right). The empire of the spirit brooks no Balkanization.
It’s all the more disappointing, then, that On Beauty is so feeble. Instead of building on the strengths of The Autograph Man, Smith has fallen back into the weaknesses of White Teeth, but without recovering its particular strengths. The satirical eye is still there–Smith is unfailingly great at rendering the texture of social and especially family life, its moment-by-moment play of habit and hypocrisy, self-dramatization and self-pity–though without generating the same humor as before. The narrative voice is also flatter, less exuberant and inventive. And while On Beauty is as long as White Teeth, it has neither the earlier novel’s scope nor its ambition. White Teeth was an attempt to bite off the whole of contemporary English society, or at least a healthy chunk of it, by telling the stories of three interlinked families. On Beauty tells of only one family, their story stands for nothing beyond itself, and the novel goes on as long as it does out of nothing more than an aimless search for its own stopping point.
The Belseys are a mixed-raced family living in Wellington, a fictional college town near Boston. Howard is an English academic with working-class roots, Kiki an African-American with roots in Florida. He’s coping with his inability to finish a long-delayed monograph on Rembrandt; she’s coping with the extra hundred or so pounds she’s put on in the last few years. Their children–Jerome, nearing graduation from Brown; Zora, just starting at Wellington; and Levi, still immured in prep school–are trying out various flavors of adolescent rebellion. The novel follows them around each in turn, picking up various characters and plot lines–Choo, a Haitian immigrant whom Levi gloms onto; Carl, a young rapper from Roxbury whom Zora gets a crush on; Monty Kipps, a right-wing West Indian scholar and Howard’s archrival, who comes to town as a visiting professor–plays with them for a while, and then drops them. Possibilities hinted at remain undeveloped, confrontations elaborately prepared for pass by undramatized. We get a raft of familiar narrative gambits–infidelity, academic politics, fish out of water–but no center, nothing that holds the novel together except the fact that its main characters belong to the same family.
As the foregoing description suggests, Smith hasn’t cast her imagination as widely as usual. Mixed-race families and West Indians are very close to home for her. As for Bostonian academics, she spent some time at Harvard after finishing The Autograph Man. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but it has the paradoxical effect of making her figures less real. It seems in retrospect that Smith came to know her characters in The Autograph Man so intimately precisely because she had to work so hard to know them at all. Here, the more time we spend with Howard and the rest, the less they seem like people with real emotional lives and a genuine capacity to take their creator by surprise, the more like mere types: the pretentious university brat (Zora), the self-hating middle-class black kid (Levi), the right-wing hypocrite (Monty). Even Howard, the central figure, ends up as little more than a straw man, the midget academic who realizes he’s wrong about everything. For this is, alas, a campus novel–yes, another one–and it hits the same clichés as all the rest: sex with students, sex with colleagues, petty jealousy, bureaucratic infighting, political correctness. Smith might at least have bothered to get the basics right: Undergraduates don’t write dissertations, people don’t come up for tenure after decades as professors, especially not if they already have named chairs, and no one who’s still tenureless at 57 is going to get hired by Columbia, or anyplace else.
On Beauty derives its name, as well as the name of its final chapter, from Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just. Any further connection between the two texts remains obscure, beyond the very general and intermittent interest the novel shows in its titular subject. In fact, as sloppy as its plot is (and one would have thought that the least a novel called On Beauty could have done was try to be beautiful), its thematic structure is even more of a mess. Or to put it simply, this is a book that seems to have no idea what it wants to be about: Beauty? Religion? Family dynamics? Racial identity? Political ideology? By trying to deal with all of these things, Smith ends up dealing with none of them.
She also doesn’t help her cause by inviting comparison to E.M. Forster. On Beauty‘s opening scenes replay, even parody, the opening scenes of Howards End (“One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father,” etc.). The rivalry between “Kipps and Belsey” (the title of the first chapter) is offered as an updated version of the conflict between Schlegel and Wilcox, with Jerome in the Helen role, Kiki as Margaret, Monty’s wife as Mrs. Wilcox and Howard (Howard!) as Aunt Juley. But once this initial ploy runs its course, Smith more or less loses interest in everything the earlier novel has to say. Kiki and Mrs. Kipps do eventually re-enact the relationship between Margaret and the dying Mrs. Wilcox (with a valuable painting standing in for Howards End itself), and Monty remains Howard’s antagonist, but the point and power of Forster’s oppositions and crossings are utterly lost. Schlegel and Wilcox embody two antithetical approaches to life–liberalism versus the business ethos–and their encounter drives the novel. Helen, initially attracted to the Wilcoxes’ energy and decision, is propelled by self-righteous fury into a disastrous relationship with Leonard Bast, a young clerk, while Margaret, in finally marrying her friend’s widower, comes to intuit that “Schlegel” and “Wilcox” must balance each other if a fully authentic relationship to one’s society is to be achieved. Forster, the great liberal, is challenging liberalism at its core, and nothing less than the future of England is at stake.
But Smith fritters all this away. Jerome, having served his function, all but drops out of the novel, while Leonard is only faintly echoed in Carl, the Roxbury rapper. Where the passing of the estate to Margaret signifies, in Lionel Trilling’s phrase, “who shall inherit England,” the passing of the painting to Kiki signifies, well, nothing. Most important, Kipps and Belsey never achieve a synthesis the way Schlegel and Wilcox do–and if they had, it wouldn’t have meant anything anyway. Howard may be a leftist postmodernist and Monty a religious conservative, but these are merely positions they espouse, not large social principles they embody. In fact, as professors, they occupy the exact same position within society–embody, willy-nilly, the same values–and their clash amounts to an academic pissing match. Nothing more than the future of Howard is at stake. Smith avows in her acknowledgments that “all my fiction is indebted” to Forster. Her word for what she does to him here is hommage. A better one might be dommage.