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.