If one is about to plagiarise a great twentieth century novel under the cover of homage “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father.” Then, having fumbled a number of stolen plot points and replayed them under ridiculous circumstances, one might as well piggy-back all the way home at said novelist’s creative expense. Thus Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, a monstrous and malformed parroting of E.M. Forster’s Howards End.
Oh On Beauty, oh Zadie: how did you disappoint me?
Let me count the ways.
I truly enjoyed White Teeth last year, even though I came to it decidedly late given the hype and, in the end, only at the behest of a contemporary fiction class. No doubt it had its faults, being tangential and loaded with stereotype, but it was so indefatigable, so incorrigible that I forgave it. The pleasure in reading the many asides and the naughtiness inherent in Smith’s character-as-parody, the fine cadences of multi-culturalism and the clear humour of it, outweighed my reservations. Not to mention that White Teeth was a vigorously packed thematic read that wove issues of race, gender and religious fundamentalism together with questions of integration, exclusion and the “elitism” of the liberal-minded upper middle class. It was a cacophony, certainly, and boisterous and often excessive, but it was clever and always energetic. (It is probably fair to say that there was awe mixed in with my admiration: I read it at 21 and Smith wrote it before she was 24 during an undergrad degree. How not to feel creatively out-paced?)
Hence my expectations, hardly disabused by the positive reviews, of such great things from On Beauty… Alas, it has hardly any of that earlier liveliness. Instead it reads like a dirge - being stylistically heavy-handed and poorly constructed - with characters that defy parody and fall into caricature, and a plot that dissipates itself to death. I’m with the Times reviewer on this one – and heartily disagree with The Guardian, The Independent and the LRB! – On Beauty is 432 pages of “self-indulgent waywardness”. Drab and drear, utterly unmemorable, unfulfilled and unfulfilling: it’s just poor on all counts. If I hadn’t been honour bound to finish it for my Orange Short List challenge I’d have followed Sandra at Book World’s example and lain it aside…
Howard Belsey - white, British and an art historian - is quietly stagnating at Wellington, a liberal arts university just outside Boston, although he is ostensibly “working” at a treatise on why Rembrandt *wasn’t* a genius. He is married to his psychological opposite, Kiki - black, Floridean and a hospital administrator – who is about to find out that Howard has had an affair with a skinny, white colleague. Personal and marital crises loom (although, not at all menacingly) as a result of both Howard's apathy and his roving genitals. Meanwhile their three children are busy being adolescent or post-adolescent: Jerome, the eldest and going into his third year at Brown, has rebelled against his secular, liberal family by a) finding God and b) taking an internship with his father’s right –wing academic rival Monty Kipps; Zora, her father’s greatest ally, is a precocious student at Wellington struggling to find her own particular voice; and sixteen year old Levi, with his “streets” attitude, is busy getting himself politicised with a group of Haitian refugees and street-sellers. All are typical of Wellington’s upper-middle class demographic as envisioned by Smith: creative, idealistic and wholly impractical.
Compared to this miscellany of “lefties” the Kipps’ are by turns efficient, traditionalist and conservative, not to mention hugely successful. It so happens that Sir Monty Kipps, Howard’s opposite number, has just published a phenomenally popular book on why Rembrandt *was* a genius and lives a charmed life with his 2:4 family in suburban London. His wife Carlene, a winsomely eccentric lady, is extraordinarily fulfilled in her role as wife to Monty and mother to the perfect Kipps’ children: Michael, who works in the City as a financial analyst, and Victoria, who is (rather inevitably) both eloquent and gorgeous.
In one of the book’s many wet plot-turns Smith brings the dichotomous families into close conflict-orbit by having Kipps appointed to a position in the art history department at Wellington. Rivalries ensue; faculty meetings are had and academic blood is spilt (although sadly not enough of it. I could have killed drippy Howard myself). Meanwhile the Belsey marriage goes into meltdown and Kiki begins an unprecedented, and sadly unconvincing, friendship with Carlene. Jerome does, well, very little indeed, but Zora and Levi make up for it by befriending and making projects of disaffected youths from downtown Boston.
Now that is basically it. I suppose there is a crescendo of events, but hardly a climax or source of urgency, either thematic or plot-based. I was decidedly uncompelled. The main problem is it’s all just too demure. It’s a period piece (Howard’s End was published in 1910) slavishly transposed into the 21st century and looking uncomfortable for it; the plot fairly aches with anachronism squashed to fit. For example, the book opens with a short section wherein Jerome Belsey, working as an intern for Monty in London, falls in love with Victoria Kipps and embarrasses himself by asking her to marry him. Howard, playing the part of the bumbling concerned father, flies all the way to London to persuade him out of it. Now no doubt this seems a feasible plot-point in Forster - marriage being the inevitable recourse for courting Edwardians and fathers still having a prerogative over said marriages – but for a 20 year old liberal American to prioritise virginity and marriage, and for a father to “sort out the confusion” with the girls family? In order to make it even remotely feasible Smith has to make Jerome an evangelical Christian…but that shoe doesn’t fit either. How did Jerome come about his conversion in secular Wellington? How does it combine with his open-ended world-view? Or with his poetical nihilism? It rarely features in the novel again and his family only rarely show a discomfort with it. In fact, poor Jerome’s actions are always arbitrary and prescribed, making him a stunted and unrealised potential.
Why did Smith want her trajectory to be set for her in this way, thus constraining her evident gift for arabesque? I haven’t an answer. It makes the enterprise seem clumsy and unimaginative; she does attempt to “modernise” Forster – e-mails are sent instead of letters and CD Discmans are mixed up at a classical concert instead of umbrellas – but these are just trappings. They don’t grasp the real differences between the cultural/social trends and inclinations of “now" and "then”. Perhaps Smith was eager to show how *little* has changed and how applicable Howard’s End’s themes remain, but all she did was show convincingly how much has changed.
Which allows me to segue merrily into the novel’s thematic dearth. Dear. Gods. Howard’s End can be richly read and Forster’s mantra for the novel – “Only connect” – has a delightful ring to it, which Smith has soundly squandered. She simply nicked off with the plot and forgot the substance of it, neglected the heart of the thing. Certainly she feints at a clumsy line about art and emotional union and the difficulty of really loving things, all epitomised by Howard’s inability to either be faithful to his life’s love, Kiki, or to love the subject of his life’s work, Rembrandt. It seemed to me that there was potential there, but that it was underworked and very flaccid. Further Smith’s descriptions of Rembrandt’s paintings and Howard’s thoughts on them are obviously stripped from catalogues. In her acknowledgements she makes specific mention of Simon Schama’s Rembrandt’s Eyes, which she says taught her to *look* at Rembrandt; it seems likely that he also heavily influenced her writing on him (another homage perhaps???). She does make some attempt at turning her tableau into verbal Rembrandt’s but rather unsubtly; they also turn out unlovely:
“Light struck the double glass doors that led to the garden, filtering through the arch that split the kitchen. It rested softly upon the still life of Kiki at the breakfast table, motionless, reading. A dark red Portuguese earthenware bowl faced her piled high with apples.”
The book could have been strong on race too; after all the Belsey children are mixed race, living in a largely white environment, and part of the plot is concerned with the plight of poor young black people in Boston. But Smith has nothing new to say, or rather, she has nothing notable to say. She reveals the incipient prejudices of her main characters, uncovers the fallacies of liberalism (although she did this to much greater effect in White Teeth in my opinion) and plays with the collision of race and culture in Levi. But these are her final sallies; there is nothing more. She makes no attempt to relaly engage with the controversy of Monty Kipps conservative views as a black man, or the social deprivation that underlies racism in all communities.
Nothing is helped by the poor characterisation, or rather the lack of any characterisation at all. Now it seems to me that Zadie Smith has never written individuals; it isn’t her style. She writes “types” – the disenfranchised black man looking for more, the apathetic academic, the fat loveable mama, the proper English gentleman. In White Teeth I imagined she was playing with these stereotypes and layering them with discordant notes; in On Beauty she descends irrecoverably into two dimensionality. Take for example the Kipps', or especially Monty Kipps in his neat cravats; we have no insight into him whatsoever. We're told he's a hypocrite in ideological conflict but where is the evidence? Further, those random whimsies of character that worked so well for me in her earlier novel are shatteringly wrong and unbelievable here. A sixteen year old boy-man who still has his shoe-laces tied by his dad “because he does it in a cool way”? A Head of Department who can create and fund new academic posts on impulse (and a Hip-Hop archivist at that!)? A university in which every student is a serious disciple of Nietzsche or Heidigger or Sartre? And how much does this sound like any second year undergrad seminar you’ve been to?
“It’s a painting of its own interior…Its subject is painting itself. It is a painting about painting. I mean, that’s the desiring force here.”
Dr Belsey raps on his desk in an interested way, as if to say, now we’re getting to it.
“Ok,” he says. “Expand.”
But before Victoria can speak again there is an interruption.
“Ummm…I don’t understand how you’re using “painting” there? I don’t think you can simply just inscribe the history of painting, or even its logos, in that world “painting”.
The professor seems interested in the point too. It is made by the young man with the T-shirt that says BEING on one side and TIME on the other.”
This is not to mention the poor calibre of the writing itself: distressing narratorial intrusions, crossed POVs, random excursions that fail to weave into the whole.
I suppose what I'm saying is that, as far as I'm qualified to judge it, On Beauty is a bad novel. I’m left wondering what exactly the reviewers (all except my friend at The Times that is) and the prize judges saw in this piece of literary jetsam. This was short-listed rather than McEwan’s Saturday (or, indeed, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) for the Booker??? This instead of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead for the Orange? If it wins on the 6th June, I'm going to cry.