Zadie Smith, On Beauty: Disconnected

I did not ‘connect’ with this novel at all. After I finished it, I went back and read through the two or three pages of quotations from reviewers, all full of enthusiasm and praise (“wonderfully engaging, wonderfully observed”; “accomplished, substantive, and penetrating”; “an ambitious, warm and bending [bending??] portrayal”; “hilarious”; “ironic, acerbic and intelligent”…). Say what? The characters never came to life for me; each of them seemed like an embodied idea or function. It’s true that Smith has a virtuosic ability to render different voices, dialects, cadences of speech–but the conversations lacked naturalness. The prose seemed stilted and full of details that didn’t add anything to either its sound or its meaning. Here’s one small example of the kind of thing that annoyed me: during what is actually one of the most important encounters in the novel (the ‘bonding’ between Kiki and Carlene Kipps), Kiki “felt in her purse for her lip balm” and then applies “a layer of colourless gloop to her mouth” (172). There’s some motivation for her to put on the lip balm (awkward conversational moment) but “colourless gloop” is a phrase that doesn’t belong to Kiki or the narrating voice–who would describe lip balm that way? Is there some reason we should look at lip balm problematically? Is it the lack of colour? Is there some implied anti-consumerism sub-text? Or is it just a sloppy intrusion of, maybe, Smith’s own dislike of such products? (Why? What’s wrong with them?) I realize this is a small detail, but overall much of the book had this effect on me: why is this happening? why are they saying or doing this now? why does this part belong with the other parts of the book?

I also found the whole depiction of the academic context wholly unbelievable. OK, it’s meant satirically; it’s a ‘campus novel’ (among other things) but not necessarily bound to capture the realities of professional life at universities today. But in this area too I was endlessly distracted and annoyed. How is it that Howard has been at Wellington for so long and neither received tenure nor reached the end of a tenure-track contract? Even at the most elite colleges, aren’t there procedures and time-tables for these things? Part of the novel’s denouement is his acceptance of a sabbatical, conveniently, to defuse the problems that have arisen–but sabbatical leaves are not just handed out anyplace I know about; again, there are procedures and regulations. His supposedly climactic PowerPoint presentation can’t mean anything in relation to his tenure chances–does a public lecture ever? Am I missing the point of all these breaches of academic protocol in the plot? Are they confusions about the academy, versions of the academy that those of us in less privileged institutions don’t share, adaptations of academic life to suit Smith’s thematic purposes? (What exactly are these, by the way? They never coalesced for me in any striking moment or image in the novel.)

Some of the ways she worked up the ‘culture wars’ were sort of funny, but not particularly deep and, in their overall leanings, predictably left-liberal. Though she brought Kiki around to some kind of interest in Monty’s “conservative” take on issues such as affirmative action, none of the characters that might have been used for a really probing case study were used that way after all, and the politics got sidelined, I thought, by the cliched sexual escapades of both Howard and Monty. Nothing really came of Levi’s attempt to discard his actual class identity and the white part of his family background; Jerome’s relationship with Victoria also goes nowhere in particular, simply getting diffused among the other miscellaneous plot twists. I could go on with complaints and questions, it turns out, but that’s probably enough for now.

Now, given the praise heaped on the book by the reviewers, I’m open to ideas about how I might have read it better and enjoyed it more. I did find it mildly entertaining and readable, in the sense that I kept reading along happily enough waiting and hoping for it to come together in some stirring way. It just didn’t, and while some novels leave me feeling I underestimated them on a first reading and would like to go back more thoughtfully (The Night Watch, most recently), On Beauty just left me disappointed.

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