By Zadie Smith
Penguin. 446 pp. $25.95 While reading On Beauty it's easy to forget, and sometimes hard to believe, that Zadie Smith is scarcely out of her twenties. Her new novel is masterly on almost any level -- impressive in its command of every register of English, never tiresome despite its length and astonishingly sympathetic to every sort of human frailty. Smith brings to blazing life everyone she portrays, from a young hip-hop poet to a very formal British lord. To this satirical, wise and sexy book, the correct critical response should largely be either gratitude and admiration or a simple "Wow." Little wonder that it's just been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Perhaps only in her choice of setting -- a contemporary university campus in Boston -- is Smith somewhat unimaginative. The past 40 years have generated a substantial syllabus, even a college catalogue, of first-rate novels about academic life: among many others, Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man, David Lodge's Small World, Francine Prose's Blue Angel, Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, James Hynes's The Lecturer's Tale, Richard Russo's Straight Man and Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons. Such a narrow subgenre ineluctably gravitates to a half-dozen now familiar themes: the excesses of critical jargon, sexual entanglement between student and teacher, departmental politicking (especially in the race for tenure), academic freedom vs. political correctness, the heavy hand of bureaucratic officialism, the claims of traditional learning against the allure of more fashionable subjects, the betrayal of noble ideals.
All these play their allotted parts in On Beauty, but center stage stands the Belsey family, arguing, slamming doors, increasingly beleaguered, confused and heartbroken.
At 56, Howard, the son of an English butcher, teaches art history at Wellington College. He's been there for 10 years now and has yet to publish his big book on Rembrandt and isn't tenured as a consequence. "Like many academics, Howard was innocent of the world. He could identify thirty different ideological trends in the social sciences, but did not really know what a software engineer was." His strong, no-nonsense, African-American wife, Kiki, works as a nurse. Once slender, she "was nowadays a solid two hundred and fifty pounds, and looked twenty years his junior. Her skin had that famous ethnic advantage of not wrinkling much, but, in Kiki's case the weight gain had stretched it even more impressively. At fifty two, her face was still a girl's face. A beautiful tough-girl's face." Their eldest child, the dreamy, committedly Christian Jerome, attends Brown; his sister, Zora, an insecure, self-absorbed study-machine, is a sophomore at Wellington; and the youngest, Levi, goes to high school but dresses and acts as if he were a gangsta from Roxbury. All three are utterly obsessive, in their different ways.
As is clear from the beginning, the Belseys are loving, funny and devoted to one another. "Each couple is its own vaudeville act," thinks Kiki at one point, and this is even more true of her own family. In the novel's second chapter, however, the reader starts to pick up a tension behind some of the Belsey fast talk and banter. When Howard complains about the way things work out for him, Kiki eyes her husband incredulously and spits out: "Right. Because you never get what you want. Your life is just an orgy of deprivation." Over the course of half-a-dozen pages, without ever being explicit, Smith makes clear that Howard has recently had an affair of some sort, that Kiki hasn't forgiven him, and that they are both miserable about the gulf between them.
As if this weren't enough, Wellington College has just invited Howard's greatest enemy, Sir Montgomery Kipps, a leading public intellectual of Caribbean origin and conservative ideology, to be a visiting professor for the upcoming academic year. Monty Kipps dresses in bespoke three-piece suits, deplores affirmative action, owns the best collection of Haitian folk art in private hands, and is devoutly, even ostentatiously religious. He is also wonderfully pompous: " 'Oh, my wife rarely attends these things,' said Monty. 'She doesn't enjoy social conflagration. It's fair to say she is more warmed by the home hearth.' " Unfortunately, Jerome while studying in England spent time with the Kipps family and fell in love with their beautiful daughter Victoria. But things didn't work out, and the boy was left devastated. Still, even his own mother agrees, after she finally glimpses the breathtakingly sexy Vee, that the girl is altogether out of Jerome's league.
Just as the charismatic "street poet" Carl appears to be out of Zora's. The two meet cute at an outdoor concert -- each picks up the other's CD player -- and then keep running into each other, first at the college swimming pool, then at the Big Dog cafe, a haven for rappers and slammers. While Zora longs to enroll in Claire Malcolm's celebrated poetry class, indeed to join the "Cult of Claire," the 20-year-old Carl obviously possesses genuine talent, managing polysyllabic rhymes and complex meters with nonchalant ease. But he's poor, black, uneducated, and what are his real chances?
As the novel progresses, Smith smoothly shifts into and out of the minds of the various Belseys, as they sigh, quip and agonize against the backdrop of Wellington classes, parties, lectures and faculty meetings. Kiki spends time with the mysterious Mrs. Kipps, Levi starts hanging out with disaffected Haitian emigres, Howard finds that Victoria has enrolled in his art history course, the pining Jerome writes mournfully in his journal, and Zora keeps bumping into Carl. Life meanders along, with its little successes and failures, its temptations and regrets. And then a sudden death accelerates everything.
None of this precis suggests the pleasures of Smith's language. At times she can be a little extravagant in her imagery -- "Summer left Wellington abruptly and slammed the door on its way out. The shudder sent the leaves to the ground all at once . . ." -- but her overall tone suggests a kindly Voltairean (or, more appositely, Forsterian) tolerance for human weakness. None of the novel's characters is wholly admirable, and yet nearly all are, somehow, loveable. Poor forked creatures. Here is Zora, the reader of Foucault and Baudrillard, sitting in Claire Malcolm's class:
" 'Virgil . . . in The Georgics, nature and the pleasures of the pastoral are essential to any . . . ' began Claire, but Zora had already stopped listening. Claire's kind of learning was tiresome to her. Claire didn't know anything about theorists, or ideas, or the latest thinking. Sometimes Zora suspected her of being barely intellectual. With her, it was always 'in Plato,' or 'in Baudelaire,' or 'in Rimbaud,' as if we all had time to sit around reading whatever we fancied. Zora blinked impatiently, visibly tracking Claire's sentence, waiting for a period or, failing that, a semicolon in which to insert herself again." A little later, we enter Claire's mind:
"Zora smiled contentedly. Not for the first time when talking to Howard's daughter Claire felt estranged from her own being, as if she were indeed just another of the six billion extras playing in that fabulous stage show, the worldwide hit called Zora's Life."
Perhaps the loveliest chapter in this fine book is the least expected. One day, just before Thanksgiving, the three Belsey children encounter one another on the same corner in downtown Boston. Laughing at the coincidence, they sit down together at a nearby cafe for coffee and muffins. Thinks Jerome:
"People talk about the happy quiet that can exist between two lovers, but this too was great; sitting between his sister and his brother, saying nothing, eating. Before the world existed, before it was populated, and before there were wars and jobs and colleges and movies and clothes and opinions and foreign travel -- before all of these things there had been only one person, Zora, and only one place: a tent in the living room made from chairs and bed-sheets. After a few years, Levi arrived; space was made for him; it was as if he had always been. Looking at them both now, Jerome found himself in their finger joints and neat conch ears, in their long legs and wild curls. He heard himself in their partial lisps caused by puffy tongues vibrating against slightly noticeable buckteeth. He did not consider if or how or why he loved them. They were just love: they were the first evidence he ever had of love, and they would be the last confirmation of love when everything else fell away."
How refreshing to see, for once, the flip side of sibling rivalry. Not that the Belsey kids would normally betray any kind of open sentimentality. When we last glimpse them, they are, affectionately, giving their father the finger.
On Beauty takes its odd title from an essay by Elaine Scarry and is, as befits a novel about the academy, subtly laced with learned allusions. Its first sentence echoes the opening of Howards End, by E.M. Forster ("to whom," acknowledges Smith, "all my fiction is indebted"). The name Kipps recalls a contemporary H.G. Wells novel. When a cabbie says "Terminal" in a slurred voice, Howard thinks the man is referring to a Zola classic (i.e., Germinal). Academics at a party, observing Levi doing laps in a pool, all refer to an unnamed John Cheever short story (i.e., "The Swimmer"). At one point in his past, Howard earned an appointment as the Empson Professor of Aesthetics; he and his wife take a holiday to Eatonville, Fla. (home to Zora Neale Hurston). All these touches add extra fillips of pleasure for the reader who recognizes them, just as hip-hop fans will doubtless pick up similar acts of homage in the talk of Levi and Carl.
At one point, Kiki directly asks Howard why he cheated on her. Howard stumbles through this partial reply:
" 'It's true that men -- they respond to beauty . . . it doesn't end for them, this . . . this concern with beauty as a physical actuality in the world -- and that's clearly imprisoning and it infantilizes . . . but it's true and . . . I don't know how else to explain what -- '
" 'Get away from me.'
" 'Fine.' "
White Teeth brought Zadie Smith worldwide acclaim when she was in her early twenties, leading some people to fear she might be one of those brilliant one-shot hotshots. But after The Autograph Man and now On Beauty, it's evident that Smith is a writer for the long haul, an artist whose books we will look forward to every few years, a real and deeply satisfying novelist. E.M. Forster would be proud. *
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.