not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
this post was originally published on my Goodreads account.
A novel that starts out as a typical campus comedy with all the familiar elements–the white, older, blocked humanities professor, his dysfunctional department, his eccentric colleagues, the looming threat of budget cuts, the struggle between forces of conservatism and liberalism for the heart of the university, the young female student whose attentions are distracting while never quite unwelcome–and ends up, somewhat surprisingly, leaving these behind for an exploration of what it means to exist as black in the predominantly white, upper-class world of the university.
Zadie Smith switches between characters’ perspectives throughout the novel, and her feel for each of their individual headspaces remains sound, even if we get more information on some than others: I feel like I understood how Howard Belsley (the professor) got to where he was a lot more than I understood how his wife Kiki did, which was a shame, because I feel like her background was the more interesting of the two. Unsurprisingly, Smith seems to be more comfortable with the interior voice of Zora, the precocious young black woman who embraces her intelligence, than she does with that of her brother Levi, who hides his behind the braggadocio of a gangsta rap persona despite going to a private school and taking classes in Latin.
I personally appreciated the character of Jerome, who becomes religious in a rebellion against his secular family, and then rather than having his faith destroyed or turning into a cruel, bitter person as a result of it, he finds a peace in his belief and understands himself and his family a little better, and goes on with being a mostly well-adjusted person who occasionally talks about prayer more fervently than some would like. It’s sad that such a grounded depiction of religious belief should be so rare in modern literature as to seem practically miraculous, but I’m grateful that Smith saw fit to include it (not to mention all the other ways in which she shows how rebellion against parents can ultimately become a constructive way to build one’s identity).
Smith’s story is as sprawling and digressive as her sentences are fine-tuned and precise, and while the title invites us to look at the role beauty plays in the story, there’s little in the way of obvious structural unity or thematic resonance (though you could probably find it if you read through the book a few times). But the whole thing works, insofar as you want to keep learning about these people, and when you grow bored with some of them, you get the distinct impression that this is what Smith wants you to do. In a way, On Beauty works as a response to the countless American novels that examine university life through the eyes and issues of an old professor. Like those books, it catalogues his woes, describes his marginal background with pathos, and demonstrates how these add up to bring about his destruction–but unlike the works of Roth and Updike, which see apocalypse in these stories, it finds something more interesting to look at, and follows that down the street instead.