On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s third novel, On Beauty, shows not only the British author’s vast storytelling talents, but also more intriguingly, the chameleon-like ability with which she approaches the craft. Stylistically, the novel is a far departure from her first two books. It lacks the playful, explosively lyrical language of White Teeth (“Millat was a rudeboy, a badman, at the forefront, changing image as often as shoes; sweet-as, safe, wicked, leading kids up hills to play football, downhill to rifle fruit machines”). It also lacks the daring Post Modernist experimentation of The Autograph Man, with its chapter outlines, and numerous diagrams, and font types. With On Beauty, Smith takes a more traditional storytelling route; one where the language is more calm and sedate — a slight letdown, in a way, considering what she’s proven herself capable of achieving.

But what On Beauty lacks in stylistic verve, it makes up for in overarching, mammoth storytelling. Unlike in The Autograph Man, in which both plot and character development seemed thin, On Beauty harkens back to the full, engaging, spirited storytelling of White Teeth. The frame loosely follows that of E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, in which the lives of two families with vastly different lifestyles and worldviews intertwine. The Belseys are liberal and multicultural: Howard is a British-born white art history professor, while his wife, Kiki, is an African-American hospital administrator. The Kipps are right-wing ultra-conservatives: British Trinidadian Montague is Howard’s academic rival, while his wife, Carlene, one of the lesser formed characters in the novel, plays a pivotal role when, upon her death, she bequeaths a surprising gift to Kiki.

But while Smith borrows from Forster (she calls it an homage to the writer whom all her fiction is indebted), she turns the narrative into something that’s distinctly her own. Like in White Teeth, the characters in On Beauty mingle in and out of each other’s lives in exuberant and surprising ways (including in a number of incongruous romantic entanglements). And like in White Teeth, the various characters and subplots clash ecstatically together towards the end — this time, in a drunken brawl at a fraternity party in which secrets held from one another are revealed and illuminate the larger themes explored in the novel.

Smith sets her story in Wellington, a fictional college town near Boston that bears more than a passing resemblance to Cambridge, where she recently taught at Harvard. But she makes it explicitly clear that the campus she writes about is not Harvard, and in doing so, broadens her multifaceted debate on the world of academics beyond the walls of any one institution. Smith aims high and generously examines a number of expected and unexpected topics related to academia, from its removal from the real world, its scathing politics, its hypocrisy, the role of affirmative action, down to the self-hatred of female students (“Still starving themselves, still reading women’s magazines that explicitly hate women, still cutting themselves with little knives in places they think can’t be seen…”)

But its most resonant theme, not surprisingly given the book’s title, is its discussion of beauty — and most critically, artistic beauty and the roles that the creation and appreciation of it play in the university. Smith explores the topic most fully through the characters, Howard and Carl Thomas. Howard has seen Rembrandt’s Dr Nicolaes Tulp Demonstrating the Anatomy of the Arm, 1632 “so many times he could no longer see it at all,” and who, in Wellingtonian vernacular, can’t say the simple phrase of “I like the tomato,” but instead needs to explore “What’s so beautiful about this tomato? Who decided on its worth?” Carl, an uneducated but superbly talented “street poet” (as opposed to the “poet poets” of Wellington), ultimately stops creating music once he starts work as a “Hip Hop Archivist” at the university.

On Beauty also has a level of emotional depth and acuteness previously unseen in Smith’s first two books — a testament to her growth as a writer. While before she frolicked in and out of scenes and characters (though more so in The Autograph Man than in White Teeth), in On Beauty Smith slows down; she takes the time to linger. One such perfect moment is when Kiki cleans her family’s storeroom:

Generally she kept her head down, but on the occasions she raised it she was treated to the most intimate of panoramic views: the scattered possessions of the three people she had created.

And there are two specific scenes between Howard and Kiki — one in which he makes her laugh, in the other, they have sex for the first time in over a year — that are spot-on depictions of the passion and love that can still linger in a 30 year marriage even if the two people involved are no longer who they once were. It’s a small trade-off; Smith doesn’t meet the stylistic bar she’s set for herself, but makes up for it in substance — in spades.