Friday, May 2, 2008

Book Review: On Beauty, By Zadie Smith

It's hard to understand why Zadie Smith's brilliant 2005 novel "On Beauty" would be categorized by the librarians of congress as "romance". But then wikipedia in its article about this literary prizewinner at:
classifies it as "hysterical realism" which to me at least seems equally misdirected.
"On Beauty" is literature at its most contemporary: the story of two feuding families, the clash between liberal and conservative
values, the tension between white and black races , religious vs.. atheist outlook plus the cultural differences between the U.S. and the U.K. The comedy in nearly every scene is what prevents any kind of moralizing tone from creeping in to the 446 pages of this tale.
Unlike a typical thriller, which sucks you in with buckets of suspense, Smith's story captivates because she never tells when she can show. Each character has a unique voice, and only a few lines of dialogue clue the reader in to who is speaking. Each scene speaks to you on different levels, often making you laugh at the absurdity of modern society. And each scene overflows with a symbolic irony which  is bound to cause you to view nearly everything through a different lens.
Smith is forever poking fun at academia, politics, pop culture, bureaucracy and the superficiality of most encounters. But this is not an intellectual book. Always laughing at fatuous high-brow culture, the plot is grounded and fully believable.  The story is also gripping enough that you want to keep reading to find out what's going to happen next.
Smith was a great admirer of E.M. Forester, and this novel is loosely based on "Howard's End". Whereas Forester satirized upper-crust turn-of-the-century Englishmen, Smith is more at home in the fictional exclusive liberal-arts college she creates just outside Boston, or the gritty street culture of rap music and gangs. Just as Forester satirized  the milleu of his readers, Smith knows her contemporary audience suffers from attention deficit and shifting loyalties.
Much of this novel revolves around the teenagers in the family and their growing-up struggles. Unlike one-dimensional coming-of-age fiction, which covers one person and spotlights the character facing a single conflict,  in "On Beauty" we actually see these young people at various stages of maturity and watch as they become different than they were just a year before. "On Beauty" never devolves in to a sweeping panorama, instead it highlights the passing years with individual moments in time, captured adroitly and microscopically examined through the omniscient point of view. The characters are real because they are us, and we, the readers are inside their heads.
Another large part of the novel is about  English white liberal art historian Howard Belsey, who despite his doctorate is pretty empty-headed and pitiful. Perhaps it is his attempts to reconcile with his African-American wife, after he ends a disastrous affair, that caused the librarians of congress to label this book as a romance. But its literary talent shines in every sentence; it's miles away from any love story you could pick up in the paperback aisle at your supermarket.
"On Beauty" is available on cassette and digital download from NLS where it is 17 hours and 53 minutes long. It is also available from bookshare. It is a popular reading selection for book clubs and is slowly becoming required reading for many college-level contemporary literature courses.

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