Plot Tanks as Characters Speak in Foreign Idioms

September 24, 2005 | ,

On Beauty
By Zadie Smith
Viking Canada. 400 pages. $34.

In September, 2002, Zadie Smith, the British novelist, went to Harvard. She was 27, and had published her first novel, White Teeth, not long after graduating from Cambridge to acclaim and huge sales on both sides of the Atlantic. A follow-up, The Autograph Man, appeared a month after she moved to Boston, where she was offered a fellowship at Harvard University to write a collection of essays, The Morality of the Novel. The book does not appear to have been published.

Smith’s third novel, On Beauty, describes a year in the life of the Belsey clan, who orbit a university called “Wellington,” which may not be Harvard but looks, smells and sounds a whole lot like the Ivy League school.

Like the protagonists of her previous novels, the Belseys are multiracial and international, linked by blood and distinguished by ideologies and habits. Howard Belsey is a white British-born and educated art historian who still lacks tenure at the age of 56, though he has taught at Wellington for a decade. He’s predictably curmudgeonly, hates almost everything and everyone, and his unfinished opus, Against Rembrandt, is about our culture’s low standards for genius.

Howard’s wife, Kiki, a big, good-humoured African-American, has recently discovered that her husband cheated on her. In response to the family crisis, their children keep themselves busy; Jerome, a student at Brown, flirts with fundamentalist Christianity; Zora, a sophomore at Wellington, brown noses and butts into faculty business; and Levi, a high-school student, takes on the persona of a gangsta rapper and mutters in thick Ebonics. These are Smith’s heroes.

The Kippses, a family of British West Indian Christian conservatives, are the novel’s cartoonishly evil villains. Led by Howard’s nemesis, Monty Kipps, they campaign against everything the Belseys (and most academics) believe in: affirmative action, moral relativism, homosexuality.

The novel opens with Jerome Belsey proposing marriage to, and being rejected by, the superhumanly beautiful Victoria Kipps. The Kippses soon arrive for a year in residence at Wellington, the better to antagonize and annoy the Belseys personally and publicly. Howard and Monty take up positions on opposite sides of the culture war, while Zora and Victoria compete in classes and for boyfriends.

Soon, Smith drags out the same tired plot devices found in most campus stories: marital infidelity, teacher-student affairs, flat speeches recapitulating last year’s boring political debates. The cliches pile up: After a bland rap scene cribbed from the movie 8 Mile, a “street poet” finds his way, through lovestruck Zora, into a workshop with the American poet laureate. Levi, searching for ethnic identity, winds up over his head with a gang of disaffected Haitian immigrants.

Smith’s talent for precise description, in evidence throughout her first two novels, is largely absent from On Beauty. The text is riddled with errors of observation. Smith’s Americans speak foreign idioms such as “Am I meant to be grateful?” instead of “Am I supposed to be grateful?”

No one attending this American university knows the terms used at one. Zora, an undergraduate, says she’s missed her “dissertation” deadline, and Howard, after 10 years of chortling at them, mistakenly calls a cappella groups “glee clubs” (which are entirely different, though equally annoying). Precision isn’t always the burden of the fiction writer, but Smith’s mistakes are ridiculous and distracting; even Tom Wolfe managed to describe a campus with more accuracy in I Am Charlotte Simmons, and he’s old enough to be somebody’s great-grandfather.

Under the weight of these flubs, Smith’s delightful trademarks — hyperbolic analogies and comically irrelevant historical contextualizations — begin to smack of triteness and predictability. Her plot, likewise, tanks: The events that resolve the various strands of narrative in the final pages do little to compensate for the flat, pointless action that has preceded them.

On Beauty isn’t devoid of pleasures, by any means. Smith manages to nail much of the dialogue, and, especially when it’s coming out of the mouths of teenagers, the results can be charming and hilarious. But little sparks of comedy, and an overarching homage to E.M. Forster, aren’t enough to save this novel from sanctimony and irrelevance.

On the evidence of her first two books, Smith is hugely talented, and the bits of The Morality of the Novel that have been published demonstrate a perspicacious understanding of how fiction works and what it can do. All of which makes On Beauty most regrettable. When a mediocre novelist publishes a mediocre novel, it’s a shame; but when a brilliant writer like Smith publishes a book like On Beauty, it’s worse.

[Originally published in The National Post.]