Wednesday, September 28, 2005

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Oh, I wanted. I wanted so much. I wanted too much. My hopes seemed fail-safe: I'm a fan of Smith's first novel White Teeth; a fan of E.M. Forster's Howard's End, which provided a structural model; I'm generally all for appropriating classics and making them new; and I'm often in tune with the hyper-critical critic Michiko Kakutani who gave On Beauty a big hug and a kiss in the New York Times. But in the end, while easily digested, On Beauty just wasn't special.

However, Smith does something really interesting in titling (title-ing?) the book as she does--with an allusion to an Elaine Scarry essay that points the reader toward finding meaning in the narrative. Art is a plot point in the novel and I'm intrigued by Smith's desire to write a novel that is driven both by character and by ideas, but ultimately, in trying to do this all in scene, rather than making use of that very convenient device--the narrator--she may have limited herself too much. One of the great pleasure's for me of Howard's End, and of White Teeth, too, now that I think about it, is the commentary, often sarcastic, from the narrator (a sort of third-persony, first person storyteller who is not of the story). Occasionally this narrator surfaces in On Beauty but Smith might have done well to let him/her run solidly through the novel.

Perhaps part of my trouble was I just taught Howard's End last month, so it was ridiculously fresh in my mind and I was easily distracted by the Catch the Allusion game (Oh, the Wilcox's are the Kipps's! Oh, the umbrella is a Discman! Oh, Leonard Bast is Black!). But the parallels to Forster never added up to much beyond a game. Smith despite her modernizing to a high-tech, multi-culti world couldn't modernize the storyline enough to move beyond fairly stereo-typical characters behaving in fairly stereo-typical ways (if I read another novel about a middle-aged man sleeping with his students I'm going to light the book on fire) (though Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee did prove that storyline could be an interesting launching point for a novel, it's unlikely to work as a climactic event).

Maybe I'll just set my hopes on the next Smith novel...

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