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...

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

I have what can only be described as an expanding love in my heart for this novel. I really liked it the first time I read it, then I read it again last summer to use in a graduate workshop last fall, then I read it again this summer to use in my undergrad women in literature course, and it is so rich with imagery and language (not to mention a decent plot and really likeable--no, loveable-- characters) that I feel like I could read it every six months and love it even more each time for a different reason. I used to think the opening was slow but now I relish the measured pace, the dark imagery, and the insane quantity of information that Ruth, the first person narrator could never know. It used to drive my mother crazy that I would reread certain books over and over, (I knew they would be good, which you can't know about something you haven't read!) but in retrospect that practice may have been good training for me as a reader. I learned to pick up on small details in second (third, tenth, whatever) readings, and that way learned how those small details can be key to understanding subtext and tone. Not that Harriet the Spy had an enormous amount of subtext, but certainly annual summer readings of Lord of the Rings showed me something new each time.

My point is that when reading as a writer, rereading can be especially useful because only when you know the end can you see all the work the writer was laying down to get you to that end. Being an obsessive reader of certain authors may not be such a bad idea either.

I will add though that reading Housekeeping briefly paralyzed my writing because it seems unapproachably good and if the world has Marilynne Robinson writing novels (albeit only one every ten years) maybe it doesn't need me writing novels, but after awhile I got over that. Besides I like having something to shoot for--a reason to keep practicing in the hope of writing a book that good. But then I also recommend having a not-so-great novel around too so that you can say, at least I can do better than that. (it probably says something sad about me that I'm not kidding).