Wednesday, April 26, 2006

#34 - On Beauty

Zadie Smith's third novel On Beauty, thankfully better than her second (Autograph Man, which I really didn't like) and a more mature book than her first, marks a change in the progress of her art, I think. It's a serious book (not without comic touches and her own deft style) that could be studied and analyzed and debated and on and on. In short, it's serious literature. And there's no doubting that Zadie Smith is seriously talented.

Was Carlene Kipps one of these women who promises friendship but never truly delivers it? A friendship flirt?
This idea of a 'friendship flirt' works kind of as a metaphor for me in terms of my reading of the entire novel. At all times, I had the idea that I was reading something great, something magnificent, something prize-worthy and canon-inducting, but I also thought there was something off, something not quite right, but I couldn't put my finger on it.

I've never read Howard's End, which the book writes back to (as I understand it), but I'd like to now, just to compare the two novels. The Howard in Smith's book is a stumbling, bumbling white art professor whose infidelity ruins his thirty year marriage to his black wife Kiki. Their three kids, two in university, and one still in high school, are almost typical middle class suburban US kids, each with their own agenda (Jerome's a Christian, Zora a super-student and Levi a wanna-be 'gangsta' with a heart of almost gold). The main conflict in the book, between Howard and a rival thinker named Monty Kipps, conflates when the latter arrives at Wellington, the school near Boston where the former has taught for ten years.

And I can't put my finger on it, but as much as I loved this novel there was something in the book that just didn't feel authentic despite the fact that it brought me to tears toward the end, especially when Howard's marriage inevitably breaks down. It could be the dialogue, the American-ness of it all, it could be the fact that Smith sometimes uses words and phrases that could be simpler, it could be entire characters introduced for pages upon pages and then never brought up again, it could be a number of things where on the whole, I questioned On Beauty. But that didn't take away from a pretty great reading experience and as I'm not writing a paper or defending a thesis, just keeping a silly little reading blog, I guess that's all right in the end.

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