On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005). “…the sheer novelistic intelligence – expansive, witty and magnanimous – that irradiates the whole enterprise.”
…an ambitiously sprawling, gentle homage to E.M. Forster’s Howards End disguised as an American campus novel. Like Forster’s book, it depicts the collision of two very different families: the boisterously liberal Belseys and the deeply traditionalist Kipps. Howard Belsey is a white art history professor in the throes of midlife crisis. His marriage to vibrant African American wife Kiki is collapsing, due to his unfaithfulness. And he’s devoting too much psychic energy to an ideological pissing war with Monty Kipps, an Anglo-Caribbean provocateur who arrives at Belsey’s elite Massachusetts university disparaging affirmative action and generally aggravating the liberal Belseys with his ultraconservative rhetoric.
The mirror held up to the zeitgeist is satirical but deadly accurate in what it reflects.
Howard is a kind of genial monster, a man at once too precious and awkward to fully accommodate himself to modern life—he can’t negotiate a cell phone or a microwave—and yet brutally unsentimental, thanks to what he believes is his prow-forward positioning on the academic vanguard. He is, in short, an anti-aesthete, someone who despises Mozart and representational painting, and who stands before a crowd of credulous undergraduates spouting Foucauldian bromides 10 years out of date. Smith nails him perfectly: “Seventeen years earlier, when Lennon died, Kiki had dragged Howard down Central Park and wept while the crowd sang ‘All You Need Is Love’ and Howard ranted bitterly about Milgram and mass psychosis.” So far, still pretty good: Noam Chomsky on the TV, a kid named after Primo Levi, willfully inhuman art on the walls. This is the modern drawing room, the open-plan kitchen of the shabby-genteel academic.
That is from a more critical review on Slate.com. Very tempting, but inappropriate given this Howard’s ideological position, to appropriate that first sentence to Oz politics!
There are so many treasures in this novel. Take Chapter 5 of Part 2 “The Anatomy Lesson”, where Howard and Kiki’s fifteen-years-old son Levi attempts some direct action in what is clearly the Virgin Record Store in a Boston mall where he has a part-time job. The issue over which he attempts action is being forced to work on Christmas Day; shades of our own Howard’s work-place “revolution”. The mall is in a converted library — much is made of this — and the corporate ethos in all its hypocrisy is neatly captured.
He was pissed off. He felt he’d been let down. Along the corridor he traced the genealogy of that feeling. He had taken this Saturday job in good faith, having always admired the global brand behind these stores, the scope and ambition of their vision. He had been particularly impressed by this section of the application form:
Our companies are part of a family rather than a hierarchy. They are empowered to run their own affairs, yet other companies help one another, and solutions to problems come from all kinds of sources. In a sense we are a community, with shared ideas, values, interests and goals. The proof of our success is real and tangible. Be a part of it.
He had wanted to be a part of it. Levi liked the way the mythical British guy who owned the brand was like a graffiti artist, tagging the world. Planes, trains, finance, soft drinks, music, cellphones, vacations, cars, wines, publishing, bridal wear — anything with a surface that would take his simple bold logo. That was the kind of thing Levi wanted to do one day. He’d figured that it wasn’t such a bad idea to get a little sales assistant job with this enormous firm, if only to see how their operation worked from the inside. Watch, learn, supplant — Machiavelli style. Even when it turned out to be tough work for bad pay, he’d stuck with it. Because he believed that he was part of a family whose success was real and tangible, despite the $6.89 an hour he was being paid.
Make sure you read On Beauty.
* Well, maybe not quite: so far that must go to Ignorance by Milan Kundera, a very different novel in approach but also a great reflector of the spirit of our age.