On Zadie Smith’s "On Beauty"

I finished reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty this morning for a reading group that I’m helping to run. I have a sort of mixed reaction to the book. On the one hand, it’s perfect for the argument that I am making in the introduction to my dissertation, which begins with a careful reading of a pair of essays that Smith recently wrote for The Guardian (“Fail Better” and “Read Better”). On the other hand, I sort of feel that the book is mediocre in a lot of ways. Its first part is well-developed and promising–and the correlations with Howards End seem initially interesting–but the characters and situations of the first part dissolve into a sea uninteresting episodes which Smith tries unsuccessfully to bring together again at the end of the novel.

Very little of consequence happens to these characters by the end of the novel. They do not quite suffer in believably human ways. Moreover, Smith has stripped her language of some of the more energetic syntactical pyrotechnics of White Teeth–not that I necessarily loved that novel either, but one got the sense that there was a raging ambition and energy to the writer of those sentences. On Beauty has all the marks of a rush job–a novel derived from its themes backwards–and not a novel where (a) the particular interiorities of its characters and historical moment and (b) the general thematic concerns that motivate its structure get generated at the same time, in dialogue with one another.

This is all to say that I am in the position of having to write about a novel I don’t love. What to do? My plan is to write about On Beauty–perhaps a bit less than I would otherwise have, but still, it’s relevant to my argument. Which is a sign to me that I have become, over the last couple years, transformed from someone who was quite happy writing impressionistic literary-critical essays to someone who has become strangely (for me) dedicated to following pretty strictly the logic of my own argument even at the expense of my personal aesthetic judgements. More generally, I have to admit that I often find myself in this position when talking about the postironists. While I recognize that their emerging aesthetic constitutes one of the most interesting and significant present-day attempts to articulate a new form of literary community and culture, I’m not always the biggest fan of all their books. Of the authors I’m writing about, only David Foster Wallace and William Gibson (who is not, strictly speaking, in the coterie of postironists) consistently live up to my expectations. Even Ellison and Pynchon I find to be choppy sometimes.