Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Zadie Smith's On Beauty

At the outset I must make the preliminary statement that a novel like On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, is not for all readers. Smith tends to portray a situation as it happens, with the type of frankness that at times brings the reader face to face with a linguistic and even sexual realism which makes it really unfit for certain audiences. It is, let us say, "rated R," in the least. With that caveat, I must say that over all I enjoyed and very much appreciate On Beauty, for several reasons.

Zadie Smith in this novel masterfully creates the microcosmic world of a modern suburban New England family, with its intrahousehold conflicts, and the relationships of its members with others, mostly within the academic world of an upper class New England university community. As we are led to follow with sympathy each of the lives of this family, and others in the story, we are brought into not only the academic world, with its social peculiarities, politics, and moral ambiguities, but also the socioeconomic and racial dimensions of life in the modern world. Along the way we see competing ideas, on matters as diverse as art, race, approaches to education, and religion, ideas expressed both in conversation, and in the lives of the characters.

The first pages led me to think that On Beauty was going to be a story of a young man, his relationship with his father, his crush on a young woman in England, and his broadening outlook on life. Soon, however, the story begins to pull the reader successively into the lives of other members of the Belsey family, as well as those of the Kipps family, and others, so that one is hardly sure after a while if the real point is to tell us about the pain of a woman trying to deal with her husband's infidelity, or a man's struggle to gain relevancy and legitimacy in the harsh publish-or-perish world of academia, or any number of other fascinating facets of the life of the Belseys and the Kippses. In retrospect, On Beauty is really a fictional display of contrasts, and of how contrasting ideas, and forces, behave when forced to face each other, how they differ, and how they resemble each other.

One of the most fascinating elements of the novel, to me, is the racial, along with the socioeconomic, how the realities of modern America, and in some ways also Great Britain, clash with our popular perceptions. How well does a black man from the inner city relate with a black man from a well to do suburban academic community? How well does a Haitian immigrant, struggling to make a living, relate to either of these? All three are Black Americans, yet their lives are so different that race, as important as it is (and it is extremely important to each) can seem almost negligible as an indicator of how well they identify with each other. Oddly, in some ways race seems to become more important in the self identity of the young suburban upper class black man than with the other two, and this is a man who has never had to struggle for his survival. A half black, suburban man, yet he adopts the mode of speech common to the inner city street rappers with whom he is trying to identify, and he ends up taking on the cause of the Haitians and their grievances, even joining in their demonstrations, though he knows very little about the actual history of the conflict in Haiti. I don't mention this to condemn this character, just to raise an example of one of the surprising, perhaps counter intuitive realities that often obtain in the struggle that each man must face for identity in the modern world. To put it simply, race in America is hardly as black and white as it is often made to appear. Do I, for example, a man who grew up on 31st & Cherry on Milwaukee's North Side (what a friend once called "31st and the Hood"), have more in common with the middle class Lutherans who run the seminary in Fort Wayne or with the men and women who make up the working class in the core of the city, those with whom I've worked and lived my whole life? Conversely, there are black men in the Black Clergy Caucus of the Missouri Synod who, at least over time, have become better able to relate to each other and with bureaucrats than with the folks in the pews. None of this is necessarily to condemn anyone in these comparisons, just to observe that it behooves us to recognize that things are not always as they appear.

Along this line, one of the more amusing episodes to me is when the young inner city black man, Carl, whose chief passion is rap, hip hop, and what he calls the Spoken Word, shows himself to be quite into Mozart, especially his Requiem, after having seen a performance, and studied its history on his own. In a conversation with Zora, a young lady from the Belsey family, who has had a life of education and privilege, he tries to get her into a discussion about the Requiem, especially the Lacrymosa, about which he has become completely excited. Zora can barely figure out what he is talking about, and could care less.

Others in the story struggle between faith and atheism. It has always been easy and natural for the Belsey family to make fun of the Kipps family, even to have a sort of contempt for them, the Belseys being enlightened atheists, for the most part, and the Kipps family being known mainly for a backwards and puritanical Christianity. Then their lives actually clash with each other, and that no longer becomes so easy or convenient. Likewise, however, the Kippses are not the pious Christians their reputation would have the world think. In the end, the two family patriarchs are both shown to be equally guilty of marital infidelity, and each equally incapable of relating to his own family. Things are not always as they seem.

This, in fact, is a key hermeneutic to Howard Belsey's approach to art, and art history, as the focus of his career seems to be to challenge the conventional wisdom of historians of great art, especially of Rembrandt. He cannot manage, however, to complete his book on Rembrandt, though it has been substantially finished for some time. (This species of frustration is not entirely unknown to me.)

On the lighter side of the whole narrative is the taste of the culture of academia, in which the reader is shown a glimpse, for example, of a type of academic-speak, that is utterly useless in the real world. This reminds me of one of my favorite juxtopositions in the book, namely, two types or modes of speech. The setting is a departmental faculty meeting, and the department head, Jack French, is giving some opening remarks, in which is is attempting to explain why it was important to move the meeting from its originally scheduled day in December to a date in January. After his comments, he calls upon his assistant, the practical and organized Liddy, to basically say the same thing from her perspective. Here is how that meeting begins:

"'There are,' said Jack, bringing his hands together, 'a dyad of reasons why last month's meeting was delayed, rescheduled...maybe in fact it would be more accurate to say repositioned, for this date, for January tenth, and I feel that before we can proceed with this meeting, to which, by the way, I warmly welcome you all after what I sincerely hope was a pleasurable-and most importantly-a restful Christmas break-yes, and as I say, before we do proceed with what promises to be a really rather packed meeting as far as the printed agenda is concerned-before starting I just wanted to speak briefly about the reasons for this repositioning, for it was, in itself, as many of you know, not entirely without controversy. Yes. Now. First, it was felt by several members of our community that the issues to be discussed in that upcoming-now realized-meeting were of a magnitude and a complexity that required-nay, demanded-proper, considered presentations of both sides of the argument presently under our collective spotlight-which is not to suggest the argument before us is of a plainly binary nature-I personally have no doubt that we will find quite the contrary is the case and that, in fact, we may find ourselves this morning aligned along several different points along the, the, the, the funnel, if it can be put that way, of the discussion we are about to have. And so in order to create that space for formulation we took it on advice-without a faculty vote-to delay that meeting, and naturally anyone who feels that the decision taken regarding that delay was taken without due discussion can make a notation of their objection in our online file system, which our own Liddy Cantalino has set up expressly for these meetings...I believe the cache is situated at Code SS76 on the Humanities web page, the address of which I should hope you are all already familiar with-is that...?' queried Jack, looking to Liddy, who sat on a chair beside him. Liddy nodded, stood up, repeated the mysterious code and sat back down. 'Thank you, Liddy. So, yes. So there is a forum for complaint there. Now. The second reason-a far less fraught one, thank goodness-was the matter of simple time management, which had come to the attention of many of you and of myself and of Liddy, and it was her opinion, and the opinion of many of our colleagues who brought the issue to her attention, that at the very least the extreme-if you'll excuse the hackneyed analogy-gridlock of events in the December calendar-both academic and social-was leaving very little time for the usual and necessary preparation that faculty meetings-if they are to have any real effect at all-really require, if not demand. And i think Liddy has a few words for us with regard to how we will go about future scheduling of this crucial meeting. Liddy?'

Liddy stood once more and executed a brisk reshuffle of her bust. On her sweater reindeer were travelling unevenly, left to right.

'Hey, folks-well, basically just to repeat what Jack just said there, we ladies on the admin side of things are rushed off our behinds in December, and if we're gonna keep on with this hoo-hah of each department having a Christmas party as was pretty much decided last year, not to mention that we got practically every one of these kids chasing some kind of recommendation in the week before Christmas, even though God only knows they get warned all through the fall not to leave recommendations to the last minute, but anyhoo-we just felt that it made more basic horse sense to give ourselves a little breathing space in the last week before the vacation so that I for one can know which way my ass is pointing come the New Year.' This occasioned a polite laugh. 'If you'll excuse my French.'

Everybody did. The meeting began."

Now don't get me wrong. My own manner of speech is certainly not that of Liddy's. These are definitely two distinct types, There are others. As many as there are personalities. I do see this episode, however, as, in part, an amusing jab at the out of touch, ethereal, full of itself, manner that is the currency of some academics and bureaucrats.

Smith ends her novel without resolving any of the dilemmas or conflicts. That is not the goal of her writing. She leaves the world of the Belseys and the other characters as messy as ever. For that is the way life is in this world. It is the question that drives us. This is one of the reasons I appreciate this story. We enter the world of these interesting, sympathetic, yet pathetic, characters, and leave them after seeing about a year of their lives. In the process we see a bit our ourselves in them. And we are somehow richer for it.

P.S. The substance this reflection may not be as profoundly eucharistic as one might expect from a raving traditionalist, but how do you like my reference to AP 24?

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