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Against Beauty

One of the running jokes in On Beauty, Zadie Smith’s third novel, is that its main character is philosophically opposed to beauty. Howard Belsey is a professor of art history at Wellington College, and like all middle-aged professors in campus novels, he is a ludicrous figure--unfaithful to his wife, disrespected by his children, and, of course, unable to finish the book he has been talking about for years. In Howard’s case, the book is meant to be a demolition of Rembrandt, whose canvases he sees as key sites for the production of the Western ideology of beauty.

“What we’re trying to ... interrogate here,” Howard drones in a lecture on Rembrandt’s Seated Nude, “is the mytheme of artist as autonomous individual with privileged insight into the human.... What are we signing up for when we speak of the ‘beauty’ of this ‘light’?” Throughout this rather stereotypical classroom vaudeville, Smith cements the reader’s antagonism to Howard and his cheap aesthetic nihilism by having us view it through the eyes of his most naïve student, Katie Armstrong, a sixteen-year-old from the Midwest who is uncomplicatedly in love with art. “She used to dream about one day attending a college class about Rembrandt with other intelligent people who loved Rembrandt and weren’t ashamed to express this love,” Smith writes, and she makes us indignant at Howard on Katie’s behalf. Indignation turns to scorn when it turns out that Howard Belsey is just as enthralled by beauty as anyone--specifically, by the beauty of another young student, Victoria Kipps, with whom he has a disastrous affair.

Howard’s downfall--he loses his wife and his career--is the revenge of beauty, and in the novel’s last scene Smith forces Howard to admit defeat. He is standing before a distinguished audience, about to deliver the talk that will determine his academic future, when he realizes that he has left his speech in the car. He is left to cycle emptily through his slides, finally allowing Rembrandt’s pictures to speak for themselves, after all his attempts to deface them with words. And the sheer beauty of the images, in Smith’s last paragraphs, becomes a promise of redemption: in Rembrandt’s portrait of his wife Hendrickje, the imperfections of the skin, “chalky whites and lively pinks,” are redeemed by “the ever present human hint of yellow, intimation of what is to come.” In this scene, Smith delivers the traditional affirmations we look to comedy to provide: beauty, love, and art triumph over malice and division.

Readers who remember Howard Belsey will surely be surprised to open Smith’s new collection of non-fiction, and find that it contains a frontal attack on the idea of beauty in fiction. This essay “Two Directions for the Novel” is one of the high points of Changing My Mind, which in addition to literary criticism includes Smith’s film and travel writing--proficient but unremarkable--and a fine memoir of her father. First published in 2008, the essay is a manifesto in the form of a review of two novels, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which offer Smith an eloquent contrast, not least in their worldly careers.

Netherland will be well known to anyone who reads fiction; it was one of the most acclaimed novels of 2008. (The paperback comes with a blurb from President Obama--a publicist’s dream.) Remainder, on the other hand, was at best a succès d’estime, which appeared in 2007 as a paperback original after taking, Smith tells us, “seven years to find a mainstream publisher.” This information comes in the very first paragraph of Smith’s essay, suggesting its importance to her. Later we learn that McCarthy is the founder of a prankish manifestoissuing group called the International Necronautical Society, and that he once expelled two writers from this society for “signing with corporate publishers,” thus becoming, in his words, “complicit with a publishing industry whereby the ‘writer’ becomes merely the executor of a brief dictated by corporate market research, reasserting the certainties of middle-brow aesthetics.”

It is clear that part of what draws Smith to McCarthy is this avant-garde puritanism, which seems so precious and anachronistic today. For Smith’s own first novel--White Teeth, published in 2000, when she was twenty-four years old--met with what Philip Larkin (a frequent touchstone in her essays) once described as “success so huge and wholly farcical”; and ever since, she has been that rare and ambiguous thing, not just a good writer but a famous writer. There is a kind of penance in the homage that Smith pays to McCarthy’s seven years in the wilderness, and a kind of self-suspicion in her description of O’Neill’s book: “It’s as if, by an act of collective prayer, we have willed it into existence.”

Exactly the same thing might be said, with even more justice, of White Teeth, which was so eagerly welcomed in part because it said things that Britons in particular wanted very much to hear. In that book, Smith takes some of the most envenomed and insoluble problems of contemporary life--immigration, racism, religious fundamentalism, terrorism--and turns them into premises for comedy. Any of the characters in White Teeth could be the protagonist in a novel of social protest: Samad Iqbal, the educated Bengali immigrant reduced to working as a waiter; Samad’s son Millat, a charismatic teenager driven by boredom and resentment to join an Islamic militant group; even the lovable sad sack Archie Jones, a native Englishman trapped at the bottom of an immutable class system.

Yet none of these figures seems threatening or truly pitiable, because they inhabit a comic universe in which conflict is inadmissible, even or especially when it is Smith’s explicit subject. Sometimes this is because Smith neuters her characters with jokes: the group that Millat joins is called Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation, or KEVIN, which immediately prevents us from thinking of it as genuinely dangerous. Even the characters are in on the joke: “We are aware that we have an acronym problem,” one militant says.

But this kind of self-conscious spoofing is not very frequent in White Teeth, and Smith’s comedy is more affirmative than a mere spoof could be. Politically, her book is consoling because she tells us that rancor and racism are things of the past--problems for the grouchy old, not the exuberantly hybridized young. It is noteworthy that, in this book about Asian and Caribbean immigrants in Britain, there is only one character who is actually a racist, and he is a very minor character. This is the shut-in Mr. Hamilton, whom the three children in the book--Millat and Magid, Samad’s sons, and their best friend Irie, who has a white English father and a black Caribbean mother--visit as part of a school-organized charity project. When the children bring the old man groceries, he launches into a homily on the importance of dental hygiene, which leads unexpectedly to this reflection: “Clean white teeth are not always wise, now are they? Par exemplum: when I was in the Congo, the only way I could identify the nigger was by the whiteness of his teeth, if you see what I mean. Horrid business. Dark as buggery, it was. And they died because of it, you see?”

This eruption of ugliness reduces the children to silence, then makes them furious and tearful. But in the novel’s own terms, there is no contest between Mr. Hamilton, who makes his brief contemptible appearance and then vanishes, and the children, who are its beloved heroes. If we ask White Teeth the question E.M. Forster asked in Howards End--who is to inherit England?--there can be no doubt of Smith’s answer: England belongs to Irie and Millat and Magid, and a good thing, too. Not for nothing did Smith choose as the book’s epigraph “What is past is prologue.”

Smith is so certain that racism is not a threat that she finds much of the novel’s comedy in the attempts of well-meaning white Britons to avoid sounding racist. One of the many funny set pieces in White Teeth involves a parents’ meeting at the children’s school, where Samad harasses everyone with his attempts to get more Islamic holidays added to the school calendar. The comedy, typically for Smith, comes from the fact that no one takes this religiosity seriously--even Samad’s wife keeps trying to shut him up--and that the other parents are exclusively concerned with not seeming culturally insensitive. The chairwoman of the meeting--named, jokingly but emblematically, Ms. Miniver--“wanted to check that it was not her imagination, that she was not being unfair or undemocratic, or worse still racist (but she had read Colour Blind, a seminal leaflet from the Rainbow Coalition, she had scored well on the self-test), racist in ways that were so deeply ingrained and socially determining that they escaped her attention.”

As this suggests, another reason why Smith is finally so consoling is generic. Embarrassment and obliviousness are comic, but xenophobia and hatred are not; and so in White Teeth the latter are invariably translated into the former. This is not at all to say that Smith sets out to be funny in order to be ingratiating. Rather, her talent for comedy is so genuine that it transforms everything in its orbit into an occasion for laughter. Smith’s is the true comic vision, in which all conflicts are really misunderstandings, and everyone deserves sympathy because no one is genuinely evil.

This is not the only kind of comedy, of course--for all the comparisons White Teeth earned to Dickens, Dickens is far more frightening, because more sensible of evil. But it is a kind of comedy to which English literature has always been hospitable, and it is remarkable how often Smith sounds like or even alludes to Kingsley Amis and P.G. Wodehouse. One of the best recurring jokes in White Teeth is about that hoariest of set-ups, a pair of deaf old bores in a pub. That the bores in this case are domino-playing Caribbeans, rather than darts-playing Englishmen, makes much less of a difference than one might think.

White Teeth was published in 2000, and it is intriguing to wonder what might have happened if it had been delayed by a year. After September 11, 2001, it would not have been as easy to write, or to read, a novel in which KEVIN is the face of Islamic terrorism. In fact, all the troubles that White Teeth asks us to see as things of the past, from immigration to imperialism, began in the last decade to look like the stuff of our future. The past is not only prologue, the past is also present, and White Teeth often reads like a memento of the West’s brief decade of post-historical optimism.

It is notable that Smith’s subsequent novels gave the themes and the setting of White Teeth a wide berth. The Autograph Man was a farce about celebrity worship and the immaturity of young men, and On Beauty relocated to an American college town. Near the beginning of the latter novel, Howard Belsey and his wife Kiki decide to have an anniversary party, even though the date of the party seems to disconcert many of the guests; it is clear that the date is supposed to be September 11, but Smith, as if on principle, never actually names it. Now, one of the things Smith has against Netherland is that it set out to be, and was praised as, “the post-9/11 novel we hoped for.” “Were there calls, in 1915, for the Lusitania novel?” she asks. “In 1985, was the Bhopal novel keenly anticipated?”

The questions are willfully obtuse, since the comparisons are all wrong. Ask whether there was a post-Kennedy assassination novel, or a post-Pearl Harbor novel, and you will come closer to the effect of September 11--and get the opposite answer from the one that Smith intends. Despite her sarcasm, tragic historical events have always been legitimate inspirations for fiction. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, for example, one of the obvious progenitors of White Teeth, is a long fictional reflection on the bloody partition of India and Pakistan and its consequences.

But of course Smith does not mean to be just to Netherland. What troubles her is precisely that O’Neill did rise to the challenge of writing a “post-9/11 novel,” through an intelligent use of the conventional novel form. Like all the best novels inspired by September 11, Netherland treats the attacks themselves very obliquely, and thus avoids the painful literalism that afflicted John Updike’s Terrorist and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. Briefly, it is the story of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch financier living in New York, whose wife and child leave the city after the attacks. In his loneliness, Hans joins an amateur cricket league whose other members are all South Asian and Caribbean immigrants; and there he befriends Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian who dreams of building a cricket stadium in New York. This story is told in prose that is consciously poetic--O’Neill courts the comparison to F. Scott Fitzgerald--and while the lyricism can sometimes feel like much of a muchness (as in Fitzgerald), it is also impressive and moving.

For Smith, however, both the story and the style of Netherland are objectionable, and for the same reason. It is a book in which “a community in recent crisis--the Anglo-American liberal middle class--meets a literary form in long-term crisis, the nineteenth-century lyrical realism of Balzac and Flaubert.” Hans, Smith argues, is a rich tourist in New York, insulated by race and class from Chuck’s struggles as an immigrant, which allows him (and O’Neill) to turn Chuck into a fetish of authenticity. Likewise, she continues, O’Neill makes a fetish of language, lavishing his powers on lyrical descriptions that prevent any sharp, unsettling encounter with the real. But this “lyrical realism,” Smith rules, is an obsolete form, unable to capture either the social dislocations or the phenomenological reality of life in our time. “Out of a familiar love,” Smith sums up, “like a lapsed High Anglican, Netherland hangs on to the rituals and garments of transcendence, though it well knows they are empty.” It could be Howard Belsey talking.

The surprisingly conventional terms in which Smith abuses Netherland set up one half of a dichotomy, and Remainder is adduced, a little opportunistically, to supply the other half. If the former is plush, the latter is austere; if the former is traditional, the latter is avant-garde; if the former traffics in worn-out emblems of authenticity, the latter puts authenticity itself in question. McCarthy’s novel is narrated by a man, never named, who has just emerged from a coma after being involved in a mysterious accident. He receives a huge settlement, and uses the money to recreate, in real life, places and events that have lodged in his memory: first an apartment building, then a car wash, then a murder scene. These re-enactments are highly literal--the narrator hires actors, builds sets, recreates things down to the last detail--but they are also, of course, McCarthy’s metaphysical gambit, involving us in questions about the nature of reality and memory, narcissism and transcendence.

To Smith, McCarthy’s programmatic deconstruction of the real is a good antidote to O’Neill’s piety about it. Lyrical realism is doubly inauthentic, in its beauty and in its received notion of the integral self; whereas McCarthy’s prose is deliberately dull and matter-of-fact, and the self at the heart of his story is always already ejected from itself, and must try by means of grandiose re-enactments to achieve an illusory, remembered unity. In both ways, Smith casts Remainder as the bonfire of Netherland’s vanities: “it means ... to shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the deadwood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward.”

Even without going deeply into the relative merits of the two novels, it is apparent that there is something forced--dare one say inauthentic?--about the use that Smith makes of them. Smith argues that O’Neill is a writer of the day before yesterday, a Flaubertian aesthete, while McCarthy points the way to a stripped-down, de-centered future. But it is impossible to read Remainder without being struck by how familiar, how conventional, its avant-garde gestures are. The demonstratively undemonstrative protagonist reminds us of Camus’s Meursault, and his phenomenological alienation of Sartre’s Roquentin. Smith lauds the scene in which McCarthy’s narrator is repelled by the actuality of a carrot--“this carrot ... was more active than me: the way it bumped and wrinkled, how it crawled with grit”--but does not mention that it alludes to the most famous moment in Nausea, when Roquentin contemplates a tree’s roots. This kind of anti-lyricism is by now its own kind of lyricism.

More misleading still is Smith’s suggestion that McCarthy’s coolly stylized novel has a truer grasp of the real than O’Neill’s warmly stylized one. “In place of the pleasure of the rich adjective,” Smith asserts, “we have an imagined world in which logistical details and logical consequences are pursued with care and precision: if you were to rebuild an entire house and fill it with people re-enacting actions you have chosen for them, this is exactly how it would play out. Every detail is attended to.” But if you turn to the relevant section of Remainder, you find that McCarthy describes the “logistical details” of the re-enactment this way:

We’d receive faxes on the machine we had in our car and stuff them into the back-seat glove compartment as the driver raced us to another meeting, then forget that we’d received them and have them re-faxed or go back to the same office or the same warehouse again--so the humming in our ears was constant, a cacophony of modems and drilling and arpeggios and perpetually ringing phones. The hum, the meetings, the arrivals and departures turned into a state of mind--one that enveloped us within the project, drove us forward, onwards, back again.

So McCarthy’s realism turns out to be abstract, generalized, aestheticized. If you actually did want to re-build an entire house and fill it with re-enactors, this passage would be totally useless as a guide--you would not know where to begin, much less how to finish. In fact, McCarthy has no interest in the logistical side of the re-enactments, which is why he introduces a character called Naz to serve as the narrator’s factotum. Naz deals with reality, so the narrator and the novel can dwell on sensation.

Reading Netherland, by contrast, it is constantly clear how much diligent observation went into O’Neill’s descriptions of parts of New York life that the average fiction reader, not to mention writer, will never see. O’Neill’s description of the “2003 Annual Gala of the Association of New York Cricket Leagues” may or may not be based on a real event, but reading it one feels that if it took place, it would have been just like this: in this kind of vulgarly elegant event hall, in this remote part of Queens, with these guests of honor (a state assemblyman, a low-ranking functionary from the mayor’s office), and these corporate sponsors (Air Jamaica, Red Stripe). Far from suggesting that lyrical realism is a fraud, the experience of reading O’Neill and McCarthy side by side suggests that it is precisely an interest in reality that enables and justifies a novelist’s lyricism. It is because O’Neill is so attentive to the world that he attempts to capture it in the only way language allows--poetically.

Smith has misread these books, but she has done so in a way that is suggestive about her own writerly ambitions and anxieties. In linking the (alleged) debility of the novel to the (alleged) crisis of the Anglo-American liberal middle class, Smith is making a connection that is not especially pertinent to Netherland. (Hans van den Broek is neither Anglo-American nor middle-class. He is a rich Dutchman.) But it is at the very heart of another writer who is much more important to Smith than Joseph O’Neill: E.M. Forster, who is the subject of another significant essay in Changing My Mind.

When Howard Belsey, in On Beauty, happens to pick up a copy of A Room With a View that is lying around in his father’s apartment, he mutters: “Forster. Can’t stand Forster.” With his principled suspicion of beauty and truth and humanism, Howard would have to hate Forster, whose fiction often reads like a sermon on behalf of those very things. But what Howard does not know, and the reader cannot miss, is that the novel in which he exists is a sustained homage to Howards End. The Belseys, the academic liberals of Smith’s novel, loosely correspond to Forster’s Schlegels, while the Kippses--whose daughter Victoria is Howard’s undoing--are versions of the conservative and business-like Wilcoxes. At several points in On Beauty, Smith offers clever and affectionate parodies of famous moments from Howards End: Forster’s description of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for instance, becomes Smith’s description of Mozart’s Requiem.

Smith’s large indebtedness to Forster, in what is probably her best and certainly her most mature novel, makes her ambivalence in the Forster essay all the more striking. “It should be obvious from the first line,” Smith writes in the acknowledgments to On Beauty, “that this is a novel inspired by a love of E.M. Forster, to whom all my fiction is indebted, one way or the other.” But in her essay, Smith now feels that “there is something middling about Forster; he is halfway to where people want him to be.” (The title of the essay is “E.M. Forster, Middle Manager.”) Smith tries to argue that this middlingness is healthy humility, rather than mediocrity: “He could sit in his own literary corner without claiming its superiority to any other.” We may feel that Forster pales in comparison to his contemporaries--Joyce, Woolf, Eliot--but Smith gives him credit for acknowledging their greatness: “Forster was not Valéry, but he defended Valéry’s right to be Valéry.”

But defense is a feeble kind of recognition, and the metaphor of rights does not really belong in literary criticism. A writer’s right to write must certainly be defended from a mob of book-burners or a committee of censors, but when it comes to aesthetic judgment what matters is not that a writer has a right, but that his writing be right. And if the writer with whom Smith most publicly identifies is merely a middle manager--a “Notable English Novelist, common or garden variety,” as she also puts it--how can she help but wonder if she herself is right enough? “There’s magic and beauty in Forster, and weakness, and a little laziness, and some stupidity,” she sums up. “He’s like us.” That is not what many writers would choose as their epitaph.

Is it any wonder, then, that in castigating the tradition of “lyrical realism”--the term she coins for O’Neill, but that describes Forster, and especially Howards End, quite exactly--Smith writes with the passion and injustice that an artist usually brings to her self-interrogations? “I have written in this tradition myself,” Smith acknowledges, “and cautiously hope for its survival, but if it’s to survive, lyrical realists will have to push a little harder on their subject.” And what draws Smith to Remainder, it is fair to say, is its appearance of pushing very hard, of sacrificing beauty (and popularity) in the name of truth. The same feeling animates her tribute to David Foster Wallace, the last piece in Changing My Mind. “Wallace chose the path of most resistance,” Smith writes, “he battled his gifts rather than simply display them, seeming to seek the solution in a principle of self-mortification.”

Taken together, these essays suggest a writer engaged in a reconsideration, perhaps a refashioning, of her own methods and values. She seems torn between her sense of what fiction ought to be--up-to-the-minute, theoretically informed, self-consciously strenuous--and what her own fiction actually is: traditional, popular, and affirmative, as well as intelligent and literary. It is troubling that Smith seems to be programmatically denigrating exactly the qualities that made her first three books not only successful, but also good: the abundance and inventiveness and love of the grotesque that seemed to be evolving, in On Beauty,into a deeper and more moving kind of comedy.

Changing My Mind includes a memoir of Smith’s late father, “Dead Man Laughing,” that is perhaps the most powerful narrative writing she has done so far. In explaining her father’s love of British television and stand-up comedy, Smith creates a much darker and more affecting portrait of him than she did in White Teeth, where Harvey Smith was the model for Archie Jones. The moment in this memoir when Smith “put my finger in the dust of my father”--his cremated remains have been in a Tupperware box on her desk--“and put the dust into my mouth and swallowed it,” provokes the kind of dreadful laughter--“I laughed as I did it”--that her fiction has so far seldom attempted. It leaves the reader curious to see what kind of writer will emerge from Smith’s half-acknowledged crisis of literary conscience. 

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