Zadie Smith’s *On Beauty* (Summer Read #1)

7/19/12 8:49 pm

Just finished Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Hmm, where to start? We’re on Fire Island and the kids are at Bingo Night (I’ve been journaling in my notebook and writing haiku journals in my two blogs todayeye and wqueens7). I have made this book last altogether too long.

I liked On Beauty because Smith is a consummate novelist, freighting everything with meaning. Each word is simultaneously informative within the story and about life as well. I really love reading good novels (or novels that I like). It reminds me of what is good about life: everything is simultaneously a fact about the world and a symbol to be interpreted.  (That is one of the things I’ve been meaning to write about, the semiotics of life in the world.)

Three points to to start with, first the most personal and idiosyncratic: Adultery. In 93 or 94 I was a reader for Don McQuade’s Cold War Ethnic Literature course at Berkeley and for that class I read Eat a Bowl of Tea. The plot was not adultery per-se,  but  a wife who is raped and continues to have sex with her rapist because her husband is impotent.  Reading that book as I was in my 1st long term relationship was really hard on me emotionally.  I think it was because I was so insecure about having a girlfriend and I was so happy to be living with Linda and to have had a real connection with a  partner, the idea of a marriage not working out “happily ever after” stylee was horrifying. This time the adulterer is a protagonist.  He’s not terribly likeable, nor is his relationship, but their marriage is a huge part of five lives and the idea of even a bad marriage failing upsets me. It isn’t a bad marriage, just a rote one.  I’d imagine it is like every marriage: habit. To disrupt the routine of a family is, to me, for some reason, terrifying. I guess I’m happy about my life and any threat to it is frightening.

Second, and I guess this is related to the adultery plot, SEX. First, his first affair is with a woman whom he has known for thirty years. Claire recalls recalls seducing him without any desire for him or and real understanding of why she did it.  I, somehow, understand that “Imp of the Perverse” that would make you behave horribly and then deal with the consequences.  I am glad I’ve never cheated on Linda and that it has been a while since I did any of those self destructive behaviors that are, as they say in AA, moving towards a drink. Phew!

Claire, the woman of the initial affair, is also described as mega fit in the most unattractive way. She is the opposite of his zaftig African American wife physically, and in some ways intellectually and temperamentally.  He doesn’t like her, he just does it because he can. JERK!  I could see falling into that sort of trap if I didn’t try to keep myself spiritually fit.

Victoria, -Vee-, the daughter of an academic rival who sort of seduces him at her mother’s wake, and was the first love of his oldest son, is described as completely beautiful and composed, but also young and immature.  She “sexts” him and manipulates him into a second encounter, where he sees her ugly side and snaps out of it.  Of course, she is nineteen and he is fifty seven.  She is a student and young woman, and he is a father and professor.  There is no simple “right and wrong” here, but I find it possibly excusable:but finally inexcusable.

Her beauty and stereotypical beauty of youth is a social asset and very glamorous, but inappropriate. I liked this part of the novel. The collapse of visual or two dimensional beauty into something other than an asset worked for me. Like Claire Malcolm, the wirey poetess, the babalicious buppy princess, two forms of fetishized women presented to middle aged men like me, are finally shown to be thin, two dimensional wraiths in inappropriate and unequal power relation relationships.  I like that, and in some ways that was the main gristle of the novel for me. however, I think it could have been handled more economically.

The novel ends with no closure. There is huge growth on the part of Howard, but it is incremental. He doesn’t get everything back (like I wanted), but he does make huge steps towards righting himself to a better, more independent and complete person.

One other little thing that bothered me was that the language wasn’t quite right I admire Smith for trying to leave England, but I was bothered by a few misused words (road).

Well, this is hardly a book review, or  even a cogent assessment of the novel, but it is a good personal account of some of the main parts of the novel from my perspective…


3 responses to “Zadie Smith’s *On Beauty* (Summer Read #1)

  1. odella woodson

    it was the most enjoyable read i’d had in a looong time.
    i liked all of the observations of mores and how their bent out at the drop of a hat or pants. and i loved the variety of ages of the women.
    now i have to get a few more pages of a “suitable boy” which is getting rather tiring at the 1400 page mark .but since i am such an indo phile these days and i am fascinated by the characters i’ll read on and on and on.

  2. so much to recommend it
    though, in the end, just B+
    Thing one Loved it, but I just liked it
    you get the card O?
    (Check this out, a new experiment:

  3. Never heard of this book, or seen it around. Which is surprising for a person who spends most of their free time book shopping. I have to check it out ASAP. I’m due for some regular reading anyway. I tend to get lost in my paranormal series.

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