Feb, 2006 – Introduced by Claire Fox
Books Discussed: On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Most critics have noted the nod to EM Forster that Zadie Smith makes with her third book, On Beauty. Claire Fox from the Institute of Ideas visited the NY Salon from London and raised a number of thought provoking points. Complementing Smith on an ambitious work that deals with a number of different areas, from the Culture Wars in university life to the obsession with identity more broadly in society, Ms Fox went on to tackle a few of the themes in terms of how they are playing out in the world around us. Of particular interest was the recurring leitmotif of imploding belief. Kiki at one point reflects on how she liked ‘to tell the truth…in churches and upscale stores and courtrooms. Places she sensed the truth was rarely told’ (p177). This becomes even clearer in her fury at her husband’s betrayal, both physical and epistemological, when she tells him ‘You don’t have any beliefs, that’s why you’re scared of people with beliefs, people who have dedicated themselves to something, to an idea.’ (p392) Here, Jerome’s embrace of religion seems to be an antidote to Howard’s inability to commit to anything significant.
While it seems as though Monty Kipps is supposed to represent a reactionary, he comes across somewhat sympathetically and this seems intentional on Smith’s behalf, who pokes fun consistently at the pc-rife obsession with identity, vignette course curricula and ‘street’ cred. Kipps consistently comes off better against Howard, politically and elsewhere, though it seemed like a cop out to have all the characters somewhat unsympathetic. With Betty Friedan’s recent death, it brought to mind the often quoted charge that women have been portrayed stereotypically as the home maker, the career woman, the bombshell and the intellectual, but not a mixture of these and at times this seems to afflict the characters in On Beauty.
Where Smith wins a home run however is in the poignant dissecting of the debate around politically correct patronizing policies. The Culture Wars continues to play out both in the US and internationally. Indeed, the competing to tag what is ‘appropriate’ behaviour has seen a decline in intellectual and cultural standards across the board. A New York Times leader the same day as the NY Salon talked about Fulton, St Louis, where both Grease and The Crucible had been banned from being shown by a local school for being ‘inapporopriate’. Read article.
Too often there can be silencing around certain issues and the discussion about race seems to be one of them. I noted how at a recent event I attended, one of the panelists invoked the difference between African Americans and whites to press home a point, which resulted in some raucousness from some parts of the audience and silence from others. (http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/0000000CAF7B.htm)
Claire talked about the way the identity tag is increasingly becoming the way people are both defined and how they define themselves. Until recently, for instance, she noted, young Asian men would be referred to as ‘young Asians’. Increasingly they have been ‘re-labelled’ as ‘young Muslims’ – and while the old Left and Right lecture them from their varying positions, both generally against ‘fundamentalism’, she pointed out that they at least seem to believe in something and had higher expectations as young people for what is possible – rather than to be patronized.
The discussion was broad and, like the book, covered a number of fascinating areas such as beauty and what it means, the role of the family (the Belsey’s all use first names with their parents) yet in the end it does seem that the overriding theme was one of disconnected people living increasingly atomized lives.
Levi, achingly uncool in his oh-so-common angst to have some street cred by changing the way he talks and walks, ends up being incredulous that Carl should want to improve his life. Here, Smith is great on class and affectations. While the Salon had a bit of a clash on the point about Howard’s working class background and what it meant, the scene with his father speaks to Smith’s ongoing insight in to class and the legacy it can have in our lives.
The consensus seemed to be that Zadie Smith has managed to deal with a number of complex issues in her novel, not all agreed on how successfully this was managed however. Claire Fox is also one of the judges for the UK Orange Book Award.
Review by Alan Miller