Monday, March 13, 2006

The Booker Prize Experiment #2

I've finally read a second off last year's Booker list, Zadie Smith's "On Beauty." I had tried Ali Smith's "The Accidental" but it was annoying me too much, and I'll have to come back to it. Firstly, I both like Zadie Smith's writing - having read all 3 of her novels - and think, in some ways, I might be the reader that she aims for, in that like "White Teeth" in particular, the mix of high and low culture "stuff" that fills the novel, clearly needs a reader who will warm to both rap music and classical. Some of her observational writing and her descriptions are perceptive, laugh-out-loud revealing, and constantly engaging. She's clever without being too clever; yet the real advances in technique that came through in the first half of "The Autograph Man" are smoothed out in "On Beauty." Ostensibly a rewrite of Forster's "Howard's End." That novel's overused epigram "only connect" should always be read in the context of the words that follow, "only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, " and this, as much as a reworking of plot, is Smith's aim in this modernisation. The novel is about two families, the Belseys and the Kipps, the patriarch's of both - a white liberal and a black conservative, Howard and Monty - in intellectual war over a detail in Rembrandt, but a detail that is symptomatic of a wider blurring of liberal and conservative values. In a comic sense, this is where Smith excels, she can readily poke fun at doctrines of all kinds, whilst retaining a certain love for the seriousness that attends it. A novelist can have their cake and eat it; in the Belsey's 3 children is a priggish, uncreative sophomore student, Zora, an off-stage romantic Christian, Jerome, and a middle-class street-kid hip hop idealist, Levi. They are all types, but also more than their cliches - Levi in particular a joy of middle-class teenage rebellion, with a streetwise patois, accurately and affectionately portrayed, who becomes obsessed with supporting the workers rights of the underpaid (and unseen) Haittian workers in the small college town, Wellington, where he lives. Howard is white, a son of a Cricklewood butcher, who left his country, class and race, marrying the black American woman Kiki, and becoming a respected, feared, albeit limited, college professor. Kiki is heart of the novel - a larger than life (in every way) woman - who becomes fed up of always having to be so "strong" as, perhaps inevitably, her husband tumbles into an uncomfortable mid-life crisis - mostly of his own making. Playing off against these are the Kipps family, Wilcoxes to Schlegels in the "Howard's End" parallel. The novel begins with an email exchange and ends with a Powerpoint presentation, a tinkering modernisation, rather than any real revelation, since these are easy concessions to modernity. The 2 or 3 modern updatings of "Howard's End" are quite witty, but its more of a ruse on which to hang a more general mixed-up family rivalry/study of social mores than something that sustains the novel. In fact, the "Howard's End" parallels become annoyances, particularly, with the introduction of the black "street poet" Carl, as the novel's Leonard Bast. For Carl is key to the novel in many senses, yet is underdeveloped. His own past - from which he is trying to escape by going to any "free" concerts going (Mozart in the park) - is hardly written, and he seems to return each time as a plot device, rather than a character. He turns up at the party he's been invited to at the Belsey's only to be turned away, but this - potentially a key scene - is forgotten about, shrugged off; his appearance at the "Bus Stop" reciting Performance Poetry, gets him into the University's poetry class, but his poetry is soon forgotten, when he can be more usefully utilised as a Hip Hop Archivist in the University's Black Studies department. Most shamefully, he disappears when the plot demands it - but, without going into details - entirely without the sense of consequence that Forster brings to "Howard's End." Having previously said you don't find bars in Zadie Smith novels, I guess the "Bus Stop" comes close, albeit one frequented by "tourists" from the "bohemian" poetry class at the university, that serves Moroccan food and where you have to smoke outside. But the emotional and geographical centre of the novel is far from there, far from the "street". Essentially "On Beauty" is another of that strange breed, the campus novel. I've taken 2 university degrees, and worked in 2 universities, but the world of "On Beauty" is unknown to me. It's the university of privilege, isolation and tradition. The "office politics" of the Dons, the cloistered self-regard of the university town, the rampant ambition of the focussed students - these are what the novel is most concerned about. Here lies a problem, since for satire to work, you have to, surely, be railing against what it is you are satirising, yet this is a paeon to the self-absorbtion of these people and places. Smith likes her characters, is too humane to their human foibles, sees them as self-obsessed whilst valuing that self-obsession, as being an important part of a civilised culture. There's nothing wrong with this, but it makes the novel - like much of her debut - more bourgeois than iconoclastic, and there's a sense that nothing bad can really happen to these privileged people. If there's more of the contemporary than you'll find in McEwan or Holllinghurst, there's the same love of big houses, and intellectual discourse. There's nothing, in the end, to match the savage sense of consequence that you get in Coetzee for instance, for in "On Beauty" there is always a chance to learn from your mistakes and learn from your experience. It's perhaps unfair to criticize Smith for being the novelist that she isn't, but it's a shame that someone so constantly inventive and entertaining in the detail, seems to choose the novel of manners as her preferred structure. I thought "White Teeth" was far more middle-class than multicultural, and "On Beauty", part campus novel, part a comedy of rivalry, confirms both her talents and her limitations. Worth reading, if you like this sort of thing, I guess.

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