On Beauty


Loved Zadie Smith’s On Beauty: A Novel, which I finished last night.

It’s funny and compassionate, true to the complexity of human (particularly family) relations, mildly mocking of most everyone — suburban kids trying to be urban, more down with the righteous brothers; the differing biases and squeamishness of liberals and conservatives; intellectuals who know not what their bodies desire or do; the heroic scenarios we rehearse in our heads; pragmatists and romantics; Christians and atheists; militant feminists; those who intuitively believe that things have meaning and those who studiously don’t; artists and critics; the posturing of academics; and so on. It’s about marriage, memories, families and generational differences, the paths we choose and which choose us, and primarily, I think, the similarities among people who believe themselves to be very different from each other.

A few bits that especially delighted me:

“The experience of listening to an hour’s music you barely know in a dead language you do not understand is a strange falling and rising experience. For minutes at a time you are walking deep into it, you seem to understand. Then, without knowing how or when exactly, you discover you have wandered away, bored or tired from the effort, and now you are nowhere near the music. You refer to the programme notes. The notes reveal that the past fifteen minutes of wrangling over your soul have been merely the repetition of a single inconsequential line. Somewhere around the Confutatis, Kiki’s careful tracing of the live music with the literal programme broke down. She didn’t know where she was now. In the Lacrimosa or miles ahead? Stuck in the middle or nearing the end? She turned to ask Howard, but he was asleep. A glimpse to her right revealed Zora concentrating on her Discman, through which a recording of the voice of a Professor N.R.A. Gould carefully guided her through each movement. Poor Zora — she lived through footnotes. It was the same in Paris: so intent was she upon reading the guide book to Sacré-Cœur that she walked directly into an altar, cutting her forehead open.”

“‘I got me champagne in one hand and chicken in the other,’ said Kiki, excessively jolly as penance for her thoughts. ‘What can I do for you?’

“‘Oh, God,’ said Christian. He seemed to know a joke should go here but he was constitutionally unable to provide one.”

“To women like Lydia, women like Claire made no sense at all. Everything Lydia had achieved in her life had come as a result of her prodigious organizational abilities and professionalism. There wasn’t any institution in the country that Lydia couldn’t reorganize and make more efficient, and in a few years, when she was done with Wellington, she knew in her heart of hearts that she would go on to Harvard and from there to anywhere she liked, maybe even the Pentagon. She had the skills, and skills took you places in Lydia’s America. … Lydia knew how she’d got where she was today, and also where she was going. What she didn’t get was how Claire Malcolm had got where she was today. How was it possible that a woman who lost her own office keys sometimes three times a week and did not know where the supplies cupboard was after five years at the college could yet hold a title as grandiose as Dowling Professor of Comparative Literature and be paid what Lydia knew she was paid because it was Lydia who sent out the pay stubs? And then, on top of it all, have an inappropriate workplace affair. Lydia knew it had something to do with art, but, personally, she didn’t buy it. Academic degrees she understood — Jack’s two Ph.D.s, in Lydia’s mind, made up for all the times he tipped coffee into his own filing cabinet. But poetry?”

“Kiki laughed her big lovely laugh in the small store. People looked up from their specialty goods and smiled abstractly, supporting the idea of pleasure even if they weren’t certain of the cause.”

“In January, at the first formal of the year, the tremendous will-power of Wellington’s female students is revealed. Unfortunately for the young women, this demonstration of pure will is accredited to ‘femininity’ — that most passive of the virtues — and, as a result, does not contribute to their Grade Point Average. It is unfair. Why are there no awards for the girl who starves herself through the Christmas period — refusing all sweetmeats, roasts and liqueurs offered to her — so that she might appear at the January formal in a backless dress and toeless shoes, although the temperature is near to freezing and the snow is heavy on the ground? … They all looked like princesses — but what steel must lurk within!”

“‘I could jump that fence like that,’ said Levi, pulling at the vertical iron rods as they walked beside them. ‘You wait in line, you’re a fool, seriously. A brother don’t need a gate — he jumps the fence. That’s street.'”

“‘Again, please?’ said Howard.

“‘Street, street’, bellowed Zora. ‘It’s like, “being street”, knowing the street — in Levi’s sad little world if you’re a Negro you have some kind of mysterious holy communion with sidewalks and corners.’

“‘Aw, man, shut up. You don’t know what the street looks like. You ain’t never been there.’

“‘What’s this’ said Zora, pointing to the ground. ‘Marshmallow?’

“‘Please. This ain’t America. You think this is America? This is toy town. I was born in this country — trust me. You go into Roxbury, you go into the Bronx, you see America. That’s street.’

“‘Levi, you don’t live in Roxbury,’ explained Zora slowly. ‘You live in Wellington. You go to Arundel. You’ve got your name ironed into your underwear.’

“‘I wonder if I’m street …’ mused Howard. ‘I’m still healthy, got hair, testicles, eyes, etcetera. Got great testicles. It’s true I’m above subnormal intelligence — but then again I am full of verve and spunk.’

“‘No.’

“‘Dad,’ said Zora, ‘please don’t say spunk. Ever.’

“‘Can’t I be street?’

“‘No. Why you always got to make everything be a joke?’

“‘I just want to be street.’

Mom. Tell him to stop, man.’

“‘I can be a brother. Check it out,’ said Howard, and proceeded to make a series of excruciating hand gestures and poses. Kiki squealed and covered her eyes.

“‘Mom — I’m going home, I swear to God if he does that for one more second, I swear to God …’

“Levi was trying desperately to get his hoodie to cover the side of his vision in which Howard was persisting. It was surely only second before Howard recited the only piece of rap he could ever remember, a single line he’d mysteriously retained from the mass of lyrics he heard Levi mutter day after day. ‘I got the slickest, quickest dick –‘ began Howard. Screams of consternation rose up from the rest of the family. …”