Let’s pretend that I spent my high school lunchtimes in the library because I was an undiscovered genius with an unquenchable love of books.
And not because I was – ahem – between friendships.
These days, I mostly visit the library to stock up on picture books and novels featuring mystery-solving mice. Occasionally, I also manage to pick up something for myself. This month it was On Beauty, by UK writer Zadie Smith.
At first I thought I wouldn’t like this novel. The protagonist is a middle-aged, English-born professor of art history – he’s nervy, self-satisfied, and faintly ridiculous. He’s married to a fabulous African-American woman. And he cheats on her. Naturally.
Perhaps it’s just me, but the older I get, the more PG-rated I find my tastes have become. I don’t tend to go looking for morally sticky situations. I don’t like watching someone make a mess of things. It just makes me squirm – and go bolting back to Jane Austen.
But this book got me in. I read it like I consumed books in high school: at the breakfast table, on the train, into the night. There wasn’t one big plot point that I was wanting resolved – no mystery, no big twist I was waiting for. I just cared about the characters, and the world they were moving in. I even, by the end, gave a damn about the self-obsessed professor, Howard Belsey.
I actually picked up On Beauty because it looked (on the shelf) like a non-fiction book. And in a sense, it is an essay: about race, and gender, politics, and ambition. And in the tradition of the best essays, it resists the temptation to offer simplified answers. It explores, teases, reveals. It spins a good yarn.
Now I won’t presume to unravel all – or even a few – of the novel’s threads here. I’ll just focus, for a moment, on its notion of beauty. Smith gives us a beautiful, large black woman and a rangy white man. Howard has two particularly inappropriate affairs. He knows this is vile. Meanwhile, he’s stomping about the university campus denouncing Rembrandt’s genius (for what appear to be largely postmodernist reasons), and grinding his teeth about the success of a conservative academic whose book about Rembrandt has actually been written, and is selling well. Howard continues to love his wife, Kiki – and she’s surprised, at least initially, by her own ability to forgive.
It’s clear to me that Kiki is the most beautiful person in the book. She’s honest, wise, and real: “Her chest gave off a mass of signals beyond her direct control: sassy, sisterly, predatory, motherly, threatening, comforting – it was a mirror-world she’d stepped into in her mid forties, a strange fabulation of the person she believed she was. She could no longer be meek or shy … And yet she had been a tiny thing for years and years!” The narrator shows us both Howard’s desire for his wife, and his awareness of this change in her. We also see Kiki’s love for her husband, and her frustration at his pomposity (the family, in deference to Howard’s theoretical sensibilities, don’t hang any representational artwork in their house – abstract pieces only). And through Kiki’s ‘mirror character’, Carlene (the wife of the conservative academic Howard despises), we see the honour and sadness of a woman who has “staked her life” on home, marriage and family.
Beauty, in this telling, is love. Love among people who measure themselves and find, in various ways, that they don’t quite meet the mark.
All of this is sketched in rich, well-paced prose that re-creates a family, and a world (specifically, that of a US east coast college town). But it’s not magic. It doesn’t give me the twitters, quite in the way that Austen does; I didn’t come away from this story wishing I could re-live it, inhabit it.
Not that this is a criticism, as such.
Perhaps it just points to difference between reading contemporary fiction, and an older work. The language and the setting of this book – its themes and preoccupations – are familiar. I’ve experienced autumn in that part of the world, seen the “hint of yellow curl on the leaves of the trees, like the catch fire thrown at something about to go up in flame” (so beautifully described). When I think about On Beauty’s social and political themes, I don’t have the clarity of looking back at the early 19th century, and feeling able to sum it up in a sentence fragment (very early suffrage movement, women living limited domestic lives). I can’t just give in to imagining history. What I want to do, is look for what I recognise – try to trace the seams that hold the book together, and see where it draws, selectively, on messy reality to make its argument.
This is useful, even if it does suck the fun out of things a bit.
Of course I don’t think such distinctions ever bothered my teenage self, hiding out in a library corral, searching for something to hold on to in the pages of a book. That person (having failed to live up to the physical and social ideals of high school) was, I think, looking for ambiguity. For new ways to look at things; for a sense that big social problems played out in ordinary lives and could be, if not solved, then at least begun to be understood.
That’s what I got, from reading On Beauty: a sprawling, social essay of a book which gives us imperfections, families, children, love and infidelity. That resists stereotyping, while playing with it: that tells us we’re all a bit rubbish, really, but we try to be good.
I also got a renewed enthusiasm for those white metal shelves, and the Dewey Decimal system. Beautifully coloured book spines; pages in varying shades of yellow; whole rooms full of possibility.
 Okay, for those who are interested (and didn’t already look it up), a little dust jacket history: Smith was born in London in 1975, and still lives there. She became famous for her first novel, White Teeth, which was published in 2000. On Beauty was published in 2005, won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005. Smith now has four novels to her name: the most recent, NW, was published in 2012.