Review: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

The Oulipo poet Jacques Roubaud says that the poet is a rat who builds his own maze and then must find his way out. I'm afraid too often poets don't build mazes at all; they build corridors with well-marked entrances and exits; they proceed through the doors as quickly as possible and assume they've accomplished something.

D.A. Powell, (Mis)Adventures in Poetry 
I read that quote and suddenly I had the key to this review. It's not that On Beauty is not a good or clever book. It's that it is a book of painfully well-marked entrances and exits, a book that is not willing to trust its readers with a single idea without having about ten neon signs pointing at it. This way to The Idea. The first few times it happened it was fun. "Ooh, I see what you did there!" is one of the nicest feelings you can get as a reader. "Yes, yes, we all see what you did there," though? Not so much.

One may as well take Howard Belsey for an example. On Beauty is fashioned after E.M. Forster's Howards End, so it's built around the opposition between two families: one liberal, biracial, American - the Belseys; the other conservative, black, British/Trinidadian - the Kippses. Howard, a white Englishman married to an African-American woman and living in Boston, is the head of the liberal family. He teaches at the (fictional) Wellington College and He Rejects Beauty. The latter point is impressed upon us less and less subtly, as the book progresses.

The first stage of imparting this message is when we learn that Howard's academic work is in the "deconstructing beauty and showing that Rembrandt painted for money" vein, and also that the original 19th century windows of the Belsey house are too precious to be used as windows, so they are kept in a safe in the basement. This is not too bad as far as standard novel characterizations go. The second stage is when we learn that Howard accepts nothing but abstract art in the house, because of his "representational art ban," that he falls asleep at Mozart concerts, and that he denies his children even nominal Christmas traditions (most of the family being atheist). This is already veering into caricature, but then the novel does have a comic undertone to it. The third stage is when basically ALL of the main characters comment or otherwise reflect on Howard's inability to like things. This is too much.

Here are his friends and wife discussing him in one of the first scenes of the book:
‘Oh, of course that’s right,’ said Claire tightly – she seemed not to want to discuss the subject. ‘He doesn’t like.’
‘No,’ said Kiki, equally glad to pass on to other topics. ‘He doesn’t like.’
‘What does Howard like?’ asked Warren wryly.
‘Therein lies the mystery.’
And here is Victoria Kipps, the strikingly beautiful daughter of the conservative family and Howard's student, flirting with him on page 312:
Your class is all about never ever saying I like the tomato. That’s why so few people take it – I mean, no offence, it’s a compliment. They can’t handle the rigour of never saying I like the tomato. Because that’s the worst thing you could ever do in your class, right? Because the tomato’s not there to be liked. (...) The tomato is just totally revealed as this phoney construction that can’t lead you to some higher truth – nobody’s pretending the tomato will save your life. Or make you happy. Or teach you how to live or ennoble you or be a great example of the human spirit. Your tomatoes have got nothing to do with love or truth. They’re not fallacies. They’re just these pretty pointless tomatoes that people, for totally selfish reasons of their own, have attached cultural – I should say nutritional – weight to. (...) It’s like what you’re always saying: let’s interrogate these terms. What’s so beautiful about this tomato? Who decided on its worth?
Howard doesn't like tomatoes. Howard doesn't call a rose a rose, but "an accumulation of cultural and biological constructions circulating around the mutually attracting binary poles of nature/artifice." And on the book goes, showing its hand every step of the way. The fourth - and most egregious - stage of this demonstration is an episode halfway through the book, when Smith introduces a character we're never going to hear from again: a female student who cares about art and engages seriously with Rembrandt's paintings, but whose potential is stifled by the sterile intellectual discussions in Howard's class. The tone is cringingly didactic and we can hear more than an echo of Elaine Scarry in the background. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Smith, constitutionally unable to leave her symbols even slightly unexplained, makes this passage from Scarry the motto of the section:
To misstate, or even merely understate, the relation of the universities to beauty is one kind of error that can be made. A university is among the precious things that can be destroyed.
So Howard is one of the people destroying the university. Unfortunately for him, he's also about to destroy his life, because his inability to enjoy beauty in art does not translate into an inability to lust after beautiful women. ("Oh, I’m so sorry your dick offends your intellectual sensibilities," says his wife, Kiki.) Howard has the typical midlife crisis, Howard cheats, and Howard loses everything. And this in turn seems to change him. In the last scenes of the book, after Kiki leaves him, Howard seems to take on her role in the house (he cooks and spends time contemplating the garden the way she did earlier in the book). We also see him listening to Mozart's Requiem while driving. And in the last masterful scene of the book, having left the notes for his speech in the car, he is reduced to silence in front of a slideshow of Rembrandt's paintings: 
The audience began to mutter perplexedly. Howard made the picture larger on the wall, as Smith had explained to him how to do. The woman’s fleshiness filled the wall. He looked out into the audience once more and saw Kiki only. He smiled at her. She smiled. She looked away, but she smiled. Howard looked back at the woman on the wall, Rembrandt’s love, Hendrickje. Though her hands were imprecise blurs, paint heaped on paint and roiled with the brush, the rest of her skin had been expertly rendered in all its variety – chalky whites and lively pinks, the underlying blue of her veins and the ever present human hint of yellow, intimation of what is to come.
That's the kind of ending that makes you want to forgive any problems a book might have. But the truth is - the same ending also seals the impression that the overarching narrative of this book is Howard's. One could, I guess, say that It's Howard and Kiki's narrative, because she too is a well-drawn character and in some ways supposed to counterbalance her husband. I'm not sure to what degree that strategy is successful, though. The problem is that Howard is one and the reactions to Howard are many. Because the Kipps family is made of cardboard, you never get a full coherent alternative to Howard's worldview. What you get instead are various ways in which the three Belsey kids and Kiki herself relate to the world, and they are by necessity always conscious of Howard's example. That, together with the larger theoretical context all the Scarry references hint at, make Howard's story - the story of someone who was wrong about beauty - look like the unifying thread of the book.

One might wonder at how the most stereotypical character in this book (the middle-class white man going through a midlife crisis) managed to yet again get the privileged position. Yet that's not too jarring, most of the time, if only because the members of the Belsey family and some of the people at Wellington College all have compelling stories of their own. The only bet this book outright loses is in portraying the Kipps family. Monty Kipps was supposed to be Howard's opposite, politically and intellectually, and while we are given various details about his conservative political views (less so about his aesthetic views), they never really come to life. You don't get the sense that you have more than a superficial understanding of what animates Monty Kipps. You never get close enough to Monty to know him. (And the fact that you only get an external perspective on his daughter Victoria as well is even more problematic, considering her role in the narrative.)

The Bottom Line 

The problem with trying to give a final verdict on a book like this is that it will always look slightly curmudgeonly to point at what's otherwise solid work and say, "This doesn't take enough risks." or "This is too neat." (There is also something more than a little awkward in analyzing a book that is partly about how analysis destroys beauty, but that's another thing.) The conclusions to my reviews are always conciliatory: about how you should still read this book and how it has its good moments despite the fact that I spent 2,000 words complaining about it. I dislike that about myself, but I can't change it. So go read this book, love tomatoes, enjoy Zadie Smith's way with words, and ignore her neon foreshadowing and heavy-handed use of Shakespeare quotes.


  1. I have to read this. Loved E.M Forster's Howards End and it helped me so much in so many ways!

    1. I'm actually just reading Howards End and liking it so much better too :)

  2. I love your bottom line because its just how I feel about Zadie Smith - this book in particular. Although I did enjoy Howards End much more.

    1. Yeah. And for all that this book gave me mixed feelings, I do want to read more stuff by her. (This always happens to me. I'm undecided about a book and the next thing you know I read the author's entire backlist to make up my mind.)