December 8, 2005

On Beauty

On Beauty
Zadie Smith


(December 8, 2005)

This brilliant portrait of a complex American family richly deserved its place on the Booker Prize short list. Howard Belsey is a British art historian who has spent his career in American universities and who is married to a black Floridian, Kiki. Their three kids range from sensitive, born-again Jerome to crusader Zora to the youngest, hip-hop wannabe homeboy Levi. Every character has a strong voice and a specific dialect, making this a distinctly American novel in the old sense while leaving the story fresh and new. Absolutely superb.

One exceptional accomplishment of On Beauty is that it presents a varied university community in which ideas are part of everyone's lives, and people live and talk about ideas. Howard Belsey is a pomo, post-colonial art historian; he married a black girl from Florida.That black girl once thought she might grow up to be Malcolm X's personal assistant and wound up as an Ivy League mother; in times of personal crisis she imagines herself keynoting a major conference of mothers. Belsey's rival, Sir Monty Kipps, is an academic conservative media star from Trinidad, and his family always dines together; the Belsey's rush in and out, the Belsey's argue, the Kipps clan have respectful intellectual breakfasts where nothing is given away.

I checked the Amazon reader reviews of On Beauty out of curiosity, and what a small-minded bunch they are. Setting aside the inevitable me-too's and "I got bored's", a surprising number of readers complain about Smith's handling of dialect. The whole point is that each member of the family speaks their own British-American-African creole. Howard's the son of a London butcher, did his doctoral work at Oxford, and has taught at a variety of American universities. His wife Kiki can do Ivy League irony when she wants, and when she's angry she gets all Floridian. Levi started speaking Brooklyn at 13, and wants to hang out with the Haitian peddlers who are, he thinks, authentically black. Everyone is inventing a dialect: that's the point.