"On Beauty" is Zadie Smith's glorious third novel. Howard Belsey is having a difficult time. He is still in the doghouse after a one-night stand. Then he learns that his academic adversary, Monty Kipps, is joining the staff at Wellington, the Bostonian university at which Howard teaches (which seems to be based on the Harvard Zadie Smith knew as a Radcliffe fellow). Howard, whose unfinished magnum opus is entitled "Against Rembrandt: Interrogating a Master", ironically casts Monty as an iconoclast: although Monty's targets are political, rather than artistic. It is Howard who is the direct opposite of a Simon Schama or a Harold Bloom. Howard and his liberal colleagues fear that the conservative Monty will argue against Affirmative Action and the unqualified discretionaries that they allow on their courses. It doesn't help that Howard's son, Jerome, has previously engaged in a brief connection with Victoria, Monty Kipps' exceedingly beautiful daughter. Howard's daughter Zora (whom Zadie Smith has named after literary heroine Zora Neale Hurston) jealously regards Victoria as a vacuous beauty. However, not all of the Belseys' are at war against the Kipps': Kiki, Howard's wife, finds a common shelter with Carlene, Monty's friendly but sometimes distant wife. Meanwhile, Levi, the other Belsey child, embarks on a quest to assert his black identity, and falls in with a crowd of deprived Haitian immigrants. Along the way, they encounter Carl Thomas, a young black poet with conscious hip-hop lyrics, who strives to make something better of himself.
Carl is the Leonard Bast, Carlene is Ruth Wilcox, and Kiki is Margaret Schlegel, in Zadie Smith's reworking of E. M. Forster's "Howards End". In this, Zadie Smith seems to be taking her cue from Elaine Scarry's essay, "On Beauty and Being Just" (which Zadie does acknowledge to be one inspiration for the title of this novel). Scarry's thesis starts out with the observation that Beauty leads to replication - the artist sees a beautiful bird, which leads artist to paint the beautiful bird beautifully. Thus does Zadie Smith embark on a seemingly perilous voyage to reproduce a book she loves. It would appear that it's okay for a beautiful boy band to reproduce the millionth version of "Unchained Melody", because we don't expect much of the poor darlings: it is not okay for a respected literary novelist to do the same, because we expect so much more from them. That, at least, is the initial perception. But if one thinks of the origins of storytelling - bard on rock embellishing the already fantastic tales of his predecessors - then what Zadie Smith is attempting to do here does not seem so strange. However, it just seems more acceptable nowadays for the oral culture (boy bands) to do it, rather than the set-in-stone literary culture. At times though, it does seem as though Smith is following E. M. Forster's line too far - the aborted rail trip to Amherst reads uncomfortably due to this - Carlene's terminal spontaneity could have been revealed in a more original way. Yet, the final analysis must be that she uses her source material very intelligently and subtly. Although Zadie Smith seems to regard Roland Barthes as being very dry (no doubt due to the utility of his prose), "On Beauty" could be seen in some ways as indicative of "The Birth of the Reader", with the reader going so far as to create their own version of the text (although I prefer to see the relationship between author and reader as a dialogue, which is a whole lot less dramatic than this birthing and dying and circle of life kind of thing). For instance, Leonard Bast pursued Beauty in "Howards End" through books and impromptu midnight walks. Although "On Beauty" is in some ways a love letter to "Howards End", in its wit and vitality, the love goes both ways, resulting in a novel that is very much Zadie Smith's own. On a mundane level, there are scenes set in Zadie's homeland, Willesden, just like "White Teeth". On a more sublime level, Zadie Smith's voice in this novel seems liberated, exuberant, and confident: she is a novelist who is in full command of her literary powers. "On Beauty" is very much her book, full of her character, her twists and turns, rather than E. M. Forster's. To paraphrase a popular film of the 70s, it's she who is the master now.
There is another more practical reason for Zadie Smith's employment of "Howard's End", other than her love for the novel. Current day America is analogous with Great Britain at the end of the Victorian era. Zadie Smith does know that there are many Leonard Basts out there in America: in pursuit of beauty, but angry and resentful because they have been deprived of it, or because it has been literally robbed from them. Just as the liberal women debate how to save the Leonard Basts of this world from their fate in "Howards End", so too do Howard and his liberal colleagues battle to save the discretionaries. Can Beauty ever be reached in an inherently unjust society? Zadie Smith has produced a very timely novel, as the truth in her novel has been made self-evident by the ugly catastrophe of Katrina.
It would also be a pleasing irony if a Great American Novel, (as "On Beauty" is), were to win the Man Booker Prize. Zadie Smith should walk off with the prize in my view, because this outstanding novel deserves nothing less.
I have created a comprehensive reading guide for "On Beauty" on the internet - interested readers can contact me for the hyperlink.