This is the first Zadie Smith novel that I've read; and that may be unfortunate, as I'm not really in the mood to try another. Surely this is not her finest -- but the overall effect was so muddled, that I'd rather try something else.
The narrative framework of this novel appropriates philosophical systems from two traditions. The first half of the novel adopts the Kabbalistic tree of life, its ten sefirot or spheres. In case the too-obvious symbolism doesn't make an impact on you, Smith makes its patently simple by naming each chapter after each sefirah. If even that's too difficult, Smith provides several Kabbalistic diagrams, which look like they were photocopied from Madonna's notebook. Believe me, Smith's knowledge of Jewish philosophy is about as deep as the red-strings those Hollywood stars wear around their wrists.
The second half of the novel (highlighting the main character's Chineseness) derive its titles from the 'Riding the Bull' sketches, made famous in the west by beatnik Buddhists in the sixties. Following the same old mistake that Buddhism and 'Zen' are synonymous, our Chinese hero (who strangely uses Japanese vocabulary to discuss religion) learns to transcend self, with a lot of slapstick along the way.
The split-framework is intended to highlight the divided heritage of the Chinese-Jewish main character, whose hybrid background allows for endless quips and innuendoes about purity and providence in determining one's political/racial identity. On this theme, Smith is glib rather than insightful. This to me is the most disappointing part of the work: considering the heated debate about intermarriage in Jewish culture, and considering the authoritarian ways that Han Chinese maintain their ethnic dominance in China, and considering that mixed race is a natural, intriguing reality of human evolution . . . there's potential here for some really insightful studies about how collective identities aren't all they're supposed to be. Smith takes the easy route of the comedy of manners, however, and leaves little lasting and rewarding by doing so.
Secularists will no doubt delight at the many jokes made at religion's expense. I enjoy funny humour as well, even if it means taking down spiritual pretensions a few notches. But it's clear Smith's understanding of both Judaism and Chinese culture are woefully superficial. Call it the zeitgeist of the 21st century, but now people feel confident in appropriating thousand year old philosophies after a couple of Google searches. It's embarrassing gimcrack. Smith won't get into trouble for it . . . not many can be bothered to call her bluff, and mimicry now readily passes for authenticity . . . or maybe people just don't care anymore. Perhaps these novels seek to show that tradition is, really , fragmented to pieces -- and all that's left is us is to use the shards as punchlines. But I still think it's silly. I. B. Singer, who actually had a command of this stuff, brilliantly wove humour and piety together -- substantially and memorably. Smith's Judaism reads like a Seinfeld skit. The 'Zen' stuff reads the same way. Flimsy, fluttering, forgettable.
The comedy keeps coming, however. Our hero likes to collect autographs, and he enjoys sex, so you can see where that'll end up. Each autograph he collects links to an aspect of the Kabbalah. Again, if you weren't clever enough to detect that, Smith provides a handy chart on the inside cover so you can appreciate how brilliant the overall design is. And so he collects more autographs, and has more funny moments about his Chineseness, etc, etc. The missing crown of Kether relates to the dead father of the protagonist. It's easier to collect pen scratches of the famous than to connect to our flesh and blood. OH, I GET IT. THANKS.
NOTE: Three books which, in a far more informed and ingenious way, used puzzle-like structures to enhance plot mechanics:
Milorad Pavic: 'Landscape Painted with Tea': based on crossword puzzles.
Arturo Perez-Reverte: 'The Flanders Panel': based on a visual art piece as well as chess. BRILLIANTLY DONE.
Pearl Abraham: 'The Seventh Beggar': based on an allegory by R. Nachman of Breslov. Here, actually knowing a lot about the Jewish faith and its customs makes all the difference.
Compared to these works, this book read like a last-minute science project, put together in haste with minimal research.
As a final note of sincere caution, and some of you might know where I'm coming from on this: Smith liberally uses the Hebrew name of ha-Shem throughout this work in casual and haphazard ways. Don't take the book into the toilet with you, if you know what I mean. Most Jews won't raise a fuss about this rather cheap and lame experiment with Hebrew fonts; Smith can be grateful that she didn't riff on certain other religions, who get very upset if you use their sacred name for God so casually.