On Beauty and interiority?

21 Jul

Today I finished On Beauty. I’m not quite sure how to feel about it: the book read well, smoothly, quickly. The characters are rich and real. Plus, Smith built them with individual ticking time bombs. She explodes them each deliciously, one bang at a time, with bursts of incendiary dialogue. And, from a personal perspective, I enjoyed the university setting. Debates over free speech, culture, and long faculty meetings are the stuff of the Spectator. I enjoyed reading about a lecture from the tenure hopeful’s perspective. So the topic, broadly speaking, was familiar to me. Moreover, certain passages are undeniably beautiful, witty, and provocative. Her grip on language—unbelievable:

And so it happened again, the daily miracle whereby interiority opens out and brings to bloom the million-petalled flower of being here, in the world, with other people. Neither as hard as she had thought it might be nor as easy as it appeared.

Brilliant. I wish I had thought of that. And:

A sprawling North London parkland … that encompasses the city’s highest point and spreads far beyond it; that is so well planted it feels unplanned; that is not the country but is no more a garden than Yellowstone; that has a shade of green for every possible felicitation of light; that paints itself in russets and ambers in the autumn, canary-yellow in the splashy spring; with tickling bush grass to hide teenage lovers and joint smokers, broad oaks for brave men to kiss against, mown meadows for summer ball games, hills for kites, ponds for hippies, an icy lido for old men with strong constitutions …

However: On Beauty is an incredibly apt title, since the book is only that: on beauty. Beneath the beauty of well-crafted prose, humor, structure, and character development—which glow divinely under Smith’s deft hand—the book seems to have no soul. I’m not sure why I feel this, because I think that any art that aims to teach a single lesson is definitively bad art. (Singularity is a copout to many important principles, and rules out humanity. etc etc blather blather). But this work needs something more central, an anchor. I get that the book is about culture wars, but that seems tangential to a family disintegration/soap opera-ish plot that is masked by a deep university setting. I think this project would have worked better as clearly demarcated vignettes that showcase the writing and character. But the way it is, subplots seem to circle into a meaningful pot of nothing muchness.

Disclaimer: I have not read Forster’s Howard’s End, on whose structure Smith based On Beauty, and am thus missing an important analytical perspective. Maybe I’d find the soul if I read it as an adaptation as a familiar classic—but I shouldn’t have to. So overall, the book is mediocre, though entirely impressive from a 25-year-old! 25! To think, I’m turning that age in five years. Way to make me feel inadequate, Zadie.

Anyway. Starting Hamlet in Purgatory, plodding along in the astounding The Red and the Black. Work sent me to an amusing press conference today. My failure to teach myself web design is sort of depressing. There are many things I need to do but am not doing. This is summer, and I don’t want it to end.


One Response to “On Beauty and interiority?”

  1. Rhoda August 13, 2009 at 4:20 pm #

    I just started this book and find it pretty interesting so far. Thanks for the review!

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