Few books give genuine delight. In my case, DeLillo’s Underworld, Franzen’s The Corrections and Roth’s Everyman are definitely among them. During my stay in Astypalea, there was a brilliant addition: Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.
The book came out in 2005 but I have been extremely reluctant to read it. I had read White Teeth, which was smart, witty, intertextually rich, skillfully concocted but — in a sense — heartless and overly encyclopedic, weighed down by all its layers upon layers inviting interpretations, allusions and background material.
St told me that the Autograph Man was bad, so I never started it. Moreover, the reviews I read about On Beauty were confusing and to a direction I didn’t want to go towards: there was talk of wit and intertextuality, of Forster and Jane Austen, of race and gender and politics and academia. I couldn’t care less about yet another abstruse book on being female, black or brown in an oppressively male white world, especially after Hari Kunzru’s offputting sprawl of the Impressionist.
I found On Beauty in the Strand bookshop in New York last April and bought it. I left it on the shelf and picked it up as part of my summer reading on a whim.
On Beauty was nothing less of a relevation of a book. To start with the obvious, questions of gender, race and politics have hardly come out so vividly and in such a relevant way, at least in novels I have read. Academia is portrayed in remarkable relief as the abode of callous elites made up of the mildly autistic, the argumentative, the sociopathic, the clumsy. The wit is obviously there, the polymathy, too. However, the tone is always human and humane even when fiercely satirical (which is an achievement not too be taken lightly). The characters (quite a few of them) have all got depth and clearly defined outlines, they all cast real shadows. The writing is brilliant and impossible to get enough of: intelligent and insightful but touching and — in times — compassionate towards the many instantiations of the human condition as well as the absurdity and pain that comes with it. On top of everything else, the plot is fun and twisted to the correct degree.
Sometimes sombre, sometimes delightfully light and kaleidoscopic, this is a book I loved. A great achievement. Or should I say, a masterpiece? Howard, the sad main character, would cringe.