Monday, February 27, 2006

PTN Book Club: Amber on On Beauty

Reading On Beauty brought back a lot of memories. The book is set at Wellington College, a thinly veiled version of Harvard. The transformation is an incomplete success; a liberal arts college, at least in my experience, has few of the cultural trappings, worshipful grad students, and community dominance of a Harvard. Why Smith didn't just make Wellington a university or set her book at Harvard is beyond me. It was still moderately amusing, though, to see my old Cambridge stomping grounds blurrily evoked and to play guessing games with the invented streets and squares. (More annoying was Smith's constant censoring of any details that might date the book. It's clear that she didn't want to tie the frictions in the wider world to current events, but her efforts to obscure them are so clumsy and obvious that it reads like an old British novel that gossips about Lady W---- and Mr P----.)

In contrast with Small Island, which I read last year, Smith has a decent ear for different kinds of dialogue, and for the contexts in which individuals are likely to switch between formal and informal manners of speaking. However, she's not always consistent; there were some descriptive passages where she lapsed into dialect. This seemed like bad editing.

The emotional resonance of the book varied wildly. The first chapter grabbed me immediately with the story of a young man who, dissatisfied with his own clan, falls in love with someone who provides a passport into another, much different family. This little internal drama has played itself out in my own heart, and despite being the polar opposite of young Jerome I yearned for him to find an emotional home amongst the Kippses. Alas, it was not meant to be.

And alas, we see little of Jerome after the first chapter (this is okay, because he was kind of a milksop). Instead, the remainder of the novel focuses on his parents and siblings. While these characters are fleshed out more than those in the rest of the novel (none of the Kippses ever becomes three-dimensional), they still sometimes seem flat or false. It seemed improbable that the youngest Belsey, Levi, would be so astonishingly ignorant, despite his home life and education (if your father is a Rembrandt scholar, it beggars belief if you do not know who Rembrandt is. in fact, it beggars belief even if your father is not a Rembrandt scholar.). This was one of many wrong notes that startled me out of the text: Carlene's successful concealment of a terminal illness was another. Each time she's glimpsed by a casual observer, that person immediately notes that she is seriously ill, but her family is apparently oblivious to her shuddering, twitching, and inability to walk? Even woman-hating British conservatives are not blind.

I can't decide if the depiction of Howard and Kiki's crippled marriage was artfully done or utterly inadequate. We're never sure, exactly, why these two got together, but they appear unsure why they are together as well. They've accumulated the in-jokes and know each other's behavior by heart, but little can explain the initial pairing beyond Howard's former flexibility and Kiki's former beauty. While we are bludgeoned with the fact of Kiki's transformation, nothing addresses Howard's absurd slide into self-parody, perhaps because despite the negative effect of those changes on Kiki, she still loves him until, suddenly, she doesn't. If I were Kiki, my tolerance would have been exhausted some time around the point when Howard appointed himself art censor and refused to allow representational paintings in the house. Since we were never sold on the idea of their marriage, it's hard to care much when it all falls apart. But perhaps the very refusal to give us good reasons for them to be together is a deliberate choice, illustrating the emptiness of the relationship? I'm probably giving Smith too much credit here.

I don't think On Beauty is really penetrating on any score: race relations, the academy, modernity, intergenerational frictions, aesthetics . . . the writing is skillful enough that one can trip merrily to the end, having the impression all along that some depth of insight waits, and the ending is satisfying enough to temporarily blur the realization that the meaning you sought didn't materialize. In that way, it's much like a less pedantic American Beauty. Coincidence?
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