Friday, October 13, 2006

on smith and smiley

Here’s a review of “On Beauty” from

As actor William Hurt might say in his stolid and mannered, look-at-the wheels-turning-in-my-head voice: " I.............could not................finish.................this book. For a book about race and identity, family dynamics and adultery, and academic rivalry and competition it's surprisingly dull. Midway through the book, there is little or no character or plot development, and the overall feeling is that it was written to fulfill a publishing contract. There's some amusing banter from the younger son, a teen who lives in an academic community (a disguised Wellesley, Massachusetts?) but tries on an inner city "hood" identity, and several of the scenes are very well written.

There are scads of like-reviews on this novel, Smith’s third book. But there are some glowing ones as well. Here’s one, also on

Smith has fashioned a superb book, her best to date. She has interwoven class, race, and gender and taken everyone prisoner. Her even-handed renditions of liberal and/or conservative mouthings are insightful, often hilarious, and damning to all. She has a great time exposing everyone's clay feet. This author is a young woman cynical beyond her years, and we are all richer for it.

I didn’t read White Teeth or the Autograph Man, so can’t speak to where this book falls in my own line of preference. But I have read Howard’s End and bits of Moo, two books referenced for comparison. Initially, Smith appears to have been propelled by the conceit “What would happen if you set Howard’s End in contemporary times?” She begins the book with an email, hallmark of 21st century communication between family members, but then never revisits the medium, and, indeed, never really revisits any attempt by the eldest son to gain an audience with his miserable, unselfaware dad.

The book dips into the close points of view of a massive cast of characters. Which is a challenging and admirable stance. (I can’t pull this sort of thing off in third person, not by a long shot—which is why I’m turning the camera on my characters one-at-a-time, giving them their own first person time on the stand.) Anyway, Smith is very nimble at moving the camera around her community without obvious authorial intrusion. She is fearless with dialect, extraordinary with language, and colorful with details. But she lets her characters amble around too long, allowing them far too much time engaged in meaningless small talk that occasionally commits the sin of furthering plot via dialogue. And, I must agree with her critics, the book is at times flat and boring.

Moo approaches the theme (an academic setting rife with lust, jealousy, back-stabbing and prejudice) differently from the outset. Instead of diving into the head of one of the characters during the throws of romantic crisis (as Smith does), Smiley introduces the setting with the grand authority of unapologetic omniscience. From this sweeping and glorious picture, Smiley zooms in on one of the characters, who is introduced in the context of place, which grounds the reader and establishes a line of flight with the narrative.

The other enormous difference between Moo and On Beauty is the element of satire woven deftly into the pages of Smiley’s book. The juxtaposition of academic one-upmanship and hog troughs brings fresh perspective and hilarity to the oft-storied theme of hierarchy within the hallowed halls of academe. On Beauty approaches hyperbole much more literally, and although deserving of the occasional chuckle, we don’t go far enough off the deep end to feel our own experiences within Smith’s tale.


  1. Do I recall rightly that Z Smith is, what, about 26, now?

  2. She's closer to 30, maybe 32. Marching toward "detumescent middle age" even! Jeez, D, where does that leave us????

    Seriously, nothing against Dear Zadie. She's a fine writer. But she's no Jane Smiley. (IMHO)


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