Books October 2005

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If, as Cyril Connolly suggested, success is the greatest of all the enemies of literature, few talents can have been more threatened than Zadie Smith's. And indeed White Teeth, her triumphant debut, was followed by The Autograph Man, an awkward, slightly chaotic novel that gave the impression of a writer disoriented by a cacophonic critical babble and trying to regain her bearings by asking herself (as Connolly might have counseled), Would it amuse Horace or Milton or Swift or Leopardi? Could it be read to Flaubert or Dave Eggers?

On Beauty, Smith's third novel, is by contrast an assured effort—although Smith remains sufficiently self-conscious (and generous) to expressly acknowledge the influence of E. M. Forster: "He gave me a classy old frame, which I covered with new material as best I could." This material concerns a fateful year or so in the lives of the Belseys, a family living in the liberal splendor of a Massachusetts college town. The father (white, English) is a professor, the mother (African-American) is a hospital administrator, and they have three kids, all students. They are confronted with familiar enemies of familial happiness—marital infidelity, creeping emotional isolation, coming-of-age hazards—as well as the ideological and spiritual challenges arising from the arrival in town of the Kippses, an aggressively reactionary and religious Anglo-Caribbean family.

Smith displays all her strengths: satirical energy, imaginative breadth (she's equally engaging about the inner lives of a teenage boy and a middle-aged mother), and a sure and funny touch with jumbled ethnicities. And although the full, tragic dimensions of the human adventure may be missing—an odd, sitcommy inconsequentiality colors the disasters that befall her characters—there's no doubting the artistic conviction that underlies this unabashedly conventional novel. It's hard to say what Horace or Leopardi would have made of On Beauty, but it might well have amused Forster, at least.

Joseph O'Neill is working on his third novel, The Brooklyn Dream Game.
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