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by Zadie Smith
The Penguin Press, 2005
(443 pages, $25.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Mark Bauerlein
When Zadie Smith’s third novel appeared last September, Frank Rich in the New York Times praised the author as a “fearless outside referee” ready to “adjudicate the culture wars.” Laura Miller in Salon remarked upon how the “foil” of “ideological battles” in the novel set the characters into sharp relief.
Left & Right
The dramaturgy of On Beauty does, indeed, bear them out. We have two families and two ideologies in stark counterpoint. Howard Belsey, born in working-class London, is an art historian at Wellington College in Boston, and he has the standard traits of the vocation: leftist politics, secular beliefs, irreverently postmodern scholarship. He despises the notion of genius and considers Rembrandt a lackey of the Dutch burghers.
On the other side stands Monty Kipps, a devout Christian from Trinidad living in London as a famous art historian who reveres tradition and a notorious conservative who scorns affirmative action. Howard resents Monty’s public success, while Monty abhors liberalism’s stranglehold on the university. A visiting professorship brings Monty to Wellington for the year, culminating in the two facing off at a faculty meeting in the spring.
But the novel’s parallel of the two is uneven, for Monty appears in only a dozen or so pages in the entire book. He has no inner life, and his starchy demeanor and abrasive remarks apparently serve as sufficient characterization of the conservative outlook.
Howard’s wife Kiki is a black woman from Florida, beautiful and corpulent, not intellectual but sensitive to others. At the start of the story, she suffers from her husband’s infidelity, and the trauma prompts her to think beyond his worldview for the first time in their thirty-year marriage. They have three children: Jerome, a student at Brown University who recently converted to Christianity; Zora, a Wellington student who pleases her father by plunging into progressive causes on campus; and Levi, a high-schooler who falls in with Haitian street hustlers doubling as rap artists/protesters.
Monty’s wife Carlene, a devout Christian, is dying of cancer, but she tells Kiki (who befriends her) that she is proud to have dedicated her life to her husband. Their daughter Victoria, though, is a wayward beauty bent on sexual power. Early on, she seduces and rejects Jerome before moving on to a gritty dalliance with her professor at Wellington, Howard himself.
Howard’s personal failings and political outlook are the center of the conflicts, as he campaigns against Monty’s “hate speech” and tries to save his marriage from his own depravity.
The set-up prepares for an illuminating clash of progressive and conservative viewpoints, and a chance to gauge the consequences of each one on the family. Despite some literary drawbacks—the English novelist Smith has no ear for the speech of American teens, her authorial comments often fall flat, and the narrative climaxes in implausible revelations—the novel broaches important issues and details the coarse worlds of youth culture and undergraduate life.
The ingredients are tantalizing, but a strange thing happens in the course of the novel, and in the subsequent judgments of many reviewers. The encounter of liberalism and conservatism, secularism and religious faith, never happens.
Instead, we get a lengthy and devastating portrayal of what liberal outlooks do to families and education, and a quick and feeble condemnation of conservative hypocrisy. Furthermore, the reviewers downplay the former, reducing Howard’s dereliction to personal flaws, and exaggerate the latter, elevating Monty’s personal features into political traits. In this respect, On Beauty is indeed a commentary upon the culture wars, but not in the way Frank Rich and others think.
Wherein lies Howard’s liberalism? In brief, he refuses the authority of fatherhood; he denies religious meaning to the thresholds of life (including marriage and death); and he disdains traditions outside the secular egalitarian one. Instead of acting as leader and exemplar in the household, he takes an ironic, freewheeling attitude toward his children.
When Jerome drags them to an outdoor performance of Mozart, Howard’s droll comment is, “Wore a wig. Classical. They made a film about him.” When Levi talks like a rapper, Howard mocks him with the rapper’s crazy hand gestures and body language. He does not take his children’s adolescent plights seriously, and they pick up the point and toss profanities at their parents with impunity.
“Howard can’t stand Christmas,” Kiki tells Carlene. Anything with a religious tone repels him. When he begins to experience a feeling of transcendence while attending Carlene’s funeral (at Kiki’s insistence), he slides into convulsions and flees. His marriage, too, is an entirely worldly thing, secured by nothing more than three decades of shared experience. Powerful as the memories are, they don’t stop him when Victoria offers her luscious body hours after the funeral has ended.
The consequences are direct. His marriage is collapsing. His kids regard him as an obnoxious buddy, standing for nothing and valuing nothing. Howard’s outlook affects his students as well, and is a fair measure of the damage his liberalism does both to the liberal arts and to the vocation of teaching. “Art is the Western myth,” he intones in his introductory lecture.
By that he means that beauty is nothing more than “the mask that power wears”—another pithy deflation in the spiel. Denigrating approaches like this one are fatal for the adolescent mind, which likes nothing more than to belittle monuments of the past and thus shore up its own fragile ego.
Howard’s most loyal child does learn something advantageous from him, though. At the beginning of the semester, Zora finds that Wellington’s celebrity poet has, once again, refused her admission to the creative writing class. This time, however, she fights back, heading to the dean’s office with a fresh weapon: The poet was Howard’s first partner in infidelity.
A few words about inappropriate relationships, discrimination, and feeling “victimized in this way,” and the dean caves. That such cynical manipulation of the bureaucracy typifies the academic left is made explicit by Zora’s final words as she leaves his office mocking Monty Kipps and other conservatives who complain about being excluded from the university ranks.
These outcomes follow from Howard’s secular liberalism, but the reviewers don’t make the connection. Indeed, some of them don’t even register a problem. Michael Dirda ends his review with an image of the Belsey children: “When we last glimpse them, they are, affectionately, giving their father the finger.” To Dirda, this is a moving display of sibling camaraderie.
It is odd that reviewers equalize the two leading men, even elevating Monty’s political identity over Howard’s, since Monty appears on so few pages and is so little described. While the piece in Salon describes Howard as a “white Englishman teaching at a Massachusetts university,” Monty is “the kind of right-wing iconoclast beloved of Op-Ed page editors.” A reviewer in Harper’s introduces Howard as the “very model of an abstruse intellectual,” Monty as a “neoconservative public intellectual.” A piece in The Village Voice decries Monty’s “ultraconservative rhetoric,” which Howard spends “too much psychic energy” fighting.
One is inclined to take Smith’s and the reviewers’ slight characterization of Monty as a sign of ideological blindness, and there is no denying the novel’s cheap judgment of Monty’s beliefs. Whereas the consequences of Howard’s liberalism unfold in detail, the consequences of Monty’s conservatism come down to a perfunctory revelation at the end. One of Victoria’s lovers divulges to Jerome that Monty has been sleeping with his intern.
There we have it. The upright conservative who insists on religious duty and family values is a sexual predator. The Kipps household runs on sexual repression, and repression always finds another outlet. One may assume that Monty’s hypocrisy is the source of his daughter’s promiscuity.
Nobody has objected to this cheap parting shot. It aligns Monty and Howard in a comparable guilt. A pox on both of them and their extreme politics.
Given the fame of the author and the publicity surrounding its release, On Beauty may be one more index of the cultural politics of the moment. Howard Belsey’s liberalism is not taken seriously by the literary establishment because the things it threatens—great works of art, family values, faith—the establishment does not take seriously. Monty’s conservatism is not taken seriously because the literary establishment doesn’t accept it as a respectable position.
Zadie Smith has provided a half-examination, dramatizing the human costs of liberal attitudes, and the critics missed it. If another novelist came along to show the personal side of conservative beliefs, fairly and perceptively, one wonders if mainstream reviewers would finally take notice.
Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University, and the author of Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906 (Encounter Books). He recently stepped down as Director of Research at the National Endowment for the Arts. He and his wife have a six-month-old son, and they attend Buckhead Community Church in Atlanta.