Monday, June 9, 2008

On Beauty: I find myself, for once, without much to say

Zadie Smith's book On Beauty is about two families on opposing sides of the culture war: The atheist, liberal Belseys and the ultra-religious, ultra-conservative Kipps' on the other. It's also about race and racial identity: black versus white and the influx of poor Haitian immigrants into Boston. It's about Howard Belsey's affair with an old friend of the family and his wife Kiki's means of dealing with it. It's about Kiki's developing friendship with Carlene Kipps, the wife of her husband's sworn enemy.

All in all, it's not my thing, but it's a stunning example of something that's not my thing. I don't go for domestic drama - I find it too mundane - but I quite enjoyed this one. That's really almost everything I have to say about it, the other things being somewhat tangential.

I really liked the dialogue. It's real, it's energetic, it's got heart. It's so strong you can almost hear the characters' voices in your head. On the other hand, I didn't think the characterisation was particularly good. I didn't have a clear picture of any of the characters by the end, which is pretty pathetic.

A culture divide, perhaps? I think it probably was. I couldn't take them seriously because they used the word 'totally' too often. Here in Melbourne, Australia we (or at least, the people I know) use 'totally' either in its original sense ('fully', 'completely') or as a joke, a parody of some American stereotype we don't really understand. Like "omg, you should, like, totally dye your hair orange! It would like soooooo great." Dripping with sarcasm. In On Beauty they use it liberally in the slang sense, which is similar to my example above, except minus the sarcasm. They're serious about it, but I can't take it seriously. It really put me off.

Then there's the whole black/white thing. The extent of the racial divide shocked me. Again, here in Melbourne NO ONE CARES. One could argue it's because there are very few black people, and that a similar thing happens between whites and Asians instead, but it was just weird for me. In On Beauty, no one could just be "a person". They had to be "a white person", "a black person". Like their race was just as important a factor as their status as a human being. That really distracted me too.

It was mainly those cultural thingies that interested me about the book. It was funny, I guess, and sometimes depressing, but not at all the sort of thing I'd usually read and rather disappointing considering its reputation.

Sydney Morning Herald
New York Times
The Oxonian

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