Monday, May 11, 2015

Completed: On Beauty

All right! Let's do this thing!

I guess a little background first, but it's so vague as to be unhelpful. I don't remember when I picked this book up, although I feel certain it was on sale at a bookstore. I like Zadie Smith generally, and I also have a vague recollection of a colleague telling me I would like it.

Either way, I've had it for a long time. How do I know? Because I pulled it off my shelf and noticed the pretty extreme sun damage that its suffered. Can you see that white stripe down the one end? Yikes. It's even more noticeable when you see the whole cover.  Remember my speculation that my books are getting too much direct sunlight? Now I have confirmation.

Like last time, we'll just add our names before our writing. The book is split up into three sections, so we'll go back and forth three times.


Part One: kipps and belsey

Jenny: In this section, we are introduced to the two warring academics, Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps. However, the real action is with the Belsey family and their complicated family dramas. Some of this seems like typical mid-life crisis boilerplate: the wayward teenagers, the affair, the career pressures. But then again, if there weren't similarities in how this plays out, we wouldn't have a convenient name for the syndrome.

I find Smith's writing style to be crisp, clean, and easy to follow. There are lots of characters introduced, and so far, each member of the Belsey family has narrated, so I appreciate her ability to make that work.

The one "scene" that I struggled with the most was when Howard arrives in London to "break up" the engagement of Jerome and Victoria. There is almost no part of me that believes that a stranger calling and demanding to be picked up from the train station would be met with anything but gales of laughter. It was just too weird. I'm wondering if this is going to bother me in this book, because there seems to be lots of events that defy logic. The arrival of the entire Kipps family at Howard's college---without him having any clue---and then moving into a house just a few blocks away, was also hard to swallow.

Right now, the savior for me is Howard's wife, Kiki. I'm enjoying her inner struggles and outer strength. Her worries about whether or not she fits in intellectually, physically, and as a black woman in her husband's white world, make her a sympathetic and winning character for me so far.

By far, the character I'm most interested in at this point is Howard. Even though I knew right from the get-go that he cheated on Kiki, I found him an interesting mix of foolish and affable. He makes a huge scene at the Kipps household, but he just seems more confused and overwhelmed than anything else, a buffoon. However, the chapter ends with an interesting twist. Kiki thinks that he only had a one-night stand, when it was really a longer affair with a colleague and friend. The author sets up an interesting tension when she has Howard think, "It was so strange to him, the decision of Kiki's not to pursue him for every detail of his betrayal" (110). By the end of the chapter, Kiki finally discovers the truth. For a moment, I have fallen for the trick: Why did she accept his story? Then I marveled at Howard's chutzpah. He was caught red-handed, condom in suit, and rather than telling her the whole truth he still had the nerve to lie, to cover-up, and then to blame her for not dragging it out of him.

My lingering thoughts, and I've only read this first section, so I'm sure some of this gets answered later:

  • Not sure how I feel about the number of narrators. I'm wondering how that's all going to come together. 
  • There's an interesting framing device in the very first sentence of the book, "One may as well begin with Jerome's emails to his father." Clearly, this is a story that's being told, but by whom? And from when in the future? Even the story of the London debacle is told 9 months in advance of the events of the anniversary party. [PS. Given that it was 9 months later, am I the only one who thought that Victoria was going to end up pregnant?] 
  • I appreciate Smith's ability to capture the small world/big idea feel of academia. I laughed out loud at this description of Levi swimming laps during Howard's speech at the party, "Everyone had noticed at the same time that there was a lone swimmer, and then almost everyone asked their neighbour whether they recalled Cheever's story. Academics lack range" (108). Have you read that story? It's amazing, but I was thinking of it myself. I'm not truly an academic, but definitely can appreciate the insular community described here. 
  • As for the teenagers, the thing that most resonates with me so far is their fervent desire to be part of any other family but their own. Remember that feeling? That everyone else's family was cooler, different, and somehow better than yours? I think the author does a fantastic job of capturing the inner worlds of these kids still trying to figure the world out; especially considering the complex racial dynamics of being black in a white suburb, and of being in a mixed race family.
How's On Beauty treating you?

Kelly: I don't really have any history with this book -- I read White Teeth for a book group many years ago, but I really don't remember much about it. I remember it being good and I've heard that On Beauty is even better, so that seemed like a good reason to pick it from your list.  The fading on your book -- whoa. I can't remember -- are there curtains on those windows?

[Okay. My thoughts are a little disjointed here. I should have written this before we got a puppy. Please bear with me. I'm so tired!]

It was kind of a slow start for me with the oddly out-of-time-and-place emails (Who are these people? What is going on? Why isn't this guy responding to his son?) But after that, I found this story totally engrossing. I don't know why some books compel one to burn through them and, based on the general storyline of this book, I never would have thought this book would be un-putdownable for me. But it is!

What do you make of this section title? "Kipps and Belsey." It's singular. Does it refer to just Howard and Monty? Or is it the interaction between different individual Kippses and individual Belseys? Besides Howard and Monty, there's Jerome and Victoria, Howard and Michael, Kiki and Carlene... anyone else? I guess Zora doesn't really have a 1:1 with any one Kipps -- she greets the whole family at the party. (I'm not sure where I was going with this. It might be just as obvious as Howard and Monty, but the story just seems to be soooooo much bigger then just these two dudes.)

Regarding Howard, you say, "I found him an interesting mix of foolish and affable" -- and later, you use the exact word I thought when reading this -- what a buffoon. I am wrestling with the "likablity" issue -- everything about this guy makes me feel like I should *not* like him, and yet... I sort of... do? At least, I feel sorry for him. This Kipps "rivalry" seems so entirely one-sided. Kipps has won -- it's hard to say if he even notices that Belsey exists in the world. It's like rival college teams where one college is a huge powerhouse and the other is small... the small one view the powerhouse as their "rival" but the powerhouse? Usually views some other powerhouse as their true rival. I wonder who Kipps feels is his "true" rival.

I love Kiki. I love the juxtaposition of her wacky free-spirit self in the park -- bringing the dog along in the crowd, embarrassing her son with boob talk, etc. -- with her steely keep-it-together determination in the scene when she realizes that it's Claire. At the party, where she quietly gives Howard the boot through gritted teeth? Chills, I tell ya.

Woven throughout this story are jibes and comments about racial and gender inequalities. The racial observations were expected, but I really noticed some of the paw-swats at the feminist problem -- Kiki is speaking to Claire (before we know the full truth about Claire) about a trip that she and her husband have recently made:
"Was it just a vacation?" asked Kiki. "Weren't you collecting a prize or --?"
"Oh, a silly.... nothing, the Dante thing -- but that's not interesting. Warren spend the whole time in this rape field going crazy over this new theory..." [52]
Totally reminded me of How to Suppress Women's Writing, and also pissed me off the same way in that this book was written 10 years ago, but this problem of women "putting men first" is still an issue.

Although I generally enjoy the writing, sometimes I struggle trying to "hear" voices, based on their language. For example, Kiki is supposed to be from "simple Florida country stock," [8] but then she asks, "How am I meant to react?" [8] which is British phrasing (Americans generally say, "supposed to"). I realize she has been married to a Brit for a long time and has lived in England, so she probably picked up some of that, but this happens as we are still just "meeting" her and immediately after that Florida line. Perhaps it is the author's own British-ness shining through, but she then says "ass" twice and then Howard says, "Second arse of the morning." [9] so I feel like the author is pointing out: "Look! They're using different versions of the English language!" So that was just kind of disconcerting.

In response to your thoughts:
  • I am okay with hearing from every character except when I feel like we don't hear from one "enough." But wait... what's the definition of "narrator" -- we get information from different people's perspective, but does the "narration" change in this book? 
  • The 9 month/pregnant thing didn't occur to me at all. Whoops -- missed that point, if it was one. I actually thought about the length of a school year.
  • I have read Cheever's story, but I didn't think of it when the person was in the pool. I actually thought of an episode of Weeds. So you know... not at all an academic over here. Heh.
  • Regarding: Everyone else's family being cooler... I do remember that feeling -- remember how amazed I was that your family had Kool-aid?!
And, finally, here were some laugh-out-loud moments for me:
  • "Look, of course I know you and your family have 'beliefs,' began Howard uneasily, as if 'beliefs' were a kind of condition like oral herpes." [38]
  • Patriotic display rankings: "Fewer American flags than in Florida, but more than in San Francisco." [46]

Jenny: Oh, I loved those sentences you picked out as laugh out loud moments. I'm not sure what I'd call them, but I do think more highly of authors who can make the pithy observation. I think the best novelists are the ones who can find those inner moments and reveal them for the reader. I also noticed the flag one as particularly brilliant.

I love your Kipps and Belsey analogy---you're right in that it's all Howard's pitting himself against Monty, while Monty clearly thinks Howard is a twit. Lol.

You're right that this book is super readable---I think Smith has hit the perfect note of having interesting and fully-formed characters, but they are also likeable. The characters actions seem real without being just in service to the plot (ahem. for the most part. thinking ahead to the end here) and I enjoy being part of this world. On to Part 2.

Part Two: the anatomy lesson

Jenny: It's always interesting when a book is split up into section to see how the author makes the leap into the new section. I'll be honest that I was expecting a big leap forward in time from the reveal that Howard had not just had a one-night stand, but rather a full-blown affair with Claire. But it really just picks up pretty much immediately after. The break doesn't signal a time change, but rather an emotional one.

There was a lot about this section I enjoyed, mostly the descriptions of the interior lives of women and their relationships with each other. I recognized Zora's desperate need to fit in and impress, and how she battles her mother at every turn. This description of their struggle was just perfect, "Kiki felt herself a whetstone that Zora was sharpening herself against" (198). It seems to perfectly describe the way a child has to keep knocking into the parent to figure out their way---not looking forward to that. Lol.

Kiki's timid overtures towards Carlene Kipps perfectly capture the trepidation I think women feel when trying to make new friends as an adult. And it's in one of their first conversations that Smith sets up a recurring theme of the book, the question of how different characters think about love---and I don't only mean romantic love, but the guiding principles behind anyone's actions towards their family or lovers.  In their conversation, Carlene says, "I don't ask myself what did I live for...that is a man's question. I ask myself whom did I live for...I see very clearly recently that in fact I didn't live for an idea or even for God --- I lived because I loved this person. I am very selfish, really. I lived for love" (176). Kiki rejects this idea as either sad or pathetic, but it's a powerful moment in the book. And the reader is left wondering if this isn't Kiki's ideal, or doesn't describe her, then what would?

Immediately after, Kiki and Howard have a bitter fight, the first since the reveal of his affair. She breaks down and says, "I gave up my life for you. I don't even know who I am anymore" (206) In some ways, this is the same exact logic that Carlene expressed earlier, but here Kiki makes it plain that she feels victimized by it, that this happened to her rather than being a choice she made.

I would say I have two quibbles with this section: the cacophony of "narrators" feels overwhelming. Yes, you're right that the narration style is the same, but I don't know what word to use otherwise since it's revealing the interior world of these character. Why was the chapter from the point of view of the quiet Indiana girl necessary? Even the chapters from Claire's point of view seem a distraction. Does it matter why she engaged in the affair? Maybe it's just because I wanted to spend more time with the primary players---but these chapters were not as strong to me.

This leads to my second problem, which is my inability to figure out the current state of the marriage between Kiki and Howard. This section goes from Summer to Christmas----and they're marriage is just in a state of entropy. I mean, maybe this is how it happens when people get divorced----a sudden reveal followed by months of stasis? Even though my parents were divorced, I don't actually have a whole lot of insight into this as an adult. Interestingly, this section ends with the Kipps family squeezing Kiki out---nothing like the emotional devastation of the first section, but a feeling of loss regardless. Is this to remind Kiki that the friendship with Carlene was simply a diversion, a way of avoiding the tangled mess of her own family?

Kelly: The initial book discussion probably should have opened with this, but I don't read front matter until I am finished reading a book. I have since finished and read the Acknowledgements where Smith wrote: "It should be obvious from the first line that this is a novel inspired by the love of E.M. Forster, to whom all my fiction is indebted, one way or the other. This time I wanted to repay the debt with hommage." Have you read Howards End? I did in college, but remember nothing about it. Apparently, this book is a "modern day retelling" of it. The first line of Howards End is "One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister..." so that explains the first line of this book and the weird email opener. There are apparently a lot of other parallels between and the books. I guess Belsey's name is even kind of a pun -- will this be "Howard's End?"

And now, on to Part 2:

After getting so wrapped up in "Kipps and Belsey" as a section title above, I also sought explanation for the name "The Anatomy Lesson" -- it's the Rembrandt that Howard uses for his first class, but then... what else does that refer to? Whenever an author chooses to divide a book into parts (especially named ones), I want to know why, and this hasn't been 100% clear to me. But I press on...

I was glad to get more of Zora in this part, because I felt like she was underrepresented in the first. I must admit that this character makes me cringe. Her "too-smart-for-you" issues + just trying to get along in school/life/the social world -- It's a painful time, painfully portrayed. This line: "And so it happened again, the daily miracle whereby interiority opens out and brings to bloom the million-petalled flower of being here, in the world, with other people. Neither as hard as she had thought it might be or as easy as it appeared." [211] Yes.

You mentioned Zora pushing her boundaries, but I really noticed Levi pushing his. When he realizes he has gone too far with Mr. Bailey: "'Excuse me?' Levi's fury was backed on either side by pure terror. He was a kid and this was a man [...] This was not the world of the mega-store anymore [...] They has fallen through a loophole of law and propriety and safety." [192] It's a wake up call for him and I really felt his conflict when his smart-alecky confidence encountered this immovable force -- a man, treating him like a man. Oddly enough, he then proceeds to the seemingly dangerous world of street selling and that never really ends up as badly as I feared it might. What do you make of that?

As for the multitude of other characters' perspectives... still didn't bother me. I enjoyed getting to know all of these people. And I appreciated getting different perspectives on the same topic -- Zora's "compartmentalization" talk with Claire about the affair, the kids running into each other on the street and talking about their parents' relationship, etc. I think even the Indiana girl's perspective was to give us another set of eyes looking at Belsey and Victoria, buuuut... I don't think that perspective was necessary. I'm with you -- she could have easily been cut.

Regarding the entropy of the marriage, I have witnessed this in friends who have gotten divorced. Basically, the priority remains raising the kids, so the "action" of proceeding with completing the breakup takes a backseat. It can take a lot of time and energy to get divorced (depending on the financial situation and the disposition of the parties involved) so it ends up being another full-time job -- I think a lot of people just keep treading water rather than taking on an extra giant chore. Especially in this case, where one party (Howard) does not really want to get divorced. So it would be up to Kiki to take it all on herself. And, you know, she's already pretty damned busy!

Through Parts 1 and 2, I really don't have many problems with this novel (the wheels sort of come off for me in Section 3, but we'll get to that). I'd say my only nit is the coincidences. For instance, Carl: The guy Zora swapped players with is also the guy who swiped her goggles who is also the poet at the Bus Stop, blah, blah. I don't know why, but I find coincidences hard to swallow and I think they were laid on a little bit heavily here.  In flipping through my copy to refresh myself on the story, I also discovered this little piece of foreshadowing: "Victoria was looking at Kiki like a jealous lover." [270] Oof. Just... too much.

Once again, many individual lines really struck me... these two, in particular -- so true:
  • "Any woman who counts on her face is a fool." [173]
  • "This is why Kiki dreaded having girls: she knew she wouldn't be able to protect them from self-disgust." [197]
And my laugh-out-loud moment: "Somehow if you ordered the cheesecake as an afterthought it had fewer calories in it." [236]

Finally, I find myself really all-over-the-place trying to talk about this book. I feel like I have so much to say and I'm struggling to winnow it down to the key points. So I asked my pal Google about what others have said, and I found this review entitled Thirteen Ways of Looking at 'On Beauty'  that totally sums up my problem -- I have a lot to say because there is a lot to say! 

Part Three: on beauty and being wrong

Jenny: "The wheels sort of come off," you said. Not only do the wheels come off, but then the car drives over the edge of the bridge and sets the river on fire. You and I talk a lot about "sticking the landing." But this seems an entirely different thing: Howard's affair with Victoria, the painting being left to Kiki, Zora holding all the cards. /eyeroll

Howard's affair with Victoria is so repugnant and frankly unbelievable---at least in the way it's described. Poor, old Howard! This beautiful young girl just fell into his lap, I mean, he didn't even really WANT to do it. I'm sure he would tell himself that, but what on Earth is *Victoria* thinking? Here's where the multiple narrators becomes a problem for me. Smith has been trotting them out all over, and when finally I'm semi-curious about what the ever loving fuck she's thinking...there's nothing. We're left to assume she's just trying to punish Daddy, I guess? Whatever. The whole thing was so gross that I didn't even want to spend much time thinking about it.

The plot with the artwork, for some reason I wanted to be more interested in this. Frankly, who wouldn't have responded the way the Kipps family did? Are we really supposed to be outraged about that? It's also sort of weird, and bothersome, that earlier it was revealed that the artwork that actually belongs to the Belsey family, the original stained glass windows from the house, are wrapped up and kept in the basement because of their value. There's an interesting thread here, but I'm so exhausted by the rest of the ending, I'm not sure I have the energy to pull it.

The part of this section that I found most moving is Howard's visit with his father. Clearly, Howard feels beleaguered by his father; but it's hard not to read the scene as an exploration of the ultimate parent-child dilemma: You think your parents are assholes, but are you really better than they are? Sure, the father is a racist jerk, but is Howard truly a better person? Continuing the book's theme of exploring how we treat the people we love, Howard flees the house, thinking, "He just did not believe, as his father did, that time is how you spend your love" (302). How sad for Howard, that he's able to explicitly see these differences with his father, and yet completely unable to see that he is also a failure with his own wife and kids.

I'm off to read Thirteen Ways of Looking at 'On Beauty' and anxious to hear your thoughts on part 3...

Kelly: Well, between you writing the above and me writing my thoughts, we had the following text  exchange:
Which basically sums it all up for me.

I was genuinely bummed by this final section. I tried to soften my feelings earlier when I said "the wheels *sort of* come off" just in case you had a different opinion, but we are in agreement: This book ended in a fiery damned crash.

Why on EARTH did we need the vile hook up with Victoria?! I mean, we've already agreed that Howard is a cheating moron. Do we then need this revolt-making scene? And you're right -- we basically get nothing from Victoria here, which is about the only thing that might have made it worthwhile. But it's at her mother's funeral and then she "kisses him maternally on the forehead" when it's over [318]. Just...NO.

Especially because literally the page before the abomination occurs, we get this lovely line as he is lost trying to find the wake: "It is on journeys like this -- where one is so horribly misunderstood -- that you find yourself longing for home, that place where you are entirely understood, for better or for worse. Kiki was home. He needed to find her." [307] And then he stumbles into the place and goes upstairs and does Victoria? UGH.

As I said in my text above, what struck me is that Zadie Smith was hell-bent on making this book a WMFuN and I have no idea why, because that story line is the weakest part of this book. It's like she said, "Wait... this guy is not f'd up enough... how can I fix that?" and she did. But why?

I was also sorely disappointed in Zora's jealousy meltdown with Carl... maybe because she has been such a sympathetic character throughout and then with this, Smith seems to be trying to destroy all of that. I mean, I guess that's fine -- no one is above reproach in this book, but I already felt like we were embarrassed enough for some of her other actions that we didn't need this EPIC display of insecurity and childishness. I guess that's how we get the reveal about Howard and Victoria, but, again... we didn't need that story either!

Okay, now I will pull some quotes that I enjoyed from this part, as I have from the others. And I will pretend that these are the only things that happened in Part 3 (is that wrong? Oh, well.) My first was that line above about home, which was so great and then basically ruined by the "rosy knot" that came shortly thereafter. So here is another:
Sadness swept over Jerome. They had nothing to say to each other. A five-year age gap between siblings is like a garden that needs constant attention. Even three months apart allows the weeds to grow up between you. [403] 
Not having siblings myself, I do not know if that is true, but I thought that imagery was lovely and bittersweet.

And, finally, of course, I flipping loved the "tomato" descriptions of all of the classes. Not only was it hilarious, but it was tomatoes, so you know that made me happy. So I'll end on this note:
Professor Simeon's class is "The tomato's nature versus the tomato's nurture," and Jane Colman's class is "To properly understand the tomato you must first uncover the tomato's suppressed Herstory" [...] and Professor Gilman's class is "The tomato is structured like an aubergine," and Professor Kellas's class is basically "There is no way of proving the existence of the tomato without making reference to the tomato itself," and Erskine Jegede's class is "The post-colonial tomato as eaten by Naipaul."[312]
Oh, On Beauty. You had such promise. But this ending... oof. So long, and thanks for the tomatoes!

Jenny:  Not sure I can beat that ending. Well said.


  1. I just realized there will be no one to comment on our post, Lol.

    I did add a link to explain the acronym WMFuN for those poor souls unfamiliar with the genre.

  2. An interesting thing happened today at The Toast. Is this just a master list of WMFuNs?

    After a discussion, I looked back at when John originally coined the phrase back in 2011, and I forgot this very salient point he made: "I also would like to stipulate to the inherent unfairness over the fact that the white male fuckup novel often gets a de facto label of “literary” while its kissing cousin, so-called “chick lit” does not. I’m with Jennifer Weiner on this one."

    I am having a FB conversation in my secret FB group about Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead that to me was uber-WMFuN, although my friend Sara really liked it. I talked about other WMFuNs I'd read in the past year [On Beauty by Zadie Smith, A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall by Will Chancellor, Seating Arrangements, Solar by Ian McEwan], and I argued that they all have a certain shape of the plot that is so common, it's hard to overlook:

    1) Midlife crisis that ends up with them sleeping with some beautiful young thing, with no real explanation or reason for why this woman would give this old fart the time of day.

    2) WASPy wealth coupled with a disregard for morals and ethics somewhere on the scale between negligent to near total.

    3) Complete inability to see how their emotional distance hurts their families.

    4) Poor to non-existent parenting / relationship nurturning skills, but with moments of craven over-doing it to assuage their feelings of guilt.

    5) Obsession with petty goals that disturb and fuck up all reasonable progress.

    What else would you say are the defining characteristics of the WMFuN? And is it by definition subversive if it's written by a woman? By a POC? By a female POC?