I loved Smith’s White Teeth, so much so, that I totally and willfully avoided her second book, The Autograph Man – just in case it sucked. On Beauty was nominated for the Booker Prize and was shortlisted – so I felt that I could maybe take a chance on this one. It is a sprawling, imperfect book, and I thought it was great. [more after the jump]
The book is about two families that are thrown together. Each is headed by a famous English academic, one is a conservative at a UK college – the other a liberal teaching at US liberal arts college in Massachusetts. The book has been described as a satire that skewers the sacred cows of the left and the right. Or it is a tale of academia. Or it is a study of racial mores on both sides of The Pond (mostly on ours). I think that these descriptions of the book pigeon-hole it in a way that doesn’t do justice to the book as a whole. Yes, the book hits on all of these themes, but in the end it is really about how two black women approach the job of holding their families together.
Smith’s style has been termed “hysterical realism”- an assessment she agrees with. Zadie Smith creates memorable characters and instantly recognizable settings through liberal use of detail. You definitely come to know her characters through her books. Once she has created these carefully constructed worlds, she casts off “plot bombs” that send her characters (and the reader) reeling, wondering what it all means. Just like life. It’s interesting to me, but the authors that are described as belonging to the “hysterical realism” camp include some of my favorites: Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Tom Wolfe, etc. As Debbie Boone said (sort of), “If loving them is wrong, I don’t want to be right”.
It is either a tribute to Smith’s ideas on multi-culturalism or my own stupidity, but this reader did not know that most of the two families were black and/or mixed racially (the UK dad professor is white) until at least 50 pages into the book. I don’t know if that is worth commenting on – but I thought it was interesting. Similarly, the US version of the book’s cover (above) would lead one to believe that this is some sort of Victorian “chick” book. However, the UK version of the book is implicit that this book will feature a black woman with a large afro. Were the publishers afraid that US readers would think this was a knock off of How Stella Get Her Groove Back? Whenever UK and US book covers differ, I tend to think some smarmy book-marketing stooge is thinking ill of me. Do I read too much into this?
One thing bugged me in this book. Smith describes a minor character as from the “deep south”. He’s from Kentucky. As someone from the actual deep south – as a kid I used to think that the North Pole was up around Shreveport – I found this a little shoddy. But she’s British, so I’ll let her slide.
In short, I dug this book. Will you? I guess that depends on your feelings towards this hysterical realism business, multiculturalism, and other potential hobgoblins. Govern yourself accordingly.
Update: Zadie Smith on Fresh Air discussing the book. Also, I should have mentioned that the book is “structurally” based upon Howard’s Ends. Lastly, my wife has become concerned that I’m scheming to run off with Zadie Smith.