On On Beauty
The following was from a conversation I had right before break.
AS: I don’t like it when papers start with “On” in their titles. I’m never sure what they’re about.
K: Yeah, but you know what they’re on.
“On Beauty” is a poem by Nick Laird, the husband of Zadie Smith. On Beauty is the title of Smith’s new novel, which features her husband’s poem. I was as struck by how beautifully the book was written as I was by its engaging story.
Smith uses time to her advantage at several points in the novel. Smith sometimes places months between chapters to spare the reader the initial fallout of many events in the novel. This allows us to focus on how the characters are affected by events rather than the events for their own sake. For instance, after Howard’s actions set himself and other characters up for trouble, the impact on Kiki and other characters weighed more on me than the events that would surely cause them to find out. Perhaps for this reason, the novel has more of a serious tone.
Like White Teeth, Smith manages to put the reader inside the head of each of the characters through her third person narrative. However, by prioritizing characters over events, I couldn’t laugh as hard at their mishaps. For instance, while White Teeth and A Confederacy of Dunces have well developed characters, Smith still kept me at arms length from them, so I could enjoy mishaps in all their schadenfreude without always sympathizing with the plights of the characters. Because On Beauty focuses on the circumstances leading to conflict and strife, the sympathy factor skyrockets. Levi’s confrontation with his boss takes some of the laughter out of his stage performance as “cheerleader” for a group of Haitian rappers because the reader is concerned about the direction his life is taking in response to that incident. If it had been Riley Freeman on stage, I probably would have laughed harder.
The focus on characters allows one to see the impact of events Howard sets in motion well before Howard does. It enhances his self-absorption because readers have spent so much time with the characters; we know his actions will affect while he is seemingly oblivious. This makes for an effective end to the novel and one that I recommend to others.