Kayhryn Rathke
On Beauty

By Zadie Smith

(Penguin Press) $25.95

It's the fall and Zadie Smith has written a book about school. Professors gather at cocktail parties to talk about Foucault and Montaigne, and students strike out into cemeteries searching for Thackeray and Trollope. All are associated with a university called Wellington, located in a Boston suburb of the same name, where Howard Belsey (who is white), his wife (who is black), and their three children (who are in-between) live relatively well. That is, until Howard's academic nemesis—the ostentatious, retrograde art theorist Monty Kipps—moves to town, throwing the Belsey family into upheaval, threatening Howard's standing at the university, and igniting a string of events sordid, irrational, and incestuous. On Beauty is an homage to E. M. Forster's 1910 novel Howards End, but in every way it's a Zadie Smith book—funny, unwieldy, and crowded with uncommon beauty.

The book holds together well—it holds together almost too well—and it's hard to pull it apart and lay it out on the table. So I offer, with apologies to Wallace Stevens, who has nothing to do with On Beauty except that he's mentioned once on page 120 ("Nobody gives a fuck about Rembrandt... Or Wallace Stevens"), a dozen and one ways of looking at the book.

1. On Beauty is a novel about a hater.

Howard Belsey is a Rembrandt scholar who despises Rembrandt (unoriginal, conformist). Other things he hates include Christmas (too commercial), Christians (irrational), glee clubs (stupid), his own father (complicated), technology (he's never owned a cell phone), and traditionally beautiful art (especially anything redemptive or consoling). He does not like Mozart, although he consents to attend a performance of Mozart's Requiem with his family for family-bonding purposes, but afterward he immediately stands and says, "That it, then? Everyone touched by the Christian sublime? Can we go now?" Howard's opposition to the world, his opposition to joy, his astringent adherence to theory—this all softens as the novel progresses. He even takes an interest in an apple tree. But he still pretty much hates Rembrandt.

2. On Beauty is a Forster knockoff.

On Beauty is an homage to, and rearrangement of, Howards End. The action has been moved to America, the war that looms just outside the frame of the novel is not World War I but the Iraq war, the dialogue is a hell of a lot funnier, there are sex scenes and iPods, and the rift between classes that Forster dramatized now also has a racial dimension.

The basic plot of Howards End is: A middle-class London woman named Helen Schlegel decides to help a poor man named Leonard Bast improve his economic standing. This doesn't go as well for Schlegel as it seems it should, and it goes horribly for Bast, who at the end of Howards End walks into the eponymous house and gets hacked up with a sword. In On Beauty, the Bast character is a hunky black guy named Carl who writes rhymes and performs them at a local spoken-word club, where he's discovered by a Wellington poetry class and taken in by the professor. Carl isn't enrolled at Wellington but he participates in this poetry class, provoking an explosion of controversy. He doesn't meet the sharp end of a sword, but he does become—as black men sometimes do in this country—a pawn in a game that that has nothing to do with him.

Other similarities to Howards End: There is a house of some importance to the story; there is an exegesis about a classical masterpiece (in Howards End it's Beethoven, in On Beauty it's Mozart); and someone dies, leaving something worth a lot of money to someone nobody could have expected.

3. On Beauty is an old-fashioned family novel.

Although, of course, the Belsey family could not have existed in America in 1910. Howard and Kiki's children are Jerome, a college student, who is a stick in the mud and a Christian; Zora, a worldly, bossy, budding intellectual, also a college student; and Levi, who is 15. Time will do funny things to a family and it's doing funny things to the Belseys. The kids are just becoming adults, just starting to betray their parents in meaningful ways. Jerome's embrace of Christianity is a betrayal of his parents' values (Howard loathes irrational people)—and he revels in it. In an e-mail to Howard at the start of the book ("One may as well begin with Jerome's e-mails to his father," the book begins), Jerome writes, from England, where he has taken an internship, "... and it's very cool to be able to pray without someone in your family coming into the room and (a) passing wind, (b) shouting, (c) analyzing the 'phony metaphysics of prayer,' (d) singing loudly, (e) laughing." On Beauty is a portrait of a family doing what all families do, in one sense or another: fall apart.

4. On Beauty mocks academic mores.

One student at Wellington describes her classes in terms of tomatoes: "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'—she's such a silly bitch that woman—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.'" Howard wonders how she would describe his class. "Your class is all about never ever saying I like the tomato."

5. On Beauty is about a black family living in a suburb unaccustomed to blackness.

One afternoon Levi comes home and Zora is in the front yard. Zora looks past her brother, into the street, and whispers, "Wow, this one can't believe her eyes—she's having some kind of cognitive failure. She's going to malfunction." And then she shouts, "Thank you! Yes, move along now—he lives here—yes, that's right—no crime is taking place—thank you for your interest!"

Levi longs to have a shirt that says YO—I'M NOT GOING TO RAPE YOU. ("There was always some old lady who needed to be reassured on that point.") He conceals himself in headphones and hoodies and an affected Brooklyn vernacular ("He don't do no wilding out, he got no crunk, no hyphy, no East Coast vibe") that baffles the rest of the family, since Levi has never been to Brooklyn. There's a great scene where Levi describes something as "street" and Zora translates the term for her parents. Then Howard muses, hilariously, "I wonder if I'm street..."

6. On Beauty is about sex.

Owing to his stance on Rembrandt, one of Howard's colleagues at Wellington accuses him of being "anti-pleasure." You could accuse him of being just the opposite. Bill Clinton would be jealous of Howard's extramarital calisthenics. Howard does not set out to ruin his marriage or his family. He just happens to be a 57-year-old, virile, thick-haired college professor whom colleagues and students find appealing—and isn't it appealing to be found appealing? How can it be that Howard so happily resists beauty in art, but he's utterly powerless to resist beauty in people? This question is one of the novel's smartest contradictions, but it isn't a question Howard ever asks himself—he's too busy wishing the women he's slept with would disappear, or forgetting them altogether: "With the miracle that is male compartmentalization he had barely thought of her." Sometimes he has to remind himself that women aren't concepts.

7. On Beauty is a novel about what the presence of beauty can do to people, the havoc it can wreak.

It could make you sleep with your own son's ex-girlfriend, for example. Or your colleague. To say nothing of what any of this would do to your marriage, your other children, and your self-respect.

8. On Beauty is watery.

In Howards End one of the characters declares, "You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands." Forster relies on water imagery throughout the novel ("the piles of money that keep their feet above the waves," "to love people rather than pity them, to remember the submerged," "the church may have been a ship, high-prowed, steering with all its company towards infinity"), and in On Beauty Smith does this too (Jerome's voice is "a cry from a ship in a storm," Monty Kipps's voice "sailed effortlessly through the sea... pressing forward into new waters").

It would be insane, I think, to make a connection between the water, race, and class in these books and water, race, and class in the American South right now—although as I was reading sentences such as, "You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands," I couldn't help thinking about New Orleans.

9. On Beauty is a political novel.

It's a novel about American social politics and the stage for the debate—with Howard on one side and his conservative rival on the other—is Wellington. The setting concentrates all the acrimony into a few square miles, and actually, at the book's climax, into one large room. Smith gives both sides of the battle incredibly big guns.

10. On Beauty is about the strain that exists between an intellectual and a nonintellectual who love each other.

"She called a rose a rose. He called it an accumulation of cultural and biological constructions circulating around the mutually attracting binary poles of nature/artifice." Howard's diction is distant and pretentious, and in On Beauty the job of the anti-intellectual characters is to help the intellectuals get real. When there's a fight and Howard gets abstract, Kiki slaps him with some truth: "This is real. This life. We're really here—this is really happening. Suffering is real. When you hurt people, it's real. When you fuck one of our best friends, that's a real thing and it hurts me."

11. On Beauty is a survey of bodies beautiful and grotesque.

Kiki is 250 pounds and she has an "enormous spellbinding bosom" that always plays a "silent third role in the conversation." Jerome's backside is "wide and charmless like the rear view of one of Howard's aunts." Howard goes to a funeral in London and as he's walking through Cricklewood he sees "African women in their colourful kenti cloths, the whippet blonde with three phones tucked into the waistband of her tracksuit, the unmistakable Poles and Russians introducing the bone structure of Soviet Realism to an island of chinless, browless potato-faces, the Irish men resting on the gates of housing estates like farmers at a pig fair..." Smith fills On Beauty with a human zoo.

12. On Beauty is a new picture of America.

The words are spelled funny ("favourite") and the quotation marks are all wrong—Smith is English. But reading about America through the eyes of a foreigner is a fine way to find out what the place actually looks like.

13. On Beauty is a system.

On Beauty shares a "flaw" with Howards End—they are both quite schematic. Both novels rely on a series of coincidences, and although the end of On Beauty is better, you can still see the strings and the stage management. The book reveals itself as a system—a complex, beautiful system. Like a family. Or a university.

frizzelle@thestranger.com