starts with Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. I think Ms. Smith to be one of our most inventive story tellers and this novel, published in 2005, is her third. It follows her immensely popular and awarded White Teeth and just as entertaining and rewarding The Autograph Man. The best feature of her writing is that while the characters are always unique and entertaining in their predicaments she really has something deeper to say about this world in which we live. Nothing pat, no formulaic happiness to the ending though this story does end with everyone moving forward and having learned from their experience.
Carl Thomas, Zora, Claire Malcolm, Monty Kipps, Howard Belsey, Vee, Kiki Belsey, here’s a question: Can you pick out the characters of African descent?
Money plays a part in their lives. Caste and class, too. The youngest son, Levi Belsey, longs to be black, street, rich, and politically correct to his soi disant revolutionary brothers. The youngest daughter, Vee Kipps, strives to show through her sexuality that she can control the world. The fathers of the families feud. Politically they are at different ends of the spectrum but of course you know that puts them a lot closer to each other than they can admit. The wives unite in their realization that they have lived their lives in hopes of being valued by their husbands, though their reasons for doing so are clearly different in nature.
And in the end, things fall apart. It turns out that family values aren’t something you say you have. You actually have to have them. And it doesn’t matter whether that’s God on your side or not, you can still die of cancer and you can still decide to cheat on your conscience.
My favorite character, Carl, disappears at the novel’s end. Gone back to the streets or where ever the music is. But he represents the point of the novel that I like best. He is honest to his talent but unable to handle the social responsiblity that the people he trusted actually feel towards him. He is no project for a liberal leaning idealist to raise up. He is definitely no project that a neocon Clarence Thomas can look down upon.
Give Carl a free market and he goes to the head of the class.
This story looks inside this social system that we have, that defines a person without knowing that person, and asks us to reflect on our own motives for picking a side in the question. A question that comes back to our own world’s current financial dilemma. Does government have the responsibilty to even the odds or should it rely on the free market to resolve the dilemma? If the answers are provided by men like Howard Belsey or Monty Kipps, you get one answer. If they are provided by women like Kiki Belsey, then you get quite another.