The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Sunday, March 05, 2006


Zadie Smith's new novel is fantastic. I've read both of her previous books; WHITE TEETH was just a great first novel and THE AUTOGRAPH MAN embodied sophomore slump. But this new one really shows what people were talking about after WHITE TEETH. At first glance, the novel looks like it could just be too damn mannered: its title is pretentious, it is explicitly indebted to E.M. Forster, it deals with competing views of Rembrandt, and in the acknowledgements Smith nods to Elaine Scarry, the "Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University." (Well, Smith doesn't actually use her title. I just like it. Harvard--you just can't satirize them, because they do it too well themselves.)

Basically, the novel tells the story of two families who are both at odds and intertwined, and it being Smith's writing, complicated ethnic stories are everywhere--the black woman from Florida who marries the British intellectual who forsook Britain for America, their 16-year-old boy who adopts a "Brooklyn accent" (one of Smith's errors--more on that below) and hip-hop life to the extent he claims he's from Roxbury, Boston, until a Haitian calls him on it, the black Trinidadian conservative intellectual with the hot daughter who sleeps (spoiler alert) with two of the men of the OTHER family, etc. Smith isn't a master of plotting; in all of her books, WHITE TEETH especially, the plots feel like she pulled them together because she had to hang her brilliant character sketches on something. But her characters are just great, complicated, intelligent, sympathetic, and Forsterian, truly. Smith is also becoming a master of the sentence-level image, the quick simile or metaphor we haven't heard before. I'm incredibly impressed.

Besides the plot (which is, I'll grant, superior to the silly Rube Goldberg machine she created in WHITE TEETH), my only complaint with ON BEAUTY is with the editing. Specifically, at least twenty times Smith has her American characters use typically British terms that, even with a British father, they wouldn't use. Example: the 16 year old, the one who wanted to adopt the "Brooklyn accent"...

--and what does that mean? Linguists have determined that there is no difference between Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, Jersey, etc., when dealing with that accent, but that isn't what Smith even wanted to denote--it was the urban African American accent, East Coast variety, which as far as I know isn't called a "Brooklyn accent" anywhere in America-- angry at his family because he can't find a five-dollar bill in the house, and says "I put it on the sideboard." I don't know any American who uses the term "sideboard"--I learned it from Dickens and Monty Python--certainly not one self-consciously trying to adopt black street slang.

But that's a small quibble. It's just a superior book. Read it.


  • At 7:40 PM, Blogger elbowspeak said…

    I disagree about "brooklyn accent". Although there is technically no such thing, casual American cultural taxonomists frequently conflate all vaguely ethnic, east coast accents into the iconic American immigrant burrough. We're just too ignint not to!

    Though I didn't read the book, it makes sense that someone who didn't know from nothin' on the accent tip would naively pursue a "Brooklyn Accent".


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