Race and Relations in Zadie Smith’s New Novel

Zadie Smith’s first novel, “White Teeth”, published in 2000, when she was twenty-four was a big hit- a prize-winner, a best-seller Some people claimed that this had less to do with the book than with Smith’s “demographic”: that, as a mixed-race write (Jamaican mother, English father) who was also young, female, and good-looking, she made perfect jacket copy, perfect book-tour material. That wasn’t fair. The novel may have been loved for non-literary reasons, but the went beyond Smith’s excellent cheekbones. See in northwest London, in the black, white, an South Asian neighborhood where Smith was raised, “White Teeth” hinges on the friendship of a white, working-class Englishman, Archie and a Bangladeshi man, Samad. Archie is married to a black Jamaican woman; their daughter gets pregnant by one of Samad’s Bengali sons, and it goes on from there- four-hundred-plus pages of racial devil-may-care This, actually, is not altogether unrepresentative of modern London, but, as Smith herself has acknowledged, “White Teeth” is utopian in it treatment of race, and some readers, I believe cherished it precisely for that. The book is ecstatically inclusive – Smith seemed to omit no incident, no character, no metaphor, no joke that struck her fancy- and in that come-all context the combining of races seemed right not just for this novel but for the world. Maybe people thought, postcolonial Europe was going to be O.K. after all.

Eventually, however, Smith decided that “White Teeth”? was too inclusive. She described it as “fat, messy kid who needs help.” Not surprisingly, then, her next novel, “The Autograph Man” (2002), was tighter. This book, too, was emphatically multicultural. Its hero, an English autograph dealer, is half-Chinese, and a Jew; his best friend and his girlfriend, also English, are black Jews. But, as these pedigrees suggest, the book is self-aware. It is also rather cold. Its main subject is celebrity, a matter that, after the fevered publicity campaign surrounding “White Teeth,” may have been on Smith’s mind. But, like celebrity, the critique of celebrity is not a heartwarming business. In chastening herself, Smith seemed to cramp her spirit..

Now we have Smith’s third novel, “On Beauty.” Thesis, antithesis, synthesis? Yes, sort of. “On Beauty” is less expansive than “White Teeth,” but more exalted than “The Autograph Man” or “White Teeth.” The subject is humanism, the relationship between beauty and goodness. (The title is taken from Elaine Scarry’s manifesto “On Beauty and Being Just,” which argues that the one leads to the other.) As a corollary, race is at last presented as a tortured subject. It creates difference, a challenge to any general conception of beauty or goodness. Again, the hinge is a racial cross: the marriage of Kiki Belsey, a black woman from Florida, and Howard Belsey, a white Englishman who is a professor of art history at a New England college. Soon after the book opens, the Belseys’ thirty-year union is in trouble. Howard has had an affair, and, to Kiki, this is not just a marital insult but a racial one. “I gave up my life for you,” she says to him- by which she means her life as a black person. A hospital administrator, a Maya Angelou reader, a believer in astrology, Kiki, for Howard’s sake, has spent her entire adulthood among white academics, listening to them say things that she didn’t agree with. Now he has repaid her by having a fling with a white colleague?.

Meanwhile, the Belseys’ three children are living out the consequences of being mixed-race. Jerome, the eldest, a student at Brown, has strayed from his family’s liberal politics. He is working as an intern for Monty Kipps, a conservative black scholar- a wearer of three-piece suits, a campaigner against affirmative action. But Kipps is not just an ideological enemy; he is Howard Belsey’s personal enemy. Howard, a convinced postmodernist, is writing a book on Rembrandt whose aim is to show that the Dutch master’s vaunted humanism is just a cover for the enactment of power relations. He shows his students a Rembrandt nude and asks them to see it as “inscribed in the idea of a specifically gendered, class debasement.” (Among other things, “On Beauty”? is a satire on American universities. Smith recently spent a year as a fellow at Harvard, and she seems to have got a bellyful.) Kipps, for his part, has written a highly praised book reaffirming Rembrandt’s humanism. Jerome thinks the world of him, and doesn’t see why being black, or half-black, should cause anyone to oppose the social order. He likes the social order..

That’s one mixed-race scenario. The Belsey’s daughter, Zora, also a college student, shows us another. Zora is determined to enter the white world, and to find a place of power within it. Nevertheless, she falls in love with a black “spoken word” artist from the ghetto. Then, there’s Levi, sixteen years old and desperate to reclaim his black roots. Levi wears a do-rag; only under duress does he detach the iPod earphones that, day and night, pipe rap music into his head. His one goal in life is to be “street.” All week he waits for Saturday, when, without his parents’ knowledge, he sells pirated DVDs on the sidewalks of Boston with a group of Haitian immigrants..

These different post-integration dramas give Smith the chance to address something she has not looked at closely before: intra-racial tensions. When Levi joins the Haitians, he is dispatched to a street corner with a skinny, tight-lipped man named Chouchou. Levi regards Chouchou with awe: “Down his right arm there was this knockout scar, rose-pink against his black skin, beginning in a point and then spreading out down his forearm like the wake of a ship.” Levi knows no French, and Chouchou’s name (which, ironically, means “dear”) is a mystery to him:
“That’ your name?”? asked Levi, as they crossed the street. “Like a train?”
“What does this mean?” “You know, like a train, like choo choo! Train coming through! Like a train.” “It’s Haitian. C-H-O-U-C”.?
“Yeah, yeah-I see . . .” Levi considered the problem. “Well, I can’t call you that, man. How about just Choo- that works, actually. It works. Levi and Choo.”
“It’s not my name.”
“No, I get that, man- but it just runs better to my ear- Choo. Levi and Choo. You hear that?”
No answer came.
“Yeah, it’s street. Choo . . . The Choo. That’s cool. Put it there- no, not there- like this. That’s the way.”
“Let’s get on with it, shall we?” said Choo, freeing his hand from Levi’s and looking both ways down the street.
This is subtle and poignant: a big, innocent, high-fiving boy, who has never missed a meal in his life, versus a man who is looking for his dinner money and whose “knockout scar” probably means to him things that the boy hasn’t dreamed of.

Behind this plot about race relations however, there is another plot going on. In the acknowledgments, Smith says, “It should be obvious from the first line that this is a novel inspired by a love of E. M. Forster, to whom all my fiction is indebted.” The first line of Forster’s “Howards End” is “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.” The first line of “On Beauty” is “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father.” In Smith’s book, as in Forster’s, a child of the “good” family (Jerome) falls in love with member of the enemy family (Kipps’ daughter); an emissary (Howard) goes off to put an end to this, and only makes thing worse; the mother of the enemy family (Kipps’ wife), before dying, wills something valuable to the matriarch of the good family (Kiki), whereupon the enemy family ignore the bequest. On and on go the echoes, down to tiny details: a special concert, a special tree, special shopping trip.

This use of “Howards End,” though it is an exemplary postmodern “appropriation,” doesn’t do the sort of subversive work that we expect from that maneuver. On the contrary, it underlines the new book’s humanistic message, pulling Forster in to say, Yes, Zadie Smith is right, all human beings are connected and they are all in a muddle, which they must solve with love, more than with justice. But doesn’t the shadow presence of “Howards End” also distort the plot of “On Beauty,” bending it to extraneous purposes? It should, but the fact is that Smith’s plots have always been a shambles. She is a novelist of ideas, and that concern, not realism, is what drives her stories. In a recent interview, Smith invoked Lionel Trilling, another novelist of ideas, who claimed that plot was essentially a laboratory. The novelist, like the scientist, sets up special conditions. What if we fed these mice only cupcakes? What if we married this traditional Southern black woman to a white British intellectual? That way we can get information about glucose metabolism, information about race, that wouldn’t come clear under random circumstances.

The problem with this, for the novelist, is that the reader may rebel against the contrivance of the experimental situation. The marriage of Kiki and Howard is hard to accept. How could these two people, who seem to have almost nothing in common, have got together, and stayed together for thirty years? Every time they speak to each other, they seem to be speaking to someone else, across the room. The situation is worse than that, though. Kiki is the moral center of the novel, a woman full of warm, ancient, instinctual wisdom. (Her gut had its own way of going about things- the good way, always.) In other words, she is a black stereotype. Smith clearly knew she had a problem with Kiki, for, while she made her virtuous, she also made her enormously fat, and in case you are thinking that this might be another aspect of that woman’s admirable earthiness, forget it. Obesity is a sort of obsession in Smith’s novels. Sometimes it seems that ten pages don’t pass without some poor fat person coming down the sidewalk, to her acidulous notice. Kiki outdoes all her predecessors; she weighs two hundred and fifty pounds. In a culminating episode, when she has sex with her husband on the living-room floor, Howard addresses himself to her “cataclysmic breasts,” with their “silver-dollar-sized nipples, from which occasional hairs sprouted.” Soon those breasts are bouncing and sweating. The scene is reminiscent of Gulliver’s being clasped to the bosoms of the Brobdingnagian women; it is horrifying. In other words, Smith, deep down, is not sure she likes her black icon. On the other hand, Howard, whom we’re supposed to disapprove of – time and again, we’re told that he’s selfish, and divorced from his feelings (he is Smith’s counterpart to Forster’s Henry Wilcox, the character whose chastisement will be the book’s primary lesson in humanism)- makes sense to us in a way that Kiki doesn’t. His jokes are funny; he’s fond of his children; he may not talk about his feelings, but he has them. Howard’s end is honorable, but the plot that gets him there is highly artificial.

But, while the plot is a wreck, many of the episodes it engenders are not. They do what the realistic novel is supposed to do – hold up a mirror to its time. I have quoted only one good scene, but there are a lot more, on marriage and adultery, parents and children, professors and students. What interest me most, however, are the scenes about race, and, Kiki aside, the extent to which Smith has made them rich and complicated. Race has never been just race; it has always involved class as well, and history. But rarely have I seen a novelist explore that intersection – showing how the race-class nexus affects who says what to whom at a party, who wants to go to bed with whom, who pays a call on whom, and brings a pie – more energetically than Smith. This is not an untilled field. Indeed, it is a whole department of the modern English-language novel: the postcolonial department, which was born before Smith was. But she is especially well positioned for this project, not merely by being mixed-race but by being young, and thus having grown up – unthinking at first, taking what she saw just as life – in the ethnic stew that came together only in the past few decades. This means that she can talk about that world without self-consciousness and without fear of seeming racist. Such license may be an extraliterary virtue, but, when it comes to novels about race, I’ll take my virtues where I can get them. Smith, with her predecessors, could help do for blacks what Saul Bellow, fifty years ago, did for Jews; that is, make them normal subjects for the novel, no longer people who have a sign over their heads saying “Jew” or “Black” but regular people, with the same privilege of texture- of self-contradiction and error, and thus of tragic force- as white people.


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