Wednesday, March 19, 2008
I’m in love again, and this time it’s with a woman. Forgive my crudeness but I wanna mind fuck Zadie Smith. Get inside her head to see how she does those wonderful things with plot, description, dialogue, and even simple tags in her book “On Beauty.”
Love. There is no other word for it. It’s what literature does to/for me when I get a book that engages all my senses. It doesn’t matter who wrote it, man or woman if the book makes me cry, cringe, nod my head in agreement, shake my head in envy, or laugh out loud I naturally fall in love with the person who wrote it.
So this week it happens to be Ms. Smith and I’m so in love that I don’t want to share the book with anyone, just keep it to myself, yet at the same time I can’t stop boring friends and family to death about the brilliance of it, or as Smith says doing the dramatic reverse of what I want. I’ve read lines out loud to a less than enthusiastic audience and memorized the bits of philosophy.
First off, she introduced me to a world so opposite of how I was raised/grew up and she did it with humor, love, and lots of detail. I got to know and love this upper middle class family first through an email from their oldest son Jerome (which honestly, I thought a little weak for an opening but I read on and am glad I did) and then finally through the main character Howard Belsey. Howard is a reticent, nerdy and woefully average professor, born and raised in England, who married Kiki, a black woman from Florida, who is described as an African queen at 200 plus pounds she can’t seem to fathom.
I have acted like his three children at different points in my life. Jerome is the sensitive virgin college boy. Zora is the over achieving, emotionally clueless (like her father) prig of a daughter. Levi, who is in a constant struggle with his black identity, is the youngest child. Through this family, and their intimate relationship with Wellington University, Smith explores politics, racism, academia, love, self-hate, arrogance, sex, in other words, the human condition. Smith’s prose is filled with so many truths it feels like being hit with machine gun fire.
How can I sum up an entire novel here to give the proper introduction to this, my favorite scene in the entire book? It’s like trying to explain my whole life in one page. And it seems as though I’ve known the Belsey’s a lifetime. In this scene Howard tries to explain that his marriage is falling apart because of his infidelity. It might be wise to let on that Howard's father, Harold drove Kiki, Jerome, Zora and Levi away with racial slurs about Blacks four years earlier. This is Howard’s first meeting with his father since that fateful day and in a rare fit of emotion Howard opens up.
‘Now that can’t be right,’ said Harold cautiously, ‘You’ve been married—what is it now? Twenty-eight years—summink like that?’
‘There you are, then. It just don’t fall apart, just like that, does it?’
“It does when you…’ Howard released an involuntary moan as he took his hands from his eyes. ‘It’s got too hard. You can’t carry on when it gets this hard. When you can’t even talk to someone…You’ve just lost what there was. That’s how I feel now. I can’t believe it’s happening.’
Harold now closed his eyes. His face contorted like a quiz-show contestant’s. Losing women was his specialist subject. He did not speak for a while.
‘Cos she wants to finish it or you do?’ he said finally.
‘Because she wants to,’ confirmed Howard, and found that he was comforted by the simplicity of his father’s questions. ‘And…because I can’t find enough reasons to stop her wanting to go.’
And now Howard succumbed to his heritage—easy, quick-flowing tears.
“There, son. It’s better out than in, isn’t it,’ said Harold quietly. Howard laughed softly at this phrase: so old, so familiar, so utterly useless. Harold reached forward and touched his son’s knee. Then he leaned back in his chair and picked up his remote control.
“She found a black fella, I spose. It was always going to happen, though. It’s in their nature.”
He turned the channel to the news. Howard stood up.
“Fuck,’ he said frankly, wiping his tears with his shirtsleeve and laughing grimly ‘I never fucking learn.’ He picked up his coat and put it on. ‘See you, Harry. Let’s leave it a bit longer next time, eh?’
‘Oh no!’ whimpered Harold, his face stricken by the calamity of it. ‘What are you saying? We’re having a nice time, ain’t we?’
Howard stared at him, disbelievingly.
‘No. Son, please. Oh, come on and stay a bit longer. I’ve said the wrong thing, have I? I’ve said the wrong thing. Then let’s sort it! You’re always in a rush. Rush ‘ere, rush there. People these days think they can outrun death. It’s just time.’
If you waded through the long passage you can see for yourself why I’m in awe of how Smith so completely fleshes out a character. And this woman, this woman, was something like five years old when she published this. I’m exaggerating yes. She’s incredible and I’m in love. Ewe, does this mean I’m a pedophile?
Speaking of which, next up for my BOOKMATES club in April is Lolita, who was referenced in “On Beauty.” I can’t wait to hear what the Baptists have to say about this one and I’ll simultaneously read the non-fiction book by Francisco Goldman. Again, I tried to read the epic Cholera book by the literary giant and I think I’m gonna go watch the movie instead. I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm past page 50. I’ll try again when I’m 60, a ver.
Random lines from the novel
…with a small pool out back, unheated and missing many tiles, like a British smile.
…Levi treasured the urban the same way previous generations worshipped the pastoral…
He leaned forward with the clumsy loom of the natural pet-hater and child-hater…
Howard pulled off his wife's long skirt and her substantial, realistic underwear.
His uneven Afro often had foreign objects in it—pieces of unidentifiable fluff, and once a matchstick.
…lanky girl with ears that thrust through the poker-straight curtains of her long hair.
(Swimming scene with Levi in the pool at an college party filled with professors.)
…everyone had noticed at the same time that there was a lone swimmer, and then almost everyone had asked their neighbor whether they recalled Cheever’s story. Academics lack range.