By Zadie Smith
Ever since the Massachusetts Bay Colony founded a college on the banks of the Charles River and called it Harvard, American universities have aspired to become a world apart from reality.
Take a swing through the nation's elite schools today and you can hear the hushed legacy of this tradition. From Princeton to Dartmouth, Amherst to Swarthmore, the messier realities of life are given a halt sign outside campus gates.
But not quite. For all their hushed exclusivity, backdoors to these institutions remain wide open. One of them happens to be the employee entrance. Someone has to serve the meals and mop the floors. Only in the 21st century, these workers aren't a shade or two darker than all the students - just most of them.
Zadie Smith spent a year guest lecturing at Harvard University in the wake of its own hullabaloo over how it treated campus workers. Not surprisingly, her latest novel, On Beauty, is a rollicking satire of the sacred pieties laid bare when a university confronts such an issue. Chummy and big-hearted, it is also a tremendously good read, and those disappointed by her second novel, The Autograph Man, will sink into it with relief.
Like her debut novel, White Teeth, this book squeezes a great deal of contemporary life between two covers. It is packed with tangents on the i-pod, the seepage of pornography into sex life, and life in America under Bush.
But the setting is what really nails things in place. Harvard has been transmogrified via Smith's imagination into Wellington, a small liberal arts school west of Boston. The book begins with Jerome Belsey dropping an epistolary bomb from London on his parents back home. He is getting married, and not to just anybody, but to Victoria Kipps, the daughter of his father's right-wing rival in Rembrandt studies, Monty Kipps.
The Kippses are a righteous, shiny, successful and attractive clan. They are also fervent opponents of affirmative action; and they are also black.
Mixed-race and politically liberal, the Belseys are utterly baffled by them. Howard is a galumphing, white academic from working-class London who somehow wound up a Rembrandt scholar. Only his decades-in-the-making book on the painter has stalled, as has his marriage to Kiki, a 250-pound (130-kg.) African-American who works at a hospital. Their three children are black in varying degrees of attitude - from the churlishly hip-hop oriented Levi to the aloof and heartbroken Jerome, whose marriage never comes to pass.
Watching these two families crash into one another is great fun, and soon there isn't a "pond" between them. By some fluke of fate, Wellington invites Kipps over for a guest lectureship, which he accepts, prompting Belsey to kick off a campaign against what he feels are Kipps' "offensive" ideals. Kipps responds by baiting campus liberals. He wants to challenge Wellington's policy of allowing non-enrolled students from underprivileged backgrounds to audit classes for free. Intermingled with the commentaries on affirmative action are analyses of family and marriage, liberal versus conservative, and prejudices in many forms.
IT BEARS mentioning that the novel's title comes from a poem written by Smith's husband, poet Nick Laird, which Smith has tackily plonked into the text as a framing device. The poem suggests that beauty is not what we see, but what moves us beyond all reason:
"No, we could not itemize the list
of sins they can't forgive us.
The beautiful don't lack the wound.
It is always beginning to snow."
Being a novel - and a big, long, realistic one at that - Smith's own On Beauty comes at this theme a little less subtly, sometimes with an obvious, hectoring tone. What is beauty? Who is beautiful? What is beauty worth? These questions are raised but mostly dropped, even though Smith presses the issue with long detailed descriptions of Rembrandt paintings.
If these paintings feel somewhat tacked onto the novel, like future reading group guide discussion points, what doesn't feel forced are the portraits Smith paints of her main cast - in particular of Kiki. She is a big, strong, deeply sad woman who was once strikingly attractive, but now "regal." American beauty magazines would say she has a weight problem, but damned if Smith cannot make her the loveliest character in a book.
This doesn't mean everyone sees her that way. Intimidated by Kiki's weight, Belsey's colleagues pepper her with compliments. "It's so good to see you," says Clare, a poet colleague who bears striking resemblances to a certain Harvard faculty member. "What an outfit! It's like a sunset - Keeks you're setting."
This kind of patronizing takes its toll. But if Kiki holds this damage over her husband, as if it were his fault, she holsters it around her children, an act that is wasted on them. Jerome is off studying economics at Brown. Daughter Zora, who attends Wellington and has fallen hard for one of its charity cases, is too busy bullying the faculty into submission.
Perhaps the most interesting Belsey child is Levi. Raised as a minority in a posh setting, he feels born into the wrong body. And so he quits his job at a record store to sell DVDs with Haitian street workers in Boston. Affecting a "gangsta" limp, he claims to be from Roxbury, but his more authentically downtrodden colleagues see right through him.
Smith has great fun lambasting Levi and his type for fetishizing actual pain - but there is an edge of sadness in her cackle. What kind of country lures people to its shores with a promise and a dream, only to say success makes you inauthentic? What is the point of a university system that teaches students to make pets out of the downtrodden? These are important questions, and Zadie Smith has asked them in a novel that is rich and entertaining, and in spite of the ugly truths it uncovers, often quite beautiful.