On Beauty. By Zadie Smith. Penguin, 446 pp., $25.95.
TOWARD THE END of Zadie Smith's shrewd and entertaining novel, Kiki Simmonds gets into an argument with her husband, Howard Belsey: "All you ever do is rip into everybody else," she tells him. "You don't have any beliefs--that's why you're scared of people with beliefs."
Kiki is large, lovely, earthy and African American. Howard is white, British and intellectual, devoted above all to Theory. He teaches art history at a (fictional) liberal arts college outside Boston called Wellington, and to him, as one colleague observes, a rose is not a rose but the "accumulation of cultural and biological constructions circulating around the mutually attracting binary poles of nature/artifice."
Ostensibly the couple's argument is over Kiki's attendance at an art lecture by Monty Kipps, a black, conservative Christian scholar (think Clarence Thomas in the art department) whose views are anathema to Howard. ("Kiki, this man wants to destroy Roe v. Wade.") Kiki's angry response is really provoked by Howard's unfaithfulness--he has just had an affair with a faculty colleague--and by his treatment of their son Jerome, whose conversion to Christianity Howard instinctively sneers at.
Kiki's complaint encompasses Howard's intellectual life as well, and his gift for slicing up other people's moral and aesthetic commitments. So her question is pertinent: Does Howard have any beliefs? What can a person like Howard affirm? Does a life spent deconstructing people's notions of the good and beautiful render one incapable of responding appropriately to the good and beautiful in one's own life--even when it appears in the obvious form of Kiki?
That serious question hovers over the novel. But Smith keeps the tone light. She is more interested in the comedy than the consequence of ideas.
Howard and Kiki's comic drama includes three children. Besides Jerome, the Christian, who attends Brown, they have Zora, a student at Wellington who shares her father's intellectual energy, and Levi, 14, who flees the white world of Wellington by hanging out with Haitian immigrants and affecting a black street dialect that is barely comprehensible to his own siblings ("He don't do no wilding out, he got no crunk, no hyphy, no East Coast vibe ...")
Smith has a virtuoso ear for speech; she seems capable of reproducing with authority every sort of North Atlantic idiom, from the Ivy League to working-class London to the sidewalks of Roxbury. Howard's comments in a class on Rembrandt (he's discussing the painting Seated Nude) capture the rhetoric of a generation of humanities professors, right down to the way sweeping claims are presented as genial questions: "We're told that this constitutes a rejection of the classical nude. OK. But. Is this nude not a confirmation of the ideality of the vulgar? As it is already inscribed in the idea of specifically gendered class debasement?"
Like Levi, and like the author herself, the denizens of Wellington are connoisseurs of dialects, which they try on for thrills or seek to use to their advantage. The resident poet proudly takes her class to a poetry slam and enthuses over street-tough eloquence. Howard enjoys mimicking TV characters and rap singers. Kipps exploits his Caribbean-British accent, stiffly using metaphors in a way peculiar to the "self-consciously conservative. …