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Zadie Smith swears she is not her own worst critic. “Oh no, there are much worse. Google a little! There are people who hate me way more than
I hate me,” she says lightly, speaking by cell phone from a cozy hammock in her North London backyard. Despite this protest, Smith has been unusually outspoken about her defects. Shortly after the publication of her debut novel, White Teeth, in 2000, she denounced it as “the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing 10-year-old” and compared her style to “a script editor for The Simpsons who’d briefly joined a religious cult and then discovered Foucault.” Smith’s penchant for self-flagellation suggests a combination of cunning and wisdom. Preemptively dismissing her books disarmed reviewers, who, in backlash to the hype around White Teeth, damned her as a fashionable multicultural wunderkind. Her auto-critiques also served as a defensive shield, preventing all that praise from clogging up her brain while she pushed her own boundaries.
That’s what she’s done with On Beauty, her third novel, which veers away from the flashy wit and diverse London backdrops of the first two books and instead offers an ambitiously sprawling, gentle homage to E.M. Forster’s Howards End disguised as an American campus novel. Like Forster’s book, it depicts the collision of two very different families: the boisterously liberal Belseys and the deeply traditionalist Kipps. Howard Belsey is a white art history professor in the throes of midlife crisis. His marriage to vibrant African American wife Kiki is collapsing, due to his unfaithfulness. And he’s devoting too much psychic energy to an ideological pissing war with Monty Kipps, an Anglo-Caribbean provocateur who arrives at Belsey’s elite Massachusetts university disparaging affirmative action and generally aggravating the liberal Belseys with his ultraconservative rhetoric.
Far from setting out to write an academic novel, Smith says she’s not even a fan of the genre, aside from Nabokov’s Pnin. “If I had more experience in work environments, I would have chosen a different profession, but my longest experience has been in universities,” she admits sheepishly, having recently spent a year as a fellow at Harvard. Although there are plenty of sharply etched campus scenes, her goal was to follow these characters into their living rooms and explore “the way very intelligent people occasionally mess up their personal lives.”
Smith likes messiness in literature, and it’s a good thing too. On Beauty is even more entertaining and bumpy than her previous novels, crammed with characters who speak in wildly different registers and get tangled up in sex, class, and racial snares. She’s currently working on a collection of essays (tentatively titled Fail Better) in which she positively celebrates the unevenness of favorite writers. She admires, for instance, the emotional richness evoked by Forster’s muddled structures and erratic creations. “When I read novels, their failures are part of what I love about them,” she says. “Part of the joy of them is that there’s always a blind spot, and I’m interested in the way writers fail to give you what you want, even the greatest writers.”
Amid the juicy prose and the bustle of activity in On Beauty, plotlines and characters occasionally feel unfinished. Howard’s wife, Kiki, comes off as vaguely delineated, a buxom black representative of body and desire, yet remains a magnetic figure adrift in his academic universe. “Everywhere we go, I’m alone in this . . . this sea of white,” she hollers at her husband during a fight. “I don’t even see any black folk unless they be cleaning under my feet in the fucking café of your fucking college.” Smith says that she sensed this loneliness in her own mother, a working-class kid who became a psychoanalyst. “When you’re black and middle-class, you’re alone—everybody else is white. You have to talk like them and act like them. But then when I’d see Mum get together with a few of her black colleagues, they’d act like different people, because they could let loose. You’re doing really well but you’ve had to transform yourself in order to do it.”
Smith herself has undergone a huge transformation over the last five years, from geeky Cambridge student to Booker-short-listed superstar. “You have a sense of yourself as a kid from the underground. Then you write a book and a million people buy it—you’re obviously a little more populist than you thought, so that’s a bump to the ego!” she says with a husky laugh. On top of that, she offers, “I’m obviously extremely middle-class now. I’m sitting in a hammock, which is extremely suspect.” She lives across the street from the housing project where she grew up and sometimes feels nostalgic for her humble roots—especially when stuck at a starchy dinner party so boring she wants to rip out her eyeballs. “That didn’t use to happen when I was working-class. And there are vital parts of the culture I’ll forever be removed from.”
Still, Smith’s success has provided an amazing freedom that allows her to write at her own pace—or not write at all. She insists we shouldn’t expect her essay collection anytime soon, considering how well this lazing-around-in-the-backyard thing is going. “It’s hard to write in a hammock. You shouldn’t try.”