(The Penguin Press)

For those of mixed heritage — who straddle more than one race, nationality, faith, class, or whatever else — uncovering a coherent identity can be a complicated emotional journey. There are multiple, potentially conflicting, avenues and models, and choosing one or melding several is difficult business. This may be part of why Zadie Smith — herself the product of an English father and Jamaican mother — returns to this endlessly rich topic in her third novel, On Beauty, which was short-listed for the 2005 Man Booker Prize. As with her acclaimed debut novel, White Teeth, published when she was a mere 23 years old, and her less stunning second book, The Autograph Man, Smith ambitiously mines the cultural morass of mixed worlds. Now, with her latest work, she paints her most vivid portrait of the challenges and ecstasies of multiculturalism.

Her tool for this project is the skeleton of E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, restyled by the liberal, chaotic family of Howard and Kiki Belsey, residents of the imaginary college town of Wellington, Massachusetts. As with Forster’s story, On Beauty opens with an awkward sexual meeting of two families of different ilk — the Belseys and the Kippses. An unlikely friendship grows between Mrs. Kipps and Kiki, resulting in one secretly bequeathing an invaluable object to the other. But whereas Forster focused almost exclusively on class and sex, Smith takes the plunge into the messy nexus of every potential category of identity and difference. Howard is a white British art history professor who escaped working class London for the almost ivy halls of Wellington University. Kiki, his intuitive and (now) obese black wife, grew up in rural Florida and works as a hospital administrator. At first glance, the Belsey family’s most glaring difference is written in black and white. But Howard, Kiki, and their three children navigate an array of cultural confrontations within their own home: intellectual versus intuitive, rich versus poor, urban versus rural, British versus American, secular versus Christian, and so on.

Each of the three children has latched onto some piece of what he or she perceives as the family’s true heritage, and has generally rejected the rest. Jerome, the eldest, has found God and turned to Monty Kipps, his father’s neoconservative nemesis in the culture wars, after a stint in London and a leave from Brown University. A Caribbean-British public intellectual and a famed man of faith, Monty has recently published a bestseller on Rembrandt — also the subject of a sprawling, perpetually unfinished treatise penned by Howard. Zora, the middle child, is a self-absorbed overachiever. She has taken the intellectual route, joining her father at Wellington, where she’s fast become an outspoken figure on campus, crusading for whatever may further her academic career. Levi, the youngest, has renounced his middle-class upbringing for the streets of Roxbury, where he swaggers under too-big hoodies and sagging denim, feigns poverty, and “hustles” DVDs alongside the truly desperate.

This already fragmented household is roiled by the revelation that Howard has had an affair. To add insult to injury, his lover is Kiki’s exact opposite: a white, exceedingly thin university colleague. Things get rockier still when Monty Kipps is invited to be a visiting scholar at Wellington, threatening Howard’s tenuous untenured position on campus, challenging affirmative action programs, and generally upsetting the college town’s (and the Belsey family’s) progressive equilibrium. The utopian ideals of the Belseys are further tested by a social experiment with Carl, self-taught poet/rapper, who is charitably folded into academic life, for a time.

In this fractured world, identity is an unpredictable and highly malleable phenomenon. Despite whatever ostensibly unites people — the same shade of skin, the same faith or lack thereof, the same aesthetic or intellectual mien, the same politics, the same weight, the same income or need for it — all of these only thinly connect one person to another in reality. Nothing is universal.

Again and again, characters are faced with embarrassment, rejection, or awkwardness when they assume too much likeness or difference based on outward appearances. Almost every character adjusts his or her language or manner to negotiate emotional situations and relationships, both intimate and distant. When Kiki gets ruffled over her kids’ behavior, she takes on the no-nonsense Southern parlance of her own mother. Likewise, when Howard visits his father, a butcher, in the drab old neighborhood of his youth, he hears “his own accent climbing down the class ladder a few rungs to where it used to be.” This mimicking of elders extends to the next generation of Belseys when Levi attempts to organize his co-workers against working on Christmas day at a music megastore. His normal voice dissolves into an urban drawl to woo LaShonda, an African American single mother of three. Unlike the mostly middle-class white kids who join the protest, Levi is shocked that LaShonda is eager to pick up the extra shifts at time-and-a-half.

Levi in particular collides with the world in his search for an authentic sense of self. In Wellington, he assumes every passerby is eyeing him suspiciously because of his skin color. And some are. However, even in Roxbury, where he at least externally fits in, he is divorced from those around him: “How strange it was to see streets where everybody was black! It was like a homecoming, except he’d never known this home.”

Smith often blunts these interactions with curious humor. In one scene, for instance, Levi is taking a break from protesting for fair wages for his “crew” of mostly Haitian immigrants who work $4-an-hour jobs or hawk knockoff purses on the street. When his brother Jerome appears walking the family dog, Levi introduces his friends, who’ve “got his back.” He then says of the dog, a Wienerschnitzel, “And this is my little foot soldier. He’s my lieutenant. Murdoch always got my back.”  

Ironically, the weakest and most tedious moments occur where Smith attempts to bend her characters, particularly Kiki and Mrs. Kipps, into Forster’s scenes. The too close adaptation of Forster’s dialogue between Margaret Schlegel and Ruth Wilcox seems out of step with Smith’s otherwise cleverly updated story. The book would likely have worked just as well without the overly obvious nods to Forster.

Smith is strongest when she orchestrates jarring social interactions: Howard’s sexual exchanges with a student or his meeting with his racist father, and the Belsey children’s slow awakening to the politics of suffering. Despite the creeping sadness and depravity of such scenes, Smith does not leave the reader with a completely bleak outlook on this jumbled landscape. There are no clear or tidy answers but, like Forster, she shows that as long as one deals with others in good faith, one can find unbounded beauty in differences.

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