Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Thoughts on "On Beauty" pt. 2

Moving right along with my contentions or complaints, whatever you want to call them:

2) Smith uses big words for no apparent reason. And she uses obnoxious adverbs to describe how people say things. Words like gnomically, which you think you’d be able to figure out from its context. But no, you can’t because it’s an adverb, describing the way in which the son, Levi, has said the following, “‘Nothin’, Dad. It’s just what it is’” (22). Yes, I know what a gnome is, but what the hell does a gnome have to do with how the kid said what he said? Any normal person would resort to a sad, over-used word like didactically or sententiously because the average person would have a glimmer of what that would mean.

Another awkward word she used was proscenium. Does anyone know what that word means? Is it the new slang? I had to look it up, but I feel that were she a careful author, I could have figured it out (again) from the context. No such luck. This is the sentence it came from, “Howard came out from behind the proscenium and into his marriage” (11). I’m not sure what she means by that. Does Howard live in a theater? I mean, I’m just basing that assumption on the definition of the word. Maybe the OED has a different definition for it. I have no idea, as the OED’s online dictonary is not FREE (stupid OED). Or perhaps she means ‘curtain’ but wanted to sound intellectual and so used an archaic word.

3) It bothers me when a man tries to write from the female perspective, and vice versa. Smith attempts to describe the world as a man views it. I don’t think she can. Although, you’d think what with the whole male-gaze thing going on, it would be easier for a woman to get away with writing from the male perspective. In Smith’s case, I don’t think she achieves it. At least not in the first 45 pages. For example, Howard is talking to his son Levi, who is “topless to the waist”*, when “Levi released a deep, vigorous laugh that in turn flexed that extraordinary stomach, creasing it like a shirt rather than real flesh” (23). Let’s be honest, would a man who is not gay look at another man’s naked stomach and think to himself, “That’s extraordinary.” Let alone the man’s own father? I’m just saying. The detail of the boy’s stomach would be a tad more fitting were it a told from a woman’s perspective.

But maybe at the end of the book, the big twist is that Howard is really a woman who has been masquerading as a man.

The thing is, I don’t fancy myself a critic and I don’t want to be critical of this book. I want to like it. But I can’t. There’s too much that offends my sensibilities. And I don’t want to be critical because she’s at Harvard. And so many other critics** praised the pants off the book. Perhaps I’ll discover that all these things I’ve complained about are tools the writer is using to convey some important message. If that were the explanation, I’d have a difficult time not scoffing and saying that’s bull-shit.

In the event that Zadie Smith and I become real good friends someday, in the future, I’ll tell her I had jet-lag when I tried to read the book. And I was on prescription pain-killers for a root canal I’d had recently. And when I wrote this blog entry, I’d mistakenly thought I was supposed to take the pain-killers with alcohol. And then I’ll apologize profusely, should she ever discover that I was the cruel blogger who lambasted On Beauty***.

I might keep reading in the hopes that it gets better, or I become more forgiving. Then again, I might throw the book away. Or give it away, along with David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day. Yeah, I didn’t like that one either.

[see part 1]

* Yes, that’s how Smith describes it. It’s redundant right? The definition of “topless” pretty much refers to ‘to the waist.’ Unless you’re topless to the collar bone. Or the nipple. I mean, what gives? Or is it simply a British-ism? That’s another thing, later when Howard is in the motherland, he starts calling things fags (cigarettes) and jumpers (sweaters) a lot. Out of the blue he’s suddenly extremely British. A tool? Or the author’s insecurity?
** They were paid off.
*** In my dreams. I’ll never have the honor of meeting
a published author. That is an honor, right?

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