Leavened by Melodrama, A Race-Haunted Campus Novel

“Your class is a cult classic …. Your class is all about never ever saying I like the tomato …. It’s properly intellectual … nobody’s pretending the tomato will save your life. Or make you happy. Or teach you how to live or ennoble you or be a great example of the human spirit …. ”

Zadie Smith’s much-hyped new novel, On Beauty, is full of blather, the kind of earnest gibberish found in one setting in particular: liberal-arts academia. Inspired, no doubt, by her own stint at Harvard—as a Radcliffe teaching fellow in 2003—Ms. Smith’s third novel is quite a leap from the setting of her first, White Teeth (2000), and her second, The Autograph Man (2002). And it’s not as colorful.

In White Teeth, a 24-year-old Ms. Smith took us deep into London’s urban suburbia, the land of greasy-spoon caffs and curry shops, where a Bengali waiter is “mates” with a cockney and Jehovah’s Witness grandmas wrangle with Muslim teenagers about the Second Coming. The novel was sassy in the best sense of the word. Critics said it reminded them of Dickens—a multicultural postcolonial update on his London—and PBS even created a lavish Masterpiece Theatre series out of it.

On Beauty is by comparison disappointingly sedate. It seems that the pretensions of Harvard have zapped the spirit out of the author’s voice, in the way that a creative student obsessed about her career molds herself into a graduate-school geek: No more Ms. Wacky—time to get serious, babe.

The fictional college town of Wellington, Mass., provides the backdrop. A suburban protectorate, Wellington is home to “high income, morally complacent … spiritually inert hypocrites,” the types one assumes Ms. Smith shared faculty drinks with at Harvard. Taking E.M. Forster’s Howards End as inspiration, the story centers around the rivalry between two families, the Belseys and the Kipps. As in Howards End, it’s the men in the family who jostle for intellectual and moral superiority.

Howard Belsey, a professor of art theory at Wellington, is a postmodern misery guts, a man for whom “beauty” is a construction he’s determined to dismantle. Howard’s main contribution to the field of Rembrandt studies lies tucked away in his study drawer, an unfinished manuscript arguing that the Dutch master was neither genius nor maverick, but a competent artisan. “Art is the Western myth,” Professor Belsey lectures eager freshmen, “to recast aesthetics as a rarefied language of exclusion.”

When Howard’s archrival, Monty Kipps, arrives from London to Wellington as a visiting scholar, a battle of ideologies ensues at home and on campus. A distinguished public intellectual, Oxford graduate and fellow Rembrandt scholar, Monty believes that beauty is transcendence and art “a gift from God.” Keeping up with today’s identity politics, Monty is a black intellectual whose conservatism becomes a statement of rebellion against the woolly liberalism of white intellectuals like Howard. Unlike Howard, who chairs Wellington’s affirmative-action committee, Monty believes affirmative action is the “work of evil,” a way of continuing a cycle of underachievement. “Opportunity is a right—but it is not a gift,” he announces. “Rights are earned …. Otherwise the system is radically devalued.”

Playing off the myopic extremes of both men and their families, Ms. Smith ponders some grand themes—political correctness versus conservatism, faith versus intellectualism, art versus reason—but she never sticks to one debate long enough for it to mean much. Just as you’re engaging with Howard’s deconstruction of how patronage shaped Renaissance painting, a melodrama interrupts: An affair between Howard and an anorexic poetry professor is discovered by his African-American wife of 30 years! O.K.—but what about those paintings?

Race is a central theme of the novel, but race in this context is often about the petty campus political agendas. Poetry professor Claire Malcolm, for instance, sees affirmative action and Howard’s committee a bit of a bore. “She had served six months … in Wellington’s Affirmative Action Committee … but her interest had been minimal …. Claire was only truly excited by the apocalyptic on the world stage.” Howard, the novels’ conscientious white guy—married to Kiki, the African-American mother of his three mixed-race kids—is all for affirmative action. Monty, the British-Caribbean “black conservative,” is much more interested in buying Haitian art on the black market; he’s way beyond politically correctness—more Ward Connelly than Cornel West. The only black American academic portrayed by Ms. Smith, Professor Erskine Jegede, has precious little to say on the issue, and is shown merely as a colorful philanderer sporting a “three piece suit of the yellowest of yellows, the curves of his bumptious body naturally resisting all three pieces.”

Compared to the tedious grind of academia, the novel’s supporting cast stirs up some degree of human emotion. Returning to what she did so brilliantly in White Teeth, Ms. Smith gives voice to characters who are not intellectuals, yet seem possessed of greater wisdom than the eggheads with the advanced degrees. During an outdoor concert of Mozart’s Requiem, the 250-pound Kiki starts composing in her head a speech to the “imaginary guild of black American mothers” on how to raise black sons: “ … you need to counter the dismal self-image that black men receive as their birthright from America … and, I don’t know … get involved in after-school activities, have books around the house …. ”

Another great Kiki moment: Sick of her husband’s intellectual rants, she shouts, “We can’t talk about anything seriously, everything’s ironic … everyone’s scared to speak in case you think it’s clichéd or dull…. OK, so [Monty] Kipps’ a nutcase, half the time, but he’s standing up there talking about something he believes in—”

Similarly, the Belsey kids present their personal difficulties with ringing clarity. In Ms. Smith’s Wellington, it’s young men like Belsey’s son Levi—streetwise, angry, political—who carry the burden of trying to make sense of society’s racism. When a white neighbor passes the Belsey home and catches sight of Levi, his older sister Zora notices the look of alarm on the woman’s face. “Wow, this one really can’t believe her eyes. Check it out—she’s having some kind of cognitive failure …. Yes, move along now—he lives here—yes, that’s right—no crime is taking place—thank you for your interest.”

Moments like these nearly rescue On Beauty from a dismal fate: a spot on the shelf next to scores of other lightweight campus melodramas. But there aren’t enough of them to make this new novel any kind of competition for her brilliant debut.

Shazia Ahmad was deputy books editor of The Observer before becoming a freelance writer earlier this year.

Leavened by Melodrama, A Race-Haunted Campus Novel