Monday, June 01, 2009
My pal Anne and I used to have Book Chat every now and then. We haven't done it in a while -- I don't know about her, but my excuse is that I haven't been reading any books outside of my own academic field lately! So sad. But anyway, I just got back from a trip to the UK, so on the plane I had ample time for reading, and I read Zadie Smith's On Beauty based on recommendations from multiple friends. Since it touches on issues I talk about in this blog, I figured I'd kill two birds with one stone (sorry, I hate that metaphor; the other one I really despise is "flesh out," but sometimes they're apt, so what can you do?) and simultaneously do a blog post and a Book Chat. So Anne, if you're reading, this one's for you!
This is way too complex and interesting a book for me to write a full review of in a blog post. Instead I thought I'd just mention a couple of things about it.
The main point of interest (here, anyway), is that one of the main characters (since there's not a single main character in my opinion -- there are many characters that are sympathetic and well developed), Kiki, is fat. She's described as being 250 or 300 lbs. Her fatness is something that comes up multiple times in the book, but what's nice is that it doesn't define her, and she is nothing like a token fat character or a one-dimensional caricature of a fat person. In fact, she is an extremely complex and interesting person. Her relationship with her husband Howard is also affected by her being fat (particularly since she wasn't fat when they got married), but it's only one factor in a relationship that's otherwise complicated by her and Howard's psychological quirks (he's a neurotic academic; she doesn't really consider herself to be an intellectual even though she thinks deeply about a lot of things and is very sensitive and insightful), race (she's African-American; he's British), and their long history together. There are some scenes in the book where Kiki feels self-conscious and you get the idea that her being fat is contributing to it, but since she's a non-academic surrounded by a bunch of academics (Howard teaches at a small college in a small town) you figure that in many instances a thin white person in her situation would have felt self-conscious too. I only remember one scene where explicit mention is made of Kiki feeling self-conscious about being fat, and that's an incident mentioned in passing where she's in a hurry and gets herself a bagel and coffee and feels like people are watching her eat since this is what people do to a fat person who dares to eat in public. I thought that was a really interesting observation on the part of the author, because that is exactly what people do to a fat person eating in public! But I don't know how Zadie Smith knew that -- having seen a picture of her, she doesn't look the slightest bit fat. So, good for her for thinking of it. (On the other hand, maybe the reason she knows is that she has found herself doing it! But based on her sensitive portrayal of Kiki, she certainly doesn't seem like she's anti-fat.)
There's an interesting thread running through the descriptions of Kiki having to do with her as an "African queen" or a goddess. She's described as being pretty, but in at least one case where someone tells her she's pretty, it's in the context of the African queen idea. There's a related notion of Kiki as a "strong black woman". Kiki has an uneasy relationship with both of these ideas -- on the one hand, they're both flattering on the surface, but on the other hand, she's tired of them, and she is not convinced that they're accurate. She tries to use the "strong black woman" idea for inspiration to get through a difficult situation, but deep down she seems to think it's bullshit. Both of these ideas are ways in which people spin her fatness as being OK or positive, but they imply that if she weren't black then her fatness would not be OK. So it seems she'd rather do without them, although maybe she also enjoys the benefits of them. I have to admit I never thought too deeply about either of these ideas, but now that I've read this and thought about it, yeah, I think they are both kind of problematic, and certainly trite in any case.
Relating to the race/fatness issue, at some point it it turns out that Kiki and Howard's adolescent son Levi (who himself is thin) is attracted to fat women. I think the first time it comes up is at a point when Kiki and Howard are having a crisis in their marriage, and it seems like Levi gets interested in fat women as a way of siding with his mother or expressing solidarity with her (even though at that moment he doesn't actually tell her about it). What's kind of interesting is that it also seems to be a way for Levi to assert his blackness. At the same time as he starts being interested in fat women, he also is getting involved with a group of friends whose nationality and station in life are very different from his own (he goes to great lengths to hide from them where he comes from), but who are unified by being black. Later on, we find out that Levi has pictures from fat porn magazines in his bedroom (and I think the women are black, though I don't remember for sure). Kiki comments on Levi's attraction to fat women once, saying something like of course men ought to like women with a little meat on their bones that don't look like they're undernourished. She clearly has a particular situation in mind but states it in general terms. Usually she is good-natured and doesn't make a lot of negative remarks (except when arguing with Howard), but this is one of the few comments that comes off as bitter.
Anyway, I haven't done this book justice at all, but these are just a few items that I thought might get some of you interested in reading the book. I highly recommend it, for lots of other reasons than what I talked about here! If you've read it (or if you read it in the future), please feel free to leave a comment about any aspect of the book or my interpretation of it.