As I age, I do not know better. My resolve runs thin when I need it the most. I cannot help thinking that as technology shapes the world by keeping us all electronically connected, we will soon land ourselves in the discomfort zone that is described in dystopian fiction such as The Circle by Dave Eggers. Most of us are too busy keeping up with the increasingly Orwellian culture that has been precipitated and made possible with the Internet and electronic devices. Our likes and dislikes are easily tracked and our activities traceable as we navigated the cyberspace.We adapt fast to all the conveniences provided by technology and also new norms and procedures that have been set in the name of providing a safe community for all.
Here we all are in this one humongous bubble that is known as the universe. We are just shuffling ourselves back and forth in this world , recycling our energy with novel or not so fresh ideas, new discoveries and fast forwarding technology. Most of us keep ourselves occupied with a view to be useful, productive and make the best of our time on this planet. We are told that wisdom and maturity are what makes aging less daunting. How we feel about ourselves is often defined by our sense of fulfilment. We so want to have the right attitude towards life but we find ourselves feeling up and bright one day and then flat or confused another day. In the meantime , we are occupied with current news, work and chores. By the end of the day, most of us are weary and just want to unwind by not thinking more. Often we do what we are told and do not give ourselves the moment and space to think or act otherwise.
I have been watching ‘On the Verge’ the new Netflix show written by Julie Delpy. It is about four women friends in their late forties and they at times grieve the life they had dreamt they would have. They are going through some mid-life issues. In episode eight, there is this scene where Anne, the character played by Elizabeth Shue is told by a new acquaintance about the Japanese word Yūgen, a profound concept that translates the duality of the world and its unknowable beauty and mystery. In Buddhism, everything about the universe is constantly changing and all things are considered as either evolving from or dissolving into nothingness.
Since everything is transient, we should remind ourselves to live with more gusto, less prejudices and fears about all that is happening based on what we hear or read from the newsfeed. In fact nothing is really new and we are just re-examining age-old and omnipresent issues, be it politics, class, racial, religious , ethnicity, cultural or social, and labelling our experiences and conflicts thinking that we must become more evolved as human race.
Set in New England mainly and London partly, On Beauty written by Zadie Smith is a satire about two feuding families and their respective family lives. Although they are living across in two different cities from both sides of the Atlantic, their paths somehow cross by reason of the academic world which the patriarchs of both families share. The Belseys and the Kippses have completely different political ideologies and views about affirmative action and art. Howard Belsey is English, an atheist and a liberal academic who originally hails from working class London and is married to Kiki Simmonds, an American African and settles in a fictional town called Wellington near Boston. Monty Kipps hails from Trinidad is a right wing ultra-conservative Christian who does not believe in affirmative action. He is married to Carlene. When Belsey’s son, Jerome happened to intern in Kipp’s office in London, ‘he had allowed the Kippses’ world and their ways to take him over entirely. He had liked to listen to the exotic ( to a Belsey) chatter of business and money and practical politics ; to hear that Equality was a myth, and Multiculturalism a fatuous dream; he thrilled at the suggestion that Art was a gift from God, blessing only a handful of masters, and most literature merely a veil for poorly reasoned left-wing ideologies.’
As the story progresses,Kiki and Carlene, the long suffering wives of both arch-rivals bonds over a painting by a Haitian painter. They strike out a belated friendship and their children’s lives also somehow intertwine with one another.
Here is a conversation between the two women.
‘ I mean, your husband, Monty, for example,’said Kiki, boldly.
‘He writes a lot about – I mean, I’ve read his articles – about what a perfect mother you are, and he ….you know, often uses you as an example of the ideal – I guess , the ideal “stay-at-home” Christian Mom – which is amazing of course – but there must also be things you …..maybe things you wanted to do that ….maybe you wish ….’
Carlene smiled. Her teeth were the only non-regal thing about her, raggely and uneven with large childish gaps. ” I wanted to love and to be loved.’
‘ Yes,’ said Kiki, because she could not think of anything else. She listened out hopefully for the footsteps of Clotilde, some sigh of imminent interruption, but nothing.
‘And Kiki – when you were young ? I imagine you did a million things.’
” Oh, God …. I wanted to . I don’t know about doing them. For the longest time I wanted to be Malcolm X’s private assistant. That didn’t work out. I wanted to be a writer. Wanted to sing at one point.My mamma wanted me to be a doctor. Black woman doctor. Those were her three favourite words.’
Then Charlene asks if Kiki was very good looking before. She is at first taken aback by the question and then she has to say yes that she was good-looking, that she was hot but not for very long, for about six years maybe. Charlene says she can tell.
‘ Kiki laughed raucously. ‘ You are shameless flatterer. you know …I see Zora worrying all the time about her looks and I want to say to her, honey,any woman who counts on her face is a fool. She doesn’t want to hear that from me. It’s how it is, though. We all end up in the same place in the end. That’s the truth.’
Kiki laughed again, more sadly this time. Now it was Carlene’s turn to smile politely.’
–On Beauty by Zadie Smith
On Beauty is a fiction about the complexity of human relations, the fragility of human emotions, mixed race identity and the vulnerability of the human heart. How messy life is even in the world of academia, liberal or otherwise.
The fiction was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2005. Zadie Smith is a talented and impressive writer. She tackles serious subjects with style, wit and humour.
I had a false start with Zadie Smith‘s debut novel, White Teeth and hope to resume reading it soon.