The Voice of the Image

Submitted by Sady O on December 1, 2005 - 06:14


We’ve recently witnessed the release of two new novels by exciting (and radically different) talents: On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, and Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill. On Beauty is a comic, sprawling family novel. It’s also a novel about the pursuit of beauty, which manages to find that virtue in unlikely places. Veronica, on the other hand, is decidedly morose. It deals with the friendship between two women – one a bitter, used-up fashion model, the other a terminally ill office worker – whose faith in beauty fails them while they fail each other. It’s a book about the body, its uses, and its inevitable decay; it has a merciless, almost cruel honesty. On Beauty is the kind of book you curl up with, reading it hungrily over the course of one or two quiet evenings. Veronica, on the other hand, has to be taken carefully, in small doses, with the conviction that it will somehow benefit you in the long run. Both books are very much worth your time.

On Beauty centers on with the Belsey family, headed up by the overly intellectual, unfaithful, white, English Howard Belsey and his sweet, tough, black, American wife, Kiki, who struggles with the extent to which Howard’s choices have defined her life. Levi Belsey, their youngest, is a romantic: he wants to live out the art that he loves, and the art that he loves is rap. His dreams are made from lyrics. Jerome, their oldest son, is a born-again Christian who prefers innocence to experience. Zora, the brilliant, ambitious middle child, pursues power and influence in the small world of her university, but feels a gap between her achievements and her desires. Smith also fills the novel with a host of secondary characters, drawn from many generations and cultures, and limns them all with remarkable generosity. She treats her characters tenderly, wandering through their heads to see why and how they have become themselves, even when their actions seem to repel sympathy. The plot rambles and sprawls enjoyably, but at the center of it all is a recurring question: in all these lives, all these desires, what is really beautiful? What does beauty do to us? What is it worth?

These questions are also crucial to Veronica. The novel is set within the claustrophobic consciousness of Alison Owen, a sick, scarred wreck who used to appear on the cover of Vogue. She moves – we move – between past and present, narcissism and self-loathing. Veronica is Alison’s only friend outside of the glamour industry, and Alison eagerly condescends to know her, stumbling over her own conceit in the process. Tacky, tragic, and rude, Veronica is an essential part of Alison, for reasons that Alison herself doesn’t fully understand. One of the pleasures of the novel is in watching the way that Alison becomes Veronica, erasing the distinction between the professionally desirable and the chronically unwanted. Gaitskill fictionalizes truths that many people would rather not know about: botched surgeries, the aftereffects of laxative addiction, statutory rape that becomes mutual exploitation. But the value of her work lies in the way that she’s able to draw us into these dark places, and to incorporate them into our idea of what it means to be human.

Smith and Gaitskill are both women, and they both write. That’s where the resemblance ends. But their latest novels do seem to reflect a particularly female preoccupation, which is crucial to our present culture. As the U.S. shifts further to the right, sending the images and effects of this conservative trend around the world, women have increasingly been relegated to the status of images. We must be beautiful, or else we will be invisible – not hip to the current moment or suitable to the desires of the world at large. Even successful women are subject to this rule. On Beauty and Veronica both look to the space behind the image. They ask how beauty is created and how beauty is experienced by the people who wear it. They also seem to doubt that beauty, which is fragile and subjective, can ever make us truly powerful. And so, On Beauty and Veronica belong to the present moment. However, they also stand apart from time as insightful – and beautiful – works in their own right. - Sady O.

Sady O.Ms. Sady O. is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic. She also writes the Brain Porn Culture Blog.