Monday, July 28, 2008

Wade into the Awkward: Broken Communication in Zadie Smith's On Beauty

A passage in a book I recently read broke my heart and left me thinking for days. I found it in On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, a novel about the falling apart of a family made up of a white father, black mother, their three children and drama that ensues as each struggles with what makes up his or her own identity and life. At one point the father, Howard, goes to visit his own father, Harry, whom he hasn't seen in 4 years. Now an intellectual professor at an elite east coast college, he goes back to his old working class neighborhood in England and struggles to communicate:

"Harry on the edge of his seat, pleading, and always pleading with the wrong words. Howard already incensed...They didn't mean for it to be like this. But it was like this. Both had other intentions...Harry just wanted Howard to sit down, start again. There were four more hours of quality viewing lined up before bedtime--all of which he and his son might watch together in silent companionship, occasionally commenting on the presenter's overbite, another's small hands or sexual preference. And this would be another way of saying: It's good to see you. It's been too long. We're family. But Howard couldn't do this when he was sixteen and he couldn't do it now. He just did not believe, as his father did, that time is how you spend your love. And so, to avoid a conversation about an Austrailian soap actress, Howard moved into the kitchen to wash up his cup and a few other things in the sink. Ten minutes later he left. " (page 296, 302)

I suppose that I find myself sympathizing most with Harry. I can picture his face, wrought with the anguish of good intentions, but being deeply misunderstood. My heart falls apart picturing the thick, deep emotions across his face, as if I can see into his very self. When Howard walked in it says: " The older man was already crying. His hands shook with emotion." I want to shake Howard and tell him to grow up, to have patience.

People fall into patterns of behavior that somewhere along the line they begin to believe that they can't break, so they cling to moments of awkwardness rather than trying to see what lies beneath the surface...rather than trying to see through to the person's heart and goodness. Ugh. I can't really find any other words for this, except that it pains me. Sigh. And I think in order to avoid moments like this, and to move forward and heal, we have to wade into awkward.

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