Man, doorstoppers are everywhere right now. Murakami and Stephen King just published novels of almost a thousand pages each, and McSweeney’s seems to have launched an imprint called “Rectangulars”; at least, that’s what it says on the spine of Adam Levin’s 2010 rainforest slasher, The Instructions.
In that spirit, I have started War and Peace. I was going along at a really good clip until page 8, where Tolstoy introduces Princess Bolkonsky:
"As happens with perfectly attractive women, her flaw—a short lip and half-opened mouth—seemed her special, personal beauty."
This struck me, the idea that flaws make the difference between prettiness and beauty; it usually does. And because finding beauty in unexpected places seems to be a central concern in storytelling, the line also set off a little chain of associations. Here are some similar passages that came to mind.
There’s Boo Boo Tannenbaum, in the Salinger story "Down at the Dinghy":
"Her general unprettiness aside, she was—in terms of permanently memorable, immoderately perceptive, small-area faces—a stunning and final girl."
Or this, from Zöe Heller's novel The Believers:
"Were it not for the gap between his two front teeth and the slight droop in his left eye, he would have been pretty. As it was, his raffish imperfections had tipped the scale and made him beautiful."
Is flawless beauty just for mean girls? That's the impression I get from this passage of the Kingsley Amis novel Lucky Jim, in which Dixon first lays eyes on the woman he eventually falls in love with:
"The combination of fair hair, straight and cut short, with brown eyes and no lipstick, the strict set of the mouth and the square shoulders, the large breasts and the narrow waist ... seemed an irresistible attack on his own habits, standards, and ambitions; something designed to put him in his place for good."
The fact that this character reveals herself to be deeply human, as opposed to unassailably perfect, is the inverse of the "flawed beauty" thing. Perfection is something to be overcome—a fashionable outfit to be shed, revealing the strange and wondrous body beneath.
This is nothing you couldn’t get from Bridesmaids or Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. I point it out because it seems to be everywhere in fiction, once you start thinking about it. I wonder if this sentiment is equally common outside of books and movies, or if, like a thousand-page novel, it’s publicly admired and privately ignored.
If these quotations have reminded you of any others on the subject, I hope you’ll send them our way. I’d love to write a follow-up to this post once I’ve finished War and Peace, if we’re all still alive. Till then, here’s a line from Richard Yates’ story "Builders" that’s especially useful to anyone who’s tried to create beauty of their own.
"Maybe the light is just going to have to come in as best in can, through whatever chinks and cracks have been left in the builder's faulty craftsmanship."