Analysis and Review

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Praise for Zadie Smith’s debut novel, White Teeth, has been so nearly universal as to make the harshness of one notice all the more surprising—and sobering:

This kind of precocity in so young a writer has one half the audience standing to applaud and the other half wishing, as with child performers of the past (Shirley Temple, Bonnie Langford et al.), she would just stay still and shut up. White Teeth is the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired, tap-dancing 10-year-old.

Published anonymously in the English magazine Butterfly, this scathing notice was in fact written by Smith herself and is less tongue-in-cheek than one might think and more in keeping with this conspicuously attractive, immensely talented, and assured but surprisingly self-deprecating writer’s assessment of what quickly became one of the most talked about novels of the new millennium. As Smith elsewhere pointed out, “I have great ambitions of writing a very great book. I just don’t think this is it.” Her English publisher, Hamish Hamilton, clearly thought differently, at least about the novel’s commercial possibilities, offering a quarter-million-pound advance on the basis of just the first eighty pages. So did those who made it the favorite to win the Orange Prize for best fiction in English by a woman. (White Teeth lost, however, although it did win both the Guardian and the Whitbread First Novel awards.) Moreover, the British Broadcasting Company made plans to turn Smith’s novel into a television miniseries.

The overwhelming attention left the twenty-four-year-old Smith richer but otherwise unfazed and still living in the multiethnic Willesden area of north London where she grew up, the daughter of an Englishman and his much younger Jamaican wife. Despite receiving little encouragement from her teachers, Smith was determined to go not just to college but to Cambridge, where she majored in English, contributed to student literary publications, and at age twenty-one began White Teeth. The excerpt was published in the autumn, 1999, issue of Granta—significantly situated immediately following one from postcolonial theorist Edward W. Said’s memoir Out of Place. It offered the general public a first, tantalizing taste of Smith’s engaging, exuberantly excessive style, albeit in a format that could not begin to hint at the wide range and narrative intricacies of this ambitious and immensely accomplished novel, for which the qualifier (or epithet) “first” seems not so much unnecessary as improbable.

Divided into four parts, each tied to a major character (or characters) and focusing on two specific years (1974, 1945; 1984, 1857; 1990, 1907; 1992, 1999), White Teeth explores in seriocomic fashion the ways in which the past impinges on the present as characters struggle either to maintain traditions or get free of them. The presence of the past is everywhere in Smith’s novel (although not in any way that T. S. Eliot would recognize or approve). So are teeth: false, buck, and missing, as well as canines, molars, and root canals. The novel begins (or, given its deepening, dispersed prehistory, opens) early in the morning of January 1, 1975, with Archie Jones sitting in his car attempting suicide on the Willesden high street, which “was no kind of place. It was not a place a man came to die. It was a place a man came to in order to go other places via the A41”—even a man like Archie, after a dull childhood, a bad marriage, and a dead-end job, a man without aims, hopes, or ambitions, a man “never able to make a decision, never able to state a position” without first flipping a coin, suicide included. Archie is “the bloke in the joke” shooed away by a halal butcher awaiting a delivery in the very spot where Archie has parked. Wandering around later that day, the forty-seven-year-old Archie stumbles upon the aftermath of an “end of the world party” and meets the stunningly attractive nineteen-year-old Clara Bowden, minus her upper teeth (knocked out in a recent motor scooter accident) and in flight from her apocalypse-obsessed mother, a Jehovah’s Witness. Six weeks later they marry, spending much of their wedding day sorting out a parking ticket issued during the ceremony. The bloke in the joke is right.

The novel switches to Samad Miah Iqbal (or “Ick-ball” in the English mispronunciation), whom Archie once saved from suicide when they served together at the very end of World War II, two of the misfits and castoffs in the comically ill-fated “Buggered Battalion.” Samad is an Indian during the war, a Pakistani after independence/partition, and a Bangladeshi by the time he immigrates to London in 1973 with his young bride, Alsana (she of fine features, sharp tongue, and enormous feet). Eleven years later, the couple scrapes together enough money from Samad’s dead-end job waiting tables at his cousin’s West End restaurant and Alsana’s sewing for a Soho sex shop to move from Whitechapel in the city’s East End to Willesden, just four blocks from Archie and Clara. Unlike the nearly inert, “history-less” Archie, Samad is a man obsessed with the past, particularly his great-grandfather Mangal Pande, a Hindu, who fired the first shot of the Great Mutiny of 1857 (whether motivated by conviction or drink is not as clear as Samad would like to believe)....

(The entire section is 2203 words.)