Zadie Smith Essay - Critical Essays

Zadie Smith Long Fiction Analysis

Zadie Smith is recognized for her wide-ranging, panoramic novels, deeply plotted with an extensive cast of characters. A primary theme of her work is multicultural identity. Most of her characters identify with more than one culture, country, and ethnicity. Irie Jones, the principal character of White Teeth, is the daughter of a working-class, white, British father and a Jamaican mother living in multiracial North London. Alex-Li Tandem, the protagonist of The Autograph Man, is a Chinese-Jewish North Londoner, and the Belseys of On Beauty are an interracial couple.

Smith is noted for her vivid descriptive style for settings and mannerisms, and she is especially noted for her ear for speech. Nonlinear plot development emphasizes coincidence, ambiguity, and unpredictability. Humor and irony abound in her use of language and social satire, which occasionally shades into farce. Smith’s work is not easily categorized. It is a hybrid: part popular culture and part dense literary writing. Critical reception has been mixed, perhaps because each book is so different from those that came before, because the scope of her work is vast, and because expectations have been so shaped by the amount of publicity associated with Smith.

White Teeth

White Teeth is a complex and multilayered novel, with a wide cast of characters and a twisting plot ranging over many years and several continents. The story follows the fortunes of two best friends, World War II buddies Archie Jones, a white working-class man married for the second time to the much younger Clara, a Jamaican woman; and Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshi who works at an Indian restaurant in London and marries the much younger Alsana. Their children, Irie Jones and the twin Iqbal brothers, Magid and Millat, are friends in multicultural North London.

Samad, concerned that his boys are losing their cultural heritage, sends Magid to be raised by relatives in Chittagong. Irie and Millat, caught smoking marijuana in the schoolyard, agree to be tutored by classmate Joshua Chalfen in order to avoid harsher consequences. The Jewish, Catholic, atheist Chalfens are a stereotypical white liberal family, delighted to welcome such multicultural diversity into their home. Irie Jones has an unrequited desire for Millat, and Joshua Chalfen has an unrequited love for Irie.

Marcus Chalfen is a genetic engineer who is working on a project called FutureMouse. The many threads of the novel come together at the event that introduces FutureMouse to the public. All the living characters are present: the senior Joneses and Iqbals; Irie who has embraced her Jamaican ancestry by returning to live with her grandmother and decided to go to university under the influence of the educated Chalfens; Joshua Chalfen, who has defied his father by becoming an animal-rights activist; Magid, who has become Marcus’s protégé and publicist; and Millat, whose militant Islamic group has determined to disrupt the event. Coincidences abound, chance meetings occur, and all attempts to control outcomes fail; the event ends in chaos, and FutureMouse escapes.

The novel ends with a snapshot of the future: On December 31, 1999, Irie Jones and Joshua Chalfen, now lovers, are in Jamaica with Irie’s grandmother. Irie’s daughter, now seven years old, is with them. Just before the FutureMouse...

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