Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 234
In brief, this first novel by Zadie Smith initiates many of the topics and themes Smith returns to in other fiction and in her non-fiction. White Teeth is situated within England, and more specifically London's, pluralism in a post-Colonial, post WW2 era. The novel straddles both the distinctions that come with class and race and ethnicity but also the universally human need for dignity and companionship, or more simply understanding.
Smith has a distinct writing style, perhaps born of her own immersion in multiple English communities (government housing and Cambridge, Jamaican mother and English father, keen and critical observer as well as creative writer). There's a whimsy in the plotting as well as the expression with which she tells this story. She seems bemused not only by the plot but with the words and sentences she can use to convey it. A very "literary" piece of writing, this novel, like all of Smith's works, has an uncanny ability to ventriloquize the dialects of her characters and so bring them and their neighborhood to life.
Neither entirely comic nor tragic, the novel offers what James Wood described as "hysterical realism," by which he meant its abundance of details and characters, interwoven into a tight knot. A more generous critique might suggest that Smith is using the novel to create a microcosm of a few aspects of the world she recognizes as distinctly modern London life.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2203
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). Samad is similarly obsessed with his religion, Islam, and the purity it demands (a purity he guiltily, comically falls well short of). While waiting tables, he awaits his destiny, filling the time by fueling his sense of grievance over his fallen state: a “sad” man who “feels like he has screwed everything up” (which he has), “a faulty, broken, stupid, one-handed waiter of a man who had spent eighteen years in a strange land and had made no more mark than this,” his name carved in five-inch-high letters on a bench in Trafalgar Square where he had bled copiously after cutting his hand at work soon after his arrival in England.
Smith’s novel is a half-Dickensian, half-Rabelaisian tale of one city but two families (later four) over two (actually six) generations, a song about the way people live (and not just in London). There is another switch in narrative focus to Archie and Clara’s daughter, Irie, and Samad and Alsana’s twin sons, Magid and Millat. Dismayed by how Western his sons have become, cash-strapped Samad, who comically combines patriarchal arrogance and henpecked fear, manages to send his favorite son back to Bangladesh (without first informing his wife), only to have Magid return seven years later a caricature of Englishness. While Magid is away, “mutinous Millat” experiments with sex, drugs, and antiauthoritarian behavior before this “social chameleon” solves the problem of his “split-level consciousness” by joining a group whose Islamic fundamentalism Samad finds no more appealing than Magid’s Anglophilia. Meanwhile, Irie (whose name means peace) has problems of her own. Just as large and unattractive as Clara once was—Irie “looked like the love child of Diana Ross and Englebert Humperdinck”—she tries to make herself more appealing to the handsome Millat by having her hair dyed and straightened. Although her plan goes hilariously awry (as most plans do in Smith’s novel), her desire is perfectly understandable; it is the longing not just for Millat but for that “paradise” of pure contingency and choice that Samad fears. “If religion is the opiate of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister.” Nonetheless, the tradition-obsessed Samad is not altogether wrong to hold on as desperately and absurdly as he does, given his and other immigrants’ justifiable fears of “dissolution, disappearance,” against which nationalist fears “of infection, penetration, miscegenation” seem “peanuts,” at least to someone like Samad.
In this way Smith very effectively dramatizes the conflict between the need for freedom and the need to belong. The need is there in the numerous street crews, including the Raggastanis, who speak
a strange mix of Jamaican patois, Bengali, Gujarati, and English. Their ethos, their manifesto, if it could be called that, [is] equally a hybrid thing: Allah featured, but more as a collective big brother than a supreme being, a . . . geezer who would fight in their corner if necessary.
So Millat joins the burners of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988)—not because he considers the author an infidel or the book offensive (he has not even read it), but because he finds in the crowd’s anger something akin to his own. Later he will join Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation,
a radical new movement where politics and religion were two sides of the same coin. A group that took freely from Garveyism, the American Civil Rights movement, and the thought of Elijah Muhammad, yet remained within the letter of the Qur’ân.
“That’s a wicked name. It’s got a wicked kung-fu kick-arse sound to it,” says Millat, and an unfortunately comical acronym: KEVIN. There is no lack of collectives to which individual characters turn in order to satisfy their need to belong: FATE (Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation); Jehovah’s Witnesses; O’Connell’s, the men-only former poolroom-now-café owned by Iraqi brothers Abdul-Mickey and Abdul-Colin, where Samad and Archie take shelter from the domestic and cultural storms. Then there is Chalfenism, the secular religion, as it were, of the Chalfens, thoroughly assimilated third-generation German-Polish Jews (originally named Chalfenovsky): Marcus, a professor of molecular biology, and Julia, the horticulturalist he married for the wide hips well-suited to giving birth to his genetically superior offspring. Supremely self-confident and reasonably well-to-do, the Chalfens see themselves as heirs of the Enlightenment. The reader sees them rather differently: as pompous North London liberals bearing the torch of social planning and do-goodism of a certain and certainly overbearing kind.
All good things must come to an end, even a novel in which “the end is simply the beginning of an even larger story.” For Smith that means bringing the diverse narrative strands and political and cultural groups together on New Year’s Eve at the Pennet Institute, where Marcus and his pen pal turned protégé, Magid, unveil Marcus’s latest creation, FutureMouse, to an audience of invited guests, interested parties, protesters, saboteurs (FATE, KEVIN), and one would-be assassin (Millat), while outside Clara’s mother and some of her fellow believers await (yet again) the end of the world as revelers party in Trafalgar Square. Genetically altered to live twice as long as normal mice, to sprout tumors in predetermined places at preset times, and most ominously and hilariously, to change from brown to albino white, FutureMouse “holds out the tantalizing promise of a new phase in human history, where we are not victims of the random but instead directors and arbitrators of our own fate.” In a city in which London Transport cannot get the trains to run as scheduled, however, the promise that FutureMouse offers of better living through bioengineering seems not so much alarming as risible, especially in a novel about the joys of randomness and diversity, accidental hybridity and cultural complementarity.
White Teeth brilliantly and energetically examines differences of all kinds: national, ethnic, political, religious, sexual, racial, class. Its cast of Dickensian caricatures, its diversity of voices, from the neutral tones of Archie to Jamaican patois, Indian-inflected English, and the carefully as well as comically cultivated speech of the Chalfens, suggest that Smith’s ear for the linguistic variety of contemporary London is as good as her eye for detail and her adroit manipulation of both for her own comic purposes. More celebratory than satirical, it offers what Smith herself has called a “utopian” view of race relations, of what those relations might, should, “maybe” will be. In it, even burners of The Satanic Verses and a French doctor who collaborated with the Nazis get off lightly. Generous to a fault, often implying that “love is all you need,” White Teeth is (to borrow Rushdie’s description of his own Satanic Verses) “a love-song to our mongrel selves . . . for change by fusion, change by conjoining.” It is also, along with works such as Ayub Khan-Din’s 1997 play and 1999 film East Is East, a sign of the times, of the browning of London, and of that colonial invention, English literature, begun by Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi. Having mastered the comic sprawl and exuberant irreverence of that wing of the English novel tradition running from Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767) to Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), not only in a single go but also with such panache and to such acclaim, Smith set her sights, in the new novel she began, on the quiet restraint of the tradition’s other wing. That wing extends from Jane Austen to the second-most-talked-about English novel of the new millennium, Mr. Phillips (2000), John Lanchester’s story of a day in the life of (appropriately enough) a white Londoner recently made redundant.
Topics for Further Study
Booklist 96 (April 1, 2000): 1436.
The Boston Globe, April 30, 2000, p. J1.
Library Journal 125 (April 1, 2000): 132.
The New York Times, April 25, 2000, p. E1.
The New York Times Book Review 105 (April 30, 2000): 7.
The New Yorker 75 (October 18-25, 2000): 182.
Newsweek 135 (May 1, 2000): 73.
Publishers Weekly 247 (March 13, 2000): 60.
USA Today, April 27, 2000, p. 9.
The Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2000, p. W6.
The Washington Post Book World, May 21, 2000, p. 7.