SOURCE: Smith, Zadie, and Stephanie Merritt. “Zadie Smith.” London Observer (16 January 2000): 12.
[In the following interview, Smith and Merritt discuss race, the success of White Teeth, and Smith's future works.]
The hype began in the autumn of 1997. Zadie Smith was 21 and just down from Cambridge when her first novel was sold on a mere 80 pages for an advance rumoured to be in the region of Pounds 250,000.
Nearly two-and-a-half years on, White Teeth is finished, at a weighty 462 pages, and about to be published. It is a broad, teeming, comic novel of multiracial Britain viewed through the lives of two families, and has already earned its author comparisons with Salman Rushdie and the kind of media attention not often lavished on a new writer. Smith takes me to a café in Willesden, north-west London, not unlike the one in which her two main characters, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, spend much of their time philosophising. She confesses that she has found the whole publicity whirl quite daunting.
“I didn't think the book would take two years to write,” she says, “but I was quite lazy. And I had moments of fear, of not being able to write anything.” Because of the advance? She laughs diffidently; she has already refused to confirm the sum involved, but admits that it was big. “Partly that. It did make my life a bit ridiculous really, it made me scared that I wasn't going to be able to finish the book, or that it wasn't going to be any good. But in the end, you just have to forget about it; otherwise you'd never write a word. These things happen sometimes, these freak events in publishing. Next year it will happen to someone else.”
Smith, still only 24, is currently enjoying the kind of success that most novelists can barely dream of. As well as widespread publicity for the book, which has already been sold in 8 countries, she was asked to write a short story for the New Yorker's millennial fiction issue, and in April is travelling to New York to take part in a literary festival organised by the magazine and to promote the American publication of White Teeth. Next month, she begins a stint as writer in residence at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London. Despite all this, she is remarkably unassuming, quietly articulate though slightly shy about being interviewed, rolling cigarettes with nervous fingers and holding them, unsmoked, like a prop. She is modest, almost dismissive, about the book she has written, as if she genuinely didn't realise how good it really is, and insists that she finds it “excruciating” to read. She is quick to correct a recent newspaper assertion that she left Cambridge with a double First. “Actually, I got a Third in my Part Ones,” she says, grinning. At the moment, she is still living with her Jamaican mother in Willesden, where she grew up, and where her novel is largely set.
“White Teeth is not really based on personal family experience,” she answers thoughtfully, when I ask if her own mixed-race background had furnished much of the story (her father is English). “When you come from a mixed-race family, it makes you think a bit harder about inheritance and what's passed on from generation to generation. But as for racial tensions, I'm sure my parents had the usual trouble getting hotel rooms and so on, but I don't talk to them much about that part of their lives. A lot of it is guesswork or comes...
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from reading accounts of immigrants coming here. I suppose the trick of the novel, if there is one, is to transpose the kind of friendships we have now to a generation which was less likely to be friends in that way.”
She is referring to the book's pivotal relationship, the 50-year friendship between Archie, a working-class Londoner, and Samad, a Bengali Muslim, whose ill-fated affair with a white woman proves a catalyst for the novel's central events. I ask if she found it difficult to write in the consciousness of a middle-aged man, but Smith is unusually confident for a young writer.
“As long as you honestly believe that people can be, say or do anything, then you stop worrying about it,” she says earnestly. “I worried about things that were objectively anachronistic, like whether you would find a pizza place in 1975, because that jars when you read it, but to worry about whether a Bengali man of a certain age might say or think such and such, well, that's very limiting. You have to use your imagination.”
This imaginative element, I suggest, extends to the way in which race relations are portrayed in the book. Smith offers a very optimistic vision: prejudice exists, but tolerance appears in equal measure, and racist violence is only mentioned briefly and at second hand. Is this an optimism she genuinely feels?
“It is kind of a fantasy book,” she agrees. “There is a lot of pessimism currently about race relations in this country. I think the relationships in the book are something to be wished for, but I think they might exist now, and certainly in the future, with the amount of mixing up that has gone on. My generation, and my younger brother's generation even more, don't carry the same kind of baggage.” But racial prejudice is still a part of daily life, especially in London. She tells me how her 16-year-old brother was stopped by the police only two days before. “He was just walking down the street and they thought he'd robbed a house or something, so they threw him up against the car, asked him if he had any weed on him. I think it is a completely different experience for black men in this country.”
Her own experience, she says, was always softened by her academic achievements, though she hints that this might have been through a desire to over-compensate in the face of prejudice. “When I was little, we'd go on holiday to Devon, and there, if you're black and you go into a sweetshop, for instance, everyone turns and looks at you. So my instinct as a child was always to over-compensate by trying to behave three times as well as every other child in the shop, so they knew I wasn't going to take anything or hurt anyone. I think that instinct has spilled over into my writing in some ways, which is not something I like very much or want to continue.”
Several times, she mentions a desire to change the way she writes; admiring John Lanchester's Mr Phillips, which she has just finished reading, she says: “The best thing about it is that it's very sparse. I'd like a bit of that in my own writing.”
Smith is already well into a second novel, The Autograph Man, about which she will say little except that it is about Jewish cabalism and is “much funnier” than White Teeth, which she doesn't consider particularly funny (though it is). She wants to continue to write fiction, though she swears she will never write such a long book again. “It was more than 700 pages at one point, and I think when a book gets that long, it's because you're not in control of it. Although publishers seem to like long books,” she adds. I suggest this might be because it allows them to feel they're getting their money's worth; she laughs.
She says, half jokingly, that she would like to write a ‘cool’ novel one day, “I feel like a bit of a young fogey at the moment.” But she need not worry too much on that count. In her turban, thick-rimmed glasses and big trainers, she looks like a fairer-skinned version of Lauryn Hill. She is a fan of hip-hop, and the book is peppered with street language and hip-hop argot. The most animated I have seen her is when she spots an article about Madonna in the paper and pounces on it, “I'm a huge fan.”
On the table behind us, two old men who've come in for their tea and could have been cameo characters from White Teeth, are watching with delight as John, our photographer, sets up a phalanx of equipment and Zadie poses self-consciously at a window table.
“I think she's a film star,” says one confidentially to his mate. “I've seen her in that thing off the telly.”
“Excuse me,” says the other, “but is she off the telly?”
“Not yet,” I say, “but she will be.”
Zadie Smith 1976-
British novelist and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Smith's career through 2001.
Widely touted as a new voice in English literature, Smith burst onto the scene in 2000 with the publication of her first novel, White Teeth. Her debut effort centers on multigenerational relationships between two contemporary London families with disparate racial, economic, and religious origins. Suffused with humor and irony, the novel also illuminates the inherent difficulties of preserving ethnic identities and cultural heritages in an increasingly multicultural society. Astonished by the wisdom beyond the author's young age found in the book, most critics have generally acclaimed White Teeth with enthusiasm, drawing comparisons to a range of writers from Charles Dickens to Salman Rushdie.
The daughter of an English father and a much younger Jamaican mother, Smith was born in 1976 at Hampstead, England, and grew up in Willesden Green, a multiethnic neighborhood northwest of London. Her parents divorced when Smith was fourteen-years-old. She studied English literature at King's College, Cambridge, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1998. While there, Smith regularly contributed short stories to the May Anthologies, an annual compilation of prose and poetry written by Cambridge and Oxford undergraduates, including one that later became the basis for White Teeth. That story caught the eye of a literary agent, who wanted to discuss with its author the possibility of expanding the story into a full-length novel. Consequently, the agent secured for Smith a rumored £250,000 (approximately $400,000) advance—an extraordinary sum for a first-time author and an incomplete manuscript that contained only a plot synopsis and two chapters. White Teeth subsequently won numerous prizes, including the Guardian First Book Award, the Commonwealth Writers' First Book Award, and the prestigious Whitbread First Novel Award. After an international publicity tour, Smith returned to her mother's home at Willesden and began writing a second novel about autographs and mystical religions. The Autograph Man is slated for publication in 2002.
Addressing racial, cultural, and generational issues with wit and irony, White Teeth revolves around the relationship between the families of two men, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, who bonded during the closing days of World War II as the only survivors of a tank mishap in Bulgaria. In an extended flashback, readers learn that immediately after the war ended, Archie took a job at a print shop and married Ophelia, an Italian woman whom he met during the war. Samad returned to his native Bengal (the Indian province later known as East Pakistan and today as Bangladesh) and went to college. Nearly thirty years have passed before the friendship between the blue-collar Briton and the educated Muslim resumes, and the narrative begins. When Samad immigrates to England with his new domineering wife, Alsana Begum, he settles in Willesden where he successfully locates his old war buddy, who has recently divorced Ophelia and married nineteen-year-old Clara Bowden, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants. Within a year of the reunion, the two couples and their children—Archie's daughter Irie and Samad's twin sons Magid and Millat—become friendly. The children's relationships and stories comprise the latter part of White Teeth, which principally focuses on varying degrees of displacement experienced by the multicultural characters populating the racially and ethnically diverse post-imperial London neighborhood. For instance, Samad strives to retain his self-identity as a Muslim Bengali in a culture vastly different from his homeland. Forced to earn a living as a waiter at a curry restaurant, Samad decides to send his sons to Bangladesh for a proper Muslim education, but since he can only afford the expenses for one, he sends Magid. Meanwhile, the biracial Irie matures into a full-figured, curly-haired adolescent, who nurtures a crush on Millat and struggles for acceptance in a culture that privileges thin, Caucasian blondes. The confused Millat, in turn, cultivates a fascination with Islamic fundamentalism that propels him toward terrorist activities. Further complicating matters, Magid returns to England thoroughly Anglicized, which greatly distresses his father. Magid eventually takes a position at a genetic engineering firm that is designing a creature called FutureMouse, which is scheduled to debut on New Year's Eve 1992, when the novel's climactic event occurs. By its end, White Teeth exposes the dangers of labeling others and illustrates the universal striving to maintain self-identity in pluralistic contemporary society, despite cultural heritage or ethnic origin.
Critics have lauded White Teeth for its astute take on social cooperation between various races, classes, and religions, with most critics deeming its insights beyond the age of its author. Smith's novel has not only been stylistically and thematically compared to Rushdie's narratives, but Rushdie himself has also recommended the novel in a quote on the back cover of its first edition, claiming that the comedy “fizzes up” through its characters. Many reviewers have also expressed surprise at the novel's self-assured tone and the depth of characterizations—traits contrary to expectations for a first-time novelist. Similarly, most commentators have applauded Smith's ear for dialogue, her darkly ironic wit, and her unusually mature understanding of social interactions. The majority of critics also have enjoyed the diversity of characters and their various ethnicities and well-developed perspectives. Although some have likened the turns and coincidental occurrences of the plot to Dickensian narratives, other reviewers have asserted that there are too many characters, and that their behavior and the coincidental nature of their experiences test the limits of fictional realism, engaging the conventions of magic realism. However, critics have generally been impressed by the size and scope of White Teeth and eagerly anticipate Smith's future literary efforts.
SOURCE: Smith, Zadie, and Christina Patterson. “Zadie Smith—A Willesden Ring of Confidence.” Independent (22 January 2000): 9.
[In the following interview, Smith discusses White Teeth and its reception by the public and critics.]
Zadie Smith was in the middle of her finals when she started to write the story that became White Teeth. It went on to win her a two-book deal of a rumoured quarter of a million—and she got a first. She's beautiful, too. The figure that strides into Silver Moon bookshop 15 minutes late is elegantly hip in a tight, long black skirt, warm jacket, Chris Evans specs and fur-lined hat with flaps, which she keeps on even in the cosy warmth of a nearby club. Not many people could get away with a hat like that. Not many would have the confidence to try.
The lateness, it transpires, is not to do with primadonna-ish tendencies, but the vagaries of the Jubilee Line. Zadie Smith is still living with her mother and siblings in Willesden Green, where she grew up. It was, she says, the inspiration for the novel. “If there's anything autobiographical in it,” she explains, anticipating that most familiar of first-novel questions, “then it's Willesden Green, rather than any of the people in the book.
“Yesterday I saw that woman who ignored Tony Blair [on his Tube trip to the Dome]. She lives in Willesden. One of the things I like about it is that it's a tight-knit community that doesn't look elsewhere for its standards or moral values or even aspirational things.”
White Teeth reflects the cheerful multiculturalism of the area and presents it as a microcosm of a Britain approaching the millennium. It's a huge, teeming, multi-layered brew of a book with an extremely complex plot. It centres on the friendship of Samad and Archie, Bengali waiter and English clerk respectively, who shared a secret during the war and now spend their evenings shooting the breeze in a local greasy spoon, O'Connell's.
Both married to much younger women, they produce children who embrace a variety of religious and philosophical interests, as well, at times, as each other. The multifarious strands are brought together in a plot development that hinges on a genetically engineered mouse. It is funny, clever, comes garlanded with praise by the likes of Salman Rushdie, carries a whole raft of Big Themes—racism, colonialism, fundamentalism, eugenics and genetic engineering, for a start—and is also a rollicking good read. Some achievement for any novelist, but for a 22-year-old?
“The complexity of the plot is not a strength,” observes Smith crisply. “I didn't sit down and think I'm going to write a hugely complex plot, but just to say the kind of things I wanted to say, you have to find what Eliot called the objective correlative, something that will be there, so you can make the argument you want to make. Because my argument was fairly convoluted and the themes are fairly difficult to pin down, all these things had to turn up as demonstrations of one thing or another.”
It is no surprise to hear that she had considered becoming an academic before literary success took over. Zadie Smith took the research seriously, too. She read six or seven translations of the Koran in order to write convincingly about Samad's struggles with his faith and the machinations of the militant Muslim group, Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation—or KEVIN for short. She was, she says, so thrilled when she came up with the name that she “took about four days off work.”
But the point she was making about the danger of fundamentalism is very serious indeed. “This is the thing which we have to work out,” she says, rattling the ice in her now-drained orange juice. “I don't know how you deal with religions. If what Blair and the rest of them are aiming at is a multi-cultural Britain in which nobody has a faith, then I think they can forget it. I think religion's going from strength to strength. I don't know what the solution is. I get fearful.”
She is also intensely aware of the pain and conflict that this causes across the generations. “There's a great quote from Naipaul,” she explains. “I think it's from A Bend in the River when Salim says that he was not interested in ‘being good, as it is in our tradition, but in making good.’ I don't have that so much, because if you're Jamaican you don't have a language, you don't have a necessary faith, but the Muslim and Hindu children I grew up with feel that very strongly. I think it's a false dichotomy,” she adds thoughtfully. “There's no need for being good to be separate from making good.”
Difference is, she says, the central theme in White Teeth and “all those things which highlight difference.” For this reason she became fascinated by genetics. “I was trying to understand what difference is and with genetics you get a wonderful opportunity of seeing where it begins, the very first point at which it begins.” She read one “incredibly boring” book about onco-mice and cancer genes in mice and talked to “a lot of bright friends” in order to write the scientific stuff, but is still, with characteristic modesty, convinced that the science in the book is “incredibly bad.”
White Teeth is not only stamped with Rushdie's approval; it has been compared to him, too. It is a comparison Smith treats with caution. “I think some writers, not just me, feel that you're being compared to Rushdie or Kureishi just because there are Asian characters in your book, and if that's the case, it's a waste of time and a pain in the ass because there are thousands of books with white people in them and they're not all the same.” She does, however, agree that she echoes the playful, self-conscious, teasing tone of recent Indian fiction and, indeed, of Tristram Shandy.
“You either write the Austen book or the Shandy book,” she announces ruefully. “I don't like being on the side of Shandy, actually, and I hope I'm not there for ever, because I think it's a tough one. The Shandy side of things is quite hard to do well and a lot of books which try end up being very convoluted, very irritating, very self-conscious—and I know there are elements of all of that in White Teeth.”
Smith is nothing if not self-critical. The new literary magazine Butterfly, which carries authors' critiques of their own books, includes a coruscatingly self-deprecating review in which she concludes that “White Teeth is the literary equivalent of a hyperactive ginger-haired tap dancing ten-year-old.” When I ask her if literary success has changed her, she replies, seriously, that she needs “negative feedback” in order to move forward.
“I was very worried,” she reveals, “that if this book did well or was forced to do well by a lot of hype behind it, that I wouldn't write anything again. I don't like hype in general and I'd never imagined that I'd be the subject of hype and that's kind of a hard thing but as long as I think the book is fairly rubbish, then I know I can carry on writing better things.”
There is clearly about as much chance of this level-headed young woman becoming a literary prima donna as of the Conservatives winning the next election. At the beginning of the interview, she had seemed a little brusque, a little jaded already by journalistic questions about money and fame.
As she talked about the book and its themes, however, her weariness—perhaps shyness?—was replaced by animated arm-waving, eloquence and passion. She is, she admits, buying a flat of her own, but it's in home territory in Kilburn, where most of her friends don't care about the novel or the hype. “I don't think my life's changed,” she concludes with a rare smile.
“I think so far I'm doing about as well as you could expect from a fairly young person who has never had money before. I think I'm doing OK.”
White Teeth (novel) 2000
SOURCE: Longmore, Zenga. “Fairy-Sweary-Land.” Spectator 284, no. 8947 (29 January 2000): 47.
[In the following negative review, Longmore argues that the characters in White Teeth are not only unrealistically profound and introspective, but also unusually profane.]
Zadie Smith is a very impressive woman. She is divinely pretty, 24 years old, has a double first in English at Cambridge, and if that's not enough, she has written a hetty great book on multicultural north west London [White Teeth] for which she was paid a staggeringly large commission. Sadly, the book lacks the brilliance of its author.
Reader, beware, you are about to hear a lot more of Zadie. Rumour has it that her publishers are sparing no expense to hype her to the white teeth. I predict that, in a few years' time, students all over the country will be poring over Zadie's opus in an attempt to ‘re-examine the marginalisation of the multi-ethnic urbanisation of the late 20th century.’
The plot is dense and the style didactic, redeemed by flashes of lucid dialogue. Two men, Archie Jones from Brighton and Samad Iqbal from Bangladesh, pal up whilst serving in the British army in wartime Europe. Samad is frightfully clever, as only a character created by a brainy 23-year-old can be. One of his missions in life appears to be to explain his erudite brand of philosophy to Archie: ‘Our children will be born of our actions’ is a typical piece of wisdom. ‘On cold days a man can see his breath, on a hot day he can't. On both occasions, a man breathes.’ Archie, instead of avoiding this character like the plague, chums up with him for the rest of his life. They return to Blighty. Archie weds a beautiful young Jamaican girl, who gives birth to a daughter, Irie. Samad's arranged marriage produces twin boys, Millat and Magid.
Ah, I thought at this point, children have been introduced! Now I shall be spared Samad's endless bleating about unravelling Fermat's theorem and mastering Aristolelian philosophy. Children have got to talk in plain, non-Cambridge-don lingo. But oh, far worse than all beside, the children speak in Cambridge student lingo. ‘Other families are not self-indulgent,’ Irie screams at her parents as they travel on a bus, ‘they don't run around relishing, relishing the fact that they are utterly dysfunctional. Lucky bastards. Lucky mother fuckers.’ I could not help musing on what would happen in real life were a black girl to use such language to her mother—and on a bus, to boot. One thing is certain, she would never live to swear again.
But Zadie simply must squeeze in obscenities whether they ring true or not. Jamaican hairdressers and Asian shopkeepers gibber profanities at their customers, who swear back with heartless disregard for realism. Having lived in Harlesden for a number of years, I felt affronted at seeing my fellow Harlesdenites so maligned. Zadie's Harlesden is a fairy-sweary-land, possibly designed to shock and titillate outsiders.
Magid is sent to Bangladesh to learn his Moslem culture, whilst his twin Millat stays in England. The irony is, Magid returns to London munching bacon sandwiches and speaking like Bertie Wooster, whilst Millat joins a militant Moslem group called KEVIN, and whiles away his hours burning books and taking drugs. Irie's character suffers from multiple personality disorder. Just when you think she is shy and lumpy, she'll shriek ripe oaths at her parents, and make ‘angry and furious’ love to Magid. Fortunately, Magid takes it on the chin, his post-coital remark being:
It seems to me that you have tried to love a man as if he were an island and you were shipwrecked and could mark the land with an X. It seems to me it is too late in the day for all that.
Cryptic cleverness, you see, runs in the family.
Zadie Smith has ambitiously attempted to portray a mighty range of London life: old and new style Moslems, Jamaican Jehovah's Witnesses, mixed-race teenagers, gormless working-class Englishmen, manipulating middle-class families—it's all there in slightly off-key abundance. While it is refreshing to read descriptions of Harlesden with no mention of crack cocaine or gunfights, the heavy, jargonised style dulls the bite of White Teeth. To illustrate my point, I open the book at random and hand you over to Zadie:
They left the neutral room as they entered it: weighed down, burdened, unable to waver from their course or in any way change their separate, dangerous trajectories. They seem to make no progress. The cynical might say they don't even move at all—that Magid and Millat are two of Zeno's headfuck arrows, occupying a space equal to themselves and …
You get the gist.
SOURCE: Rozzo, Mark. “Who's English Now?” Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 May 2000): 10–11.
[In the following review, Rozzo outlines the major themes in White Teeth, complimenting its style, symbolism, and wit.]
Check out a map of London: The city seems to sprawl endlessly, its high streets spoking this way and that amid a dizzying patchwork of interlocking hamlets and maddeningly meandering lanes. Insatiable curiosity and the desire to make sense of it draws the eye back again and again, retracing routes, discovering patterns, seeing new colors.
In Zadie Smith's dazzling intergenerational first novel, White Teeth, the 24-year-old Cambridge graduate offers a similarly hypnotic and multicolored experience, transforming London's outlines into an infinitely complex mandala whose true shape is, in the end, unfixed and unknowable. Against this beguiling backdrop, with its shades of Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Hanif Kureishi and even Charles Dickens, Smith's multicultural Londoners attend to pressing questions of family and fate as they navigate a treacherous maze of history, identity and, most inescapably, race. All the while, their stubborn ties to the outposts of the former Empire—the subcontinent and the West Indies—are stretched perilously taut, like rubber bands pulled to the snapping point.
It's typical of Smith's masterly flair for suggestive ironies that the sole character in White Teeth who's not particularly beset by issues of hue—the thoroughly working-class, comically Caucasian Archie Jones—should find himself, as the book opens, at an apparent dead end. With the dawning of New Year's Day 1975, Archie—47, recently divorced from his crazy Italian wife and living above a deserted chip shop—parks his car in a London byway and, in accordance with a New Year's resolution (determined, like all of Archie's major decisions, by coin toss), attempts suicide by carbon monoxide asphyxiation. But whatever it is “that Makes Shit Happen had decided it was second-chance time for Archie,” so he miraculously survives and, by close of day, goes on to meet his soon-to-be second wife, a lithe, miniskirted 19-year-old Jamaican ex-Jehovah's Witness, Clara Bowden, who, curiously, is missing her top row of teeth. Smith teasingly drops oblique dental metaphors like red herrings throughout the book.
With Archie, Smith focuses our attention on the kind of guy you might otherwise overlook in a crowded pub scene from East Enders, a man whose greatest pleasures are English breakfasts and puttering around the home. And yet it's precisely Archie's monochromatic blandness, uncritical common sense and overall cluelessness that somehow render him—and, by extension, his young black wife—colorblind.
This luxury is denied Archie's best friend, Samad Iqbal, a history-obsessed Bengali who likes to remind everyone within earshot that Mangal Pande—Indian revolutionary or drunken fool, depending on whom you believe—was his great-grandfather. Despite his pretensions to pedigree, flair for philosophizing and good looks, Samad slaves away as a long-suffering curry slinger in a low-rent Indian restaurant.
Archie and Samad's friendship is the dynamic engine that powers Smith's tale. In an extended flashback, we discover that their lifelong bond is rooted in World War II, which the two of them muddled through in a tank squad known, owing to its ineptitude, as the “Buggered Battalion.” Archie has always been Sancho Panza to Samad's glory-seeking Don Quixote, and so it continues through the decades, as this cross-cultural odd couple meets day after day for greasy fry-ups at O'Connors (a former Irish establishment now owned by Muslims) to mull over the inescapable past and the latest baffling developments of the waning 20th century.
But past, present and future play themselves out in divergent ways for Smith's rather feckless patriarchs and their families. While Archie, Clara and their daughter, Irie, cruise along on autopilot, despite being a biracial family in easily offended Old England, the willful Samad, his intractably pragmatic wife Alsana and their twins, Magid and Millat, “can't help but reenact the dash they once made from one land to another, from one faith to another, from one brown mother country into the pale, freckled arms of an imperial sovereign.”
It's as if the immigrant Iqbals are caught in an endless loop, forced to hash out the same melting-pot issues—of losing their language, integrity and faith in a godless England—again and again. In a desperate bid to preserve Iqbal tradition, Samad—who finds himself drawn into a guilt-laden affair with a red-haired schoolteacher—decides to send one of the twins back to the homeland to be spared the sins of the West. (He can afford to send only one twin home.) After prolonged agonizing, Samad chooses Magid, flying the unsuspecting 10-year-old back to what is by now, in 1984, Bangladesh, where Magid will remain for the next eight years.
At this point, the human geography of White Teeth pops into stunning 3-D, as Smith turns to the Jones and Iqbal offspring, whose multicultural legacies are now coming to radically diverse, teenage fruition. Magid, in a series of flowery postcards and letters from the mother country, reveals himself as an effeminate intellectual dandy with more interest in science and law than in the Koran.
Millat, meanwhile, grows into a kind of subcontinental homeboy, a swaggering, sarcastic, homophobic “Raggastani” given to spliffs, sex and putting “the Invincible back in Indian, the Bad-aaaass back in Bengali, the P-Funk back in Pakistani.” Millat's rampant Bengal pride (he takes a hard line against The Satanic Verses) is the mirror image of Magid's Bangladeshi denial; he's eventually sucked into a fringe Muslim fundamentalist movement, which he views in terms of gangster flicks, tailoring Ray Liotta's gritty voice-over in GoodFellas to fit his own cultural identity needs: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a Muslim.”
Irie, for her part, has become obsessed with her ungainly figure; only gradually does she become aware of the cultural weight she lugs around as a half-English, half-Jamaican teenager. (Even this is complicated by the fact that her mother, Clara, has English blood, too.) When Irie strikes up a friendship with the Chalfens, a clever, middle-class white family, her desire to assimilate and aspire begin to shape her into an inquiring, if self-conscious, young woman.
Smith has an anthropologist's unsparing eye when it comes to examining habits and habitats, and she's at her most damning in reporting her findings on the Chalfens: Ultra-bourgeois; eggheaded, self-obsessed, condescending and perfect, the Chalfens are an imposing clan who wear their open-mindedness like blue ribbons at a school fair.
As Irie ponders whether her destiny is trying to pass among the Chalfens of the world or emigrating to Jamaica, Smith orchestrates a momentum-filled endgame in which all the various players in this tragicomic saga—including the sanguine Archie and Clara; the increasingly religious Samad; the Westernized, recently returned Magid; the militantly anti-Western Millat; Irie's Armageddon-obsessed Jehovah's Witness grandmother; and Irie herself—inevitably collide in rather cosmic surreal fashion.
With so much story to deliver, Smith keeps White Teeth humming, not bothering to dally amid the book's panoramic cast, Gordian tangle of symbolism, intricately contrived plot and big issues: the immigrant's fear of dissolution, the nationalist's fear of miscegenation, the notion that “homeland is one of the magical fantasy words like unicorn and soul and infinity” and the idea that though you can't outrun history, you can do some pretty far-out things with the gene pool.
Halfway into her 20s, Smith is already a wonderfully inventive synthesizer of ideas and a master of style whose prose is playful yet unaffected, mongrel yet cohesive, profound yet funny, vernacular yet lyrical.
It would be no great dishonor to see White Teeth turn into a pop event; it deserves the luxury of an expanded audience, and the multicolored London it describes is the stuff of Cornershop records, Mike Leigh films and Chris Ofili canvases. And it's boldly democratic in its desire to put flashes of profundity in the mouths of the unlikeliest characters, including Alsana, Samad's no-nonsense wife, who at one point blurts out: “[Y]ou go back and back and back and it's still easier to find the correct Hoover bag than to find one pure person, one pure faith, on the globe. Do you think anybody is English? Really English? It's a fairy tale!”
In Smith's London, racial demarcation lines are as jumbled as the city's crooked streets, and race itself becomes as hazily immaterial—and as impossible to ignore—as a stubborn English fog.
Crowley, Jason. “The Tiger Woods of Literature?” New Statesman 130, no. 4522 (29 January 2001): 57.
Crowley contemplates Smith's chances of continued success following her highly successful debut.
Hensher, Philip. “Write First Time.” Daily Telegraph (19 February 2000): 6.
Hensher interviews Smith, Peter Ho Davies, and Francine Stock about their first publications.
Hodari, Askhari. “The Mystique of Zadie Smith.” Black Issues Book Review 2, no. 5 (September–October 2000): 26–27.
Hodari examines Smith's thought processes and ideas while writing White Teeth.
Iverem, Esther. “London Calling.” Washington Post Book World (21 May 2000): 7.
Iverem praises the descriptive and narrative techniques of White Teeth, but criticizes the novel's lack of strong black characters.
Jackson, Kevin. “Next Generation, Zadie Smith.” New Yorker 75, no. 31 (18–25 October 1999): 182.
Jackson notes that White Teeth departs from the conventional expectations for a literary debut.
Jaggi, Maya. “In a Strange Land.” Guardian (22 January 2000): 9.
Jaggi praises White Teeth, describing it as a celebration of cultural diversity in contemporary London.
King, Bruce. Review of White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. World Literature Today 75, no. 1 (winter 2001): 116.
King praises the wit of White Teeth, but criticizes its underdeveloped plot and characterization.
O'Rourke, Meghan. “Fiction in Review.” Yale Review 88, no. 3 (July 2000): 159–70.
O'Rourke examines the cultural, social, and emotional challenges of the characters in White Teeth.
Sandhu, Sukhdev. “Excremental Children.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5051 (21 January 2000): 21.
Sandhu compliments Smith's writing skills in White Teeth, comparing her style to Salman Rushdie's.
Stout, Rob. “Faces of Greatness Smile on British Novelist.” Denver Post (28 May 2000): F5.
Stout applauds Smith's achievement in White Teeth and anticipates future successes for the author.
Thomson, Susan C. “Cultures and Generations Clash in Absorbing First Novel by Zadie Smith.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (28 May 2000): F9.
Thomson examines the multicultural and multigenerational aspects of White Teeth.
Wilhelmus, Tom. “Communities Perhaps.” Hudson Review 53, no. 4 (winter 2001): 693–99.
Wilhelmus outlines the plot and themes of White Teeth.
Winters, Laura. “Great Expectations.” Harper's Bazaar (May 2000): 112.
Winters presents Smith's thoughts on White Teeth and its reception.
Additional coverage of Smith's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 193, and Literature Resource Center.
SOURCE: Smith, Zadie, and Bob Graham. “Fame Gives Writer Lots to Chew On.” San Francisco Chronicle (13 June 2000): E1.
[In the following interview, Smith discusses the tone of White Teeth, the effects of fame, and the differences between English and American attitudes on race and class.]
Everybody starts with white teeth. They might turn yellow, fall out or get knocked out, but that's what everybody starts with, or used to. Now everybody must be starting with White Teeth. It's the international blockbuster novel by Zadie Smith.
Everybody starts with white teeth? Is that what the title means?
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Smith says.
Her seriously comic, comically serious novel is about ethnic identity in multicultural society. “White teeth” were the first words Smith, now 24, put down when she began the novel in 1997. They became the title, and she just went on from there for 448 vivid pages. Random House published it, and it is the current Chronicle Book Club selection.
“I liked the sound of it, and it stuck,” says the tall, black-leather-jacketed and black-capped Londoner, who was in San Francisco last week. “So that was that.”
She thinks the title has something to do with roots, the roots of teeth, and of identity and family. “Teeth are passed on very directly,” she says. “You can spot a family by bad teeth or good teeth.”
Offhandedly, she says a lot of English writers are slightly preoccupied with their teeth. “I,” she adds, unprompted, “have quite bad teeth.”
One of the seven major characters in her sprawling book, a beautiful Jamaican ex-Jehovah's Witness who marries a white Englishman, has no upper teeth—they were knocked out. Among the characters are identical twins who are Bangladeshi English. One stays in London and becomes a Muslim militant, the other goes to Bangladesh but comes back more English than the English.
Smith's novel may deal with serious issues, but the tone is definitely comic, which is not the same as frivolous. “It doesn't occur to me to write something that isn't comic,” she says. “I don't write in any other way.”
This doesn't mean it's laugh-out-loud funny. “It's what I would call laughter in the dark, which is also the title of a good Nabokov book.—The kind of laughter you do because if you didn't you'd cry. I like that kind of writing.”
She was surprised, during her appearance on the KQED-FM talk show “Forum” on Friday, at some of the calls when the subject of race came up. “The phone calls were so hot-tempered,” she says.
A comic view requires some detachment and distance. Smith herself is the product of cross-cultural parentage—her mother is Jamaican and her father is English—but as “an Englishman,” as she calls herself, she views things differently. “In England, if you mention race on a radio show it's like, ‘Whatever. Next topic.’ In England, people are much more comfortable with it.”
The London-born Smith understands what Americans have gone through. “Thirty years ago, there were still people riding on segregated buses in this country, so it still feels touchy. That's not true in England. It's not the same, and people aren't descended from generations of slaves. There was an incredible trauma that this country had to suffer, and it will take generations and generations to recover from.”
She considers herself, first and foremost, an artist—a novelist and not a “spokesman.” “I don't have any answers,” she says. “I think of myself as a writer, and by definition we approach things sideways. I feel very uncomfortable about speaking about anything as a representative of something.”
Smith also was clearly uncomfortable with her media tour, which had already taken her to seven cities. She mentions a famous writer who abandoned his own book tour halfway through.
She says that “if you're someone who spends a lot of time trying to think about different things each day”—that is, a writer—a book tour's whirlwind, back-to-back interviews can be a trial. “You know, people work down in coal mines, so it's ludicrous to complain about what I do,” but having to say “the same thing every day, every hour to people you've never met makes you feel like a phony, and it is the opposite of what a writer should be doing.”
Against her will, she has started to become a celebrity, which, oddly enough, is the subject of the next novel she's already started to write, The Autograph Man, about fame-obsessed autograph seekers.
“People want celebrity very much for you,” she says, but it's “a kind of Catch-22. I'm not really particularly famous, and I hope to keep it that way.”
That might be difficult with the kind of rave reviews her book has been getting. White Teeth is at the top of best-seller lists, including The Chronicle's.
“I do think that if we want writers to do what we want them to do,” she says, “we have to not treat them like pop stars.”
Her novel is about character, not polemics, but one thing it addresses is that multiculturalism, global assimilationism, is not going to go away. The Internet and the new global economy will see to that. “Absolutely,” Smith says, “but I also have great sympathy, and I hope it shows in the book, for people who don't feel this great steamroller, who are very much aligned to their religion and their state and their culture, and it's terrifying that everything else is moving along effectively without them.”
She says she doesn't know how it is in America, “but in England, class is very delicately delineated. It's not just about upper class and lower class but a myriad of things in between, and that makes for a lot of comedy. People aspire to things they are not, and people pretend to be lower class when they are not”—such as pop stars.
Smith grew up and still lives in Holborn, “at the very bottom of the hill” in North London, which can be very rich at the top, in Hampstead. She was reared by a single mother, with whom she lived until only a few weeks ago. Dot-commers and others with money are moving in, and she dreads her area becoming “a Notting Hill.”
She wrote White Teeth over a period of two years after completing her exams at Cambridge. “We have two wonderful virtues in England, a free health service and free education. I never paid a penny for any school I went to, ever. And no grants. Cambridge is free. Cambridge takes anybody who is smart enough to go.”
She has heard that it is no longer possible to get a free higher education in the United States without scholarships and loans. “What do you do here if you're poor and smart?” she inquires.
SOURCE: Smith, Zadie, and Lynell George. “Author Purposeful with Prose, Fidgety with Fame.” Los Angeles Times (26 June 2000): E1.
[In the following interview, Smith discusses the commercial and critical success of White Teeth, and addresses the common misconception that her novel is about race.]
Staring at the face of it, Zadie Smith is none too pleased.
She's not thrilled about all this hurtling back and forth across time, ocean and continents. Nor was she overjoyed to learn that she can't smoke in her Beverly Hills hotel room—or anywhere for that matter in this too sunny and strange take on a metropolis.
Nor is she happy to be caught—pinned and wriggling—at the center of curiosity's storm. Talking about herself, about her work, what it means—all this fuss of a book tour is testing not her mettle but her patience.
“It's just like holding your breath for two weeks and just not thinking about it. You can do anything for two weeks. You can be on a chain gang,” Smith announces, in one motion plopping her laptop on the hotel side table and cocking her head toward her friend and traveling companion, Margaret Loescher, who is documenting the trip on videotape—less as memento than as evidence.
Grim words from a woman whose expansive, joyous first novel, White Teeth, throws clever sparks and unexpected spikes of humor. The book takes a fresh look at life's many social intersections and collisions—racial, religious, generational—with a roll of the eyes or a knowing wink. Smith, however, is ingesting it all—and the subsequent onslaught—with caution.
Already, the 24-year-old north London native has been dubbed the literary heir to Charles Dickens, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie (who offered a glowing back-cover blurb). Her reviewers have, for the most part, found nary a nick in her prose.
Smith, however, possesses a bit of a bite. She's prickly as a blooming succulent—if you want to inspect the flower close up, do so with trepidation.
Her thorniness reads as impatience. It belies her casual exterior—the high-heel slides, low-slung faded jeans and slightly rumpled shirt. Even at rest, her entire countenance appears to fidget—as if constantly working to find a comfortable position in the tiny space allowed.
It's just that all of this is already a bit of a bore. And Los Angeles is just halfway through … the 13-city book tour. “I'm going to get online here,” she announces, after making a quick call to room service for smokes (thankfully, there is a balcony). “But carry on!”
Smith began White Teeth while a student at Cambridge. “I had a little spare time on my hands,” she explains, fingers flying across the laptop keypad. “Most of it must have been written just up to exams and after exams. …” It's just that, she clarifies, “my memories of that time are obscure.”
What emerges is that a publisher who had read a short story of hers asked her to come to see him when she had something more. She offered him some of the novel's early draft; he offered her a small sum. She was ready to accept until a friend suggested she find an agent.
She did. Shortly thereafter, the book sold at auction for about ＄400,000. Published in England in January (and here last month), White Teeth became an instant best-seller on the shoulders of its tremendous pomp. There is a BBC miniseries in the works. And Smith's bespectacled image has stared out from the newsprint of papers across the globe.
In a market where many first authors turn inward, Smith opens her arms wide, grabs at the universe. Spanning nearly 500 pages and 150 years, White Teeth chronicles, in a distinctly modern voice, the baroquely entwined lives of three unique families.
She moves eloquently from race and class to genetics, gender politics and pop culture—without hesitation or the heavy-handedness of the clunky “we are the world” morality tale. The book is much smarter than that.
But the wisdom many reviewers are extracting from it wasn't quite Smith's intent.
Setting her book in Willesden Green, a multiracial/multiethnic neighborhood in north London, explains Smith, “I wasn't trying to write about race. I was trying to write about the country I live in.”
It's Archibald Jones, her Everyman anchor protagonist, who, however, puts it best: “[Archie] kind of felt people should just live together, you know, in peace and harmony or something.” And it's that “or something,” that sense of offhandedness, that powers the book.
The neighborhood's network—the lyric clip of accents, the mosaic of personal histories—is the Technicolor of White Teeth. There is Archie, a white Londoner and “direct-mail specialist,” who, at first sight, falls head-over-heels for Clara, a 6-foot Jamaican and lapsed Jehovah's Witness. There is Samad Iqbal (Archie's old war pal), a proud and passionate Bangladeshi whose career path is as stunted as his war-withered hand. And there is Samad's wife, Alsana, who accessorizes her saris with running shoes and a kente headdress borrowed from Clara.
But their children—Irie Jones and the Iqbal twins Millat and Magid—find their lives becoming more enmeshed as they begin to carve out their identity. Not just as people of mixed race or expatriates, but as a complex amalgam reflecting London in the late 20th century.
This sophisticated, more inclusive point of view is what makes White Teeth a particularly fresh turn, says writer Nina Revoyr, author of A Necessary Hunger, a novel that eloquently explored those same cultural and racial intersections in Los Angeles.
“It's completely natural in her world that there are people of different colors, religions or sexual orientation. She's not colorblind, but she doesn't let race or religion obscure the fundamental humanity between them. There is no sense of tokenism. Her vision of the world includes all kinds of people. It's very clear to me that race isn't the subject, people are.”
This sense of fluidity, of life as a “social chameleon,” is what sets Smith apart from writers who write about race. Instead of looking at the skin, she's looked at the sidewalks, the streets, and has written about what proximity has created—good and bad, frustrating and functional. As the clear-eyed, pragmatic Alsana advises the dreamer Clara, Smith's tack with this book has been, “Look at the thing close-up.”
Those cultural collisions point up an issue often sidestepped—that the melting pot has long been an imperfect metaphor, and that constructing identity is less about shaving away (melting down) than it is about understanding how to “add on” and the complications implicit in that task.
Smith, who is biracial—her father is English, her mother Jamaican—doesn't spend a lot of time retracing the rules, so there is freshness and expansiveness to her vision. And the limit lines drawn around thinking make her fidgety.
“Race is obviously a part of the book, but I didn't sit down to write a book about race. The Rabbit books by [John] Updike,” Smith says, plucking up a prime example, “I could say that that is a book about race. It's a book about white people. It's exactly a book about race as mine is. It doesn't frustrate me. I just think that it is a bizarre attitude. So is [it that] a book that doesn't have exclusively white people in the main theme must be one about race? I don't understand that.”
Smith's work upsets the model, sends it crashing to the floor. Like authors Revoyr and Junot Diaz, a Dominican-born, New Jersey-raised writer whose 1996 sharp-focused collection of life-in-two-worlds short stories, Drown (Putnam), astonished the publishing world, Smith is expanding the frame.
As writers, says Diaz, “we are often used to maintain narratives that have nothing to do with us and obscure real problems. We are living a new terrible reality … one that not enough of us are tackling. In generating [a] new narrative, we will need to see our situation clearly.”
White Teeth doesn't celebrate the triumph of the individual, but rather what survives and blooms in collaboration—unwitting and otherwise. Her broad canvas challenges the narrow territory of the personal story. “I think that there is an absolute tyranny in modern culture about people's personal experience—that if you felt it, it must be important or real. I don't really care about people's personal experiences. My concern is in themes and ideas and images that I can tie together—problem-solving [from] other places and other worlds.”
It's in part why she's put off by all the commotion. She's concerned that personality—namely her personality—will overshadow the message, the work itself, when there is so much else at stake. “If people are fixated with me, they aren't going to get very far,” says Smith, “I'm not the commodity; the book is.”
This, says Diaz, who after the success of Drown also found himself derailed by the onslaught, “is where it gets tricky.” He understands the armor. “Writers … can fall to temptation. They can grow arrogant. They can lose the underdog edge that propelled them forward in the first place.”
It's important, says Diaz, always to keep in mind the climate and the context. “The European press and the U.S. press are far more eager to welcome a riotous book about immigrants than they are the immigrants themselves. … I believe that Ms. Smith's book is being viewed in much the same way as certain desirable immigrants are being viewed by the country in which they have arrived … as a welcome addition—just don't cause any trouble. … It's important for us artists and activists to short-circuit these attempts to hold us up as examples of things going well, when things are not going very well.”
Smith hasn't let much of it budge her off her course. And, if anything, all the fuss has only made her much more focused and self-protective. She just hopes that the messages embedded within White Teeth—cautionary as well as celebratory—shine through.
“But,” says Smith, with the first trace of a wry smile, “to speak personally for a moment … one of my most wishful things [is] … I'd love to speak the language of the [different] people who live [in London]. To be able to go inside a shop and order something and surprise the hell out of them! But you say that to some people in England it is like their worst nightmare—that anybody English should partake in a culture which they see as a kind of invasion …”
She pauses, considering the changing face of the world as she knows it, those serious eyes behind the spectacles locked in focus. “I don't see immigration as an invasion. … I see it as a gift. It's obviously a good thing that people spend more time in each other's lives. And anybody who doesn't think that is … well … it doesn't matter what they think because they are swimming against the tide anyway. And they're lost.”
SOURCE: Wood, James. “Human, All Too Inhuman.” New Republic 223, no. 4 (24 July 2000): 41–45.
[In the following review, Wood compares the verisimilitude of White Teeth with the standards for realism of contemporary fiction.]
A genre is hardening. It is becoming easy to describe the contemporary idea of the “big, ambitious novel.” Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: he is Dickens. Such recent novels as The Ground Beneath Her Feet,Mason & Dixon,Underworld,Infinite Jest, and now White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges. A landscape is disclosed—lively and varied and brightly marked, but riven by dead gullies.
The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence—as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs. Indeed, vitality is storytelling, as far as these books are concerned. If, say, a character is introduced in London, call him Toby Awknotuby (that is, “To be or not to be”—ha!) then we will be swiftly told that he has a twin in Delhi (called Boyt, which is an anagram of Toby, of course), who, like Toby, has the same very curious genital deformation, and that their mother belongs to a religious cult based, oddly enough, in the Orkney Islands, and that their father (who was born at the exact second that the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima) has been a Hell's Angel for the last thirteen years (but a very curious Hell's Angels group it is, devoted only to the fanatical study of late Wordsworth), and that Toby's mad left-wing aunt was curiously struck dumb when Mrs. Thatcher was elected prime minister in 1979 and has not spoken a word since. And all this, over many pages, before poor Toby Awknotuby has done a thing, or thought a thought!
Is this a caricature, really? Recent novels—veritable relics of St. Vitus—by Rushdie, Pynchon, DeLillo, Foster Wallace, and others, have featured a great rock musician who, when born, began immediately to play air guitar in his crib (Rushdie); a talking dog, a mechanical duck, a giant octagonal cheese, and two clocks having a conversation (Pynchon); a nun called Sister Edgar who is obsessed with germs and who may be a reincarnation of J. Edgar Hoover, and a conceptual artist painting retired B-52 bombers in the New Mexico desert (DeLillo); a terrorist group devoted to the liberation of Quebec called the Wheelchair Assassins, and a film so compelling that anyone who sees it dies (Foster Wallace). Zadie Smith's novel features, among other things: a terrorist Islamic group based in North London with a silly acronym (KEVIN), an animal-rights group called FATE, a Jewish scientist who is genetically engineering a mouse, a woman born during an earthquake in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1907; a group of Jehovah's Witnesses who think that the world is ending on December 31, 1992; and twins, one in Bangladesh and one in London, who both break their noses at about the same time.
This is not magical realism. It is hysterical realism. Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they structure and drive themselves on. The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked. Appropriately, then, objections are not made at the level of verisimilitude, but at the level of morality: this style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality—the usual charge against botched realism—but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself. It is not a cock-up, but a cover-up.
One is reminded of Kierkegaard's remark that travel is the way to avoid despair. For all these books share a bonhomous, punning, lively serenity of spirit. Their mode of narration seems to be almost incompatible with tragedy or anguish. Indeed, Underworld, the darkest of these books, carries within itself, in its calm profusion of characters and plots, its flawless carpet of fine prose on page after page, a soothing sense that it might never have to end, that another thousand or two thousand pages might easily be added. There are many enemies, seen and unseen, in Underworld, but silence is not one of them.
The optimism of all this “vitality” is shared by many readers, apparently. Again and again, one sees books such as these praised for being cabinets of wonders. Bright lights are taken as evidence of habitation. The mere existence of a giant cheese or a cloned mouse or several different earthquakes in a novel is seen as meaningful or wonderful, evidence of great imaginative powers. And this is because too often these features are mistaken for scenes, as if they constituted the movement or the toil or the pressure of the novel, rather than taken for what they are—props of the imagination, meaning's toys. The existence of vitality is mistaken for the drama of vitality.
What are these stories evading? One of the awkwardnesses evaded is precisely an awkwardness about the possibility of novelistic storytelling. This in turn has to do with an awkwardness about character and the representation of character. Stories, after all, are generated by human beings, and it might be said that these recent novels are full of inhuman stories, whereby that phrase is precisely an oxymoron, an impossibility, a wanting it both ways. By and large, these are not stories that could never happen (as, say, a thriller is often something that could never happen); rather, they clothe real people who could never actually endure the stories that happen to them. They are not stories in which people defy the laws of physics (obviously, one could be born in an earthquake); they are stories which defy the laws of persuasion. This is what Aristotle means when he says that in storytelling “a convincing impossibility” (say, a man levitating) is always preferable to “an unconvincing possibility” (say, the possibility that a fundamentalist group in London would continue to call itself KEVIN). And what above all makes these stories unconvincing is precisely their very profusion, their relatedness. One cult is convincing; three cults are not.
Novels, after all, turn out to be delicate structures, in which one story judges the viability, the actuality, of another. Yet it is the relatedness of these stories that their writers seem most to cherish, and to propose as an absolute value. An endless web is all they need for meaning. Each of these novels is excessively centripetal. The different stories all intertwine, and double and triple on themselves. Characters are forever seeing connections and links and plots, and paranoid parallels. (There is something essentially paranoid about the belief that everything is connected to everything else.)
These novelists proceed like street-planners of old in South London: they can never name a street Ruskin Street without linking a whole block, and filling it with Carlyle Street, and Turner Street, and Morris Street, and so on. Near the end of White Teeth, one of the characters, Irie Jones, has sex with one of the twins, called Millat; but then rushes round to see the other twin, called Magid, to have sex with him only moments after. She becomes pregnant; and she will never know which twin impregnated her. But it is really Smith's hot plot which has had its way with her. In Underworld, everything and everyone is connected in some way to paranoia and to the nuclear threat. The Ground Beneath Her Feet suggests that a deep structure of myth, both Greek and Indian, binds all the characters together. And White Teeth ends with a clashing finale, in which all the novel's characters—most of whom are now dispersed between various cults and fanatical religious groups—head toward the press conference which the scientist, Marcus Chalfen, is delivering in London, to announce the successful cloning of his mouse.
Alas, since the characters in these novels are not really alive, not fully human, their connectedness can only be insisted on. Indeed, the reader begins to think that it is being insisted on precisely because they do not really exist. Life is never experienced with such a fervid intensity of connectedness. After all, hell is other people, actually: real humans disaggregate more often than they congregate. So these novels find themselves in the paradoxical position of enforcing connections that are finally conceptual rather than human. The forms of these novels tell us that we are all connected—by the Bomb (DeLillo), or by myth (Rushdie), or by our natural multiracial multiplicity (Smith); but it is a formal lesson rather an actual enactment.
An excess of storytelling has become the contemporary way of shrouding, in majesty, a lack; it is the Sun King principle. That lack is the human. All these contemporary deformations flow from a crisis that is not only the fault of the writers concerned, but is now of some lineage: the crisis of character, and how to represent it in fiction. Since modernism, many of the finest writers have been offering critique and parody of the idea of character, in the absence of convincing ways to return to an innocent mimesis. Certainly, the characters who inhabit the big, ambitious contemporary novels have a showy liveliness, a theatricality, that almost succeeds in hiding the fact that they are without life: liveliness hangs off them like jewelry.
This is less true of Zadie Smith than of Rushdie; her principal characters move in and out of human depth. Sometimes they seem to provoke her sympathy, at other times they are only externally comic. But watch what she does with one of the many bit-parts in this large and inventive book. Smith is describing the founder of KEVIN, the fundamentalist Islamic group based in North London. She tells us that he was born Monty Clyde Benjamin in Barbados in 1960, “the son of two poverty-stricken barefoot Presbyterian dypsomaniacs,” and converted to Islam at the age of fourteen. At eighteen, he fled Barbados for Riyadh, where he studied the Koran at Al-Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University. He was five years there, but he became disillusioned with the teaching, and returned to England in 1984. In Birmingham, he
locked himself in his aunt's garage and spent five more years in there, with only the Qur'an and the fascicles of Endless Bliss for company. He took his food in through the cat-flap, deposited his shit and piss in a Coronation biscuit tin and passed it back out the same way, and did a thorough routine of press-ups and sit-ups to prevent muscular atrophy. The Selly Oak Reporter wrote regular bylines on him during this period, nicknaming him ‘The Guru in the Garage’ (in view of the large Birmingham Muslim population, this was thought preferable to the press-desk favoured suggestion, ‘The Loony in the Lock-Up’) and had their fun interviewing his bemused aunt, one Carlene Benjamin, a devoted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Clearly, Smith does not lack for powers of invention. The problem is that there is too much of it. The passage might stand, microcosmically, for the novel's larger dilemma of storytelling: on its own, almost any of these details (except perhaps the detail about passing the shit and piss through the cat-flap) might be persuasive. Together, they vandalize each other: the Presbyterian dypsomaniacs and the Mormon aunt make impossible the reality of the fanatical Muslim. As realism, it is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic; and anyway, we are not led toward the consciousness of a truly devoted religionist. It is all shiny externality, all caricature.
It might be argued that literature has only very rarely represented character. Even the greatest novelists, such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, resort to stock caricature, didactic speaking over characters, repetitive leitmotifs, and so on. The truly unhostaged writer, such as Chekhov, is rare. Buddenbrooks, a beautiful novel written by a writer only a year older than Zadie Smith, makes plentiful use of the leitmotif, as a way of affixing signatures to different characters. (Yet how those tagged characters live!) Less great but very distinguished writers indulge in the kind of unreal, symbolic vitality now found in the contemporary novel—consider the autodidact in Sartre's Nausea, who is somewhat unbelievably working his way alphabetically through an entire library, or Grand, the writer in The Plague, who somewhat unbelievably writes the first line of his novel over and over again.
Dickens, of course, is the great master of the leitmotif. Many of Dickens's characters are, as Forster rightly put it, flat but vibrating very fast. They are vivid blots of essence. They are souls seen only through thick, gnarled casings. Their vitality is a histrionic one. Dickens has been the overwhelming influence on postwar fiction, especially postwar British fiction. There is hardly a writer who has not been touched by him: Angus Wilson and Muriel Spark, Martin Amis's robust gargoyles, Rushdie's outsize characters, the intensely theatrical Anglea Carter, the Naipaul of A House for Mr. Biswas, V. S. Pritchett's cocky salesmen, and now Zadie Smith. In America, Bellow's genius for grotesquerie and for vivid external description owes something to Dickens. And what is Underworld but an old-fashioned Dickensian novel like Bleak House, with an ambition to describe all of society on its different levels?
One obvious reason for the popularity of Dickens among contemporary novelists is that his way of creating and propelling theatrically alive characters offers an easy model for writers unable, or unwilling, to create characters who are fully human. Dickens's world seems to be populated by vital simplicities. He shows a novelist how to get a character launched, if not how to keep him afloat, and this glittering liveliness is simply easier to copy, easier to figure out, than the recessed and deferred complexities of, say, Henry James's character-making. Put bluntly, Dickens makes caricature respectable for an age in which, for various reasons, it has become hard to create character. Dickens licenses the cartoonish, coats it in the surreal, or even the Kafkaesque (the Circumlocution Office). Indeed, to be fair to contemporary novelist's, Dickens shows that a large part of characterization is merely the management of caricature.
Yet that is not all there is in Dickens, which is why most contemporary novelists are only his morganatic heirs. There is in Dickens also an immediate access to strong feeling, which rips the puppetry of his people, breaks their casings, and lets us enter them. Mr. Micawber may be a caricature, a simple, univocal essence, but he feels, and he makes us feel. One recalls that very passionate and simple sentence, in which David Copperfield tells us: “Mr. Micawber was waiting for me within the gate, and we went up to his room, and cried very much.” It is difficult to find a single moment like that in all the many thousands of pages of the big, ambitious, contemporary books—difficult to imagine the possibility of such a sentence ever occurring amid the coils of knowingness and the latest information.
It is now customary to read 700-page novels, to spend hours and hours within a fictional world, without experiencing anything really affecting, sublime, or beautiful. Which is why one never wants to re-read a book such as The Ground Beneath Her Feet, while Madame Bovary is faded by our repressings. This is partly because some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist's quarries any more. Information has become the new character. It is this, and the use made of Dickens, that connects DeLillo and the reportorial Tom Wolfe, despite the literary distinction of the former and the cinematic vulgarity of the latter.
So it suffices to make do with vivacious caricatures, whose deeper justification arises—if it ever arises—from their immersion in a web of connections. Zadie Smith has said, in an interview, that her concern is with “ideas and themes that I can tie together—problem-solving from other places and worlds.” It is not the writer's job, she says, “to tell us how somebody felt about something, it's to tell us how the world works.” Citing David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers, she comments: “these are guys who know a great deal about the world. They understand macro-microeconomics, the way the Internet works, math, philosophy, but … they're still people who know something about the street, about family, love, sex, whatever. That is an incredibly fruitful combination. If you can get the balance right. And I don't think any of us have quite yet, but hopefully one of us will.”
That is gently, modestly put. And to give Smith her considerable due, she may be more likely to “get the balance right” than any of her contemporaries—in part just because she sees that a balance is needed, and in part because she is very talented and still very young. At her best, she approaches her characters and makes them human; she is much more interested in this, and more naturally gifted at it, than is Rushdie. For a start, her minor Dickensian caricatures and grotesques, the petty filaments of this big book, often glow. Here, for instance, is a school headmaster, a small character who flares and dies within a few pages—but Smith captures his physical essence surely: “The headmaster of Glenard Oak was in a continual state of implosion. His hairline had gone out and stayed out like a determined tide, his eye sockets were deep, his lips had been sucked backwards into his mouth, he had no body to speak of, or rather he folded what he had into a small, twisted package, sealing it with a pair of crossed arms and crossed legs.” This conjures a recognizable type, and indeed a recognizable English type, always in the process of withdrawing or disappearing—as Smith's highly Dickensian image suggests, always mailing himself out of the room.
Smith, as Rushdie has said, is “astonishingly assured.” About her, one is tempted to apply Orwell's remark that Dickens had rotten architecture but great gargoyles. The architecture is the essential silliness of her lunge for multiplicities—her cults and cloned mice and Jamaican earthquakes. Formally, her book lacks moral seriousness. But her details are often instantly convincing, both funny and moving. They justify themselves. She tells the story, essentially, of two families, the Joneses and the Iqbals. Archie Jones is married to a Jamaican woman, Clara Bowden, and is the father of Irie. He fought in the Second World War, as a teenager, alongside Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslim from Bangladesh. The two men have been friends for thirty years, and now live near each other in North London. This is a bustling, desolate area, full of velvet-lined Indian restaurants and yeasty pubs and unclean laundromats. Smith bouncily captures its atmosphere. Any street in this region will include, “without exception”:
one defunct sandwich bar still advertising breakfast
one locksmith uninterested in marketing frills (KEYS CUT HERE)
and one permanently shut unisex hair salon, the proud bearer of some unspeakable pun (Upper Cuts or Fringe Benefits or Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow).
Samad's wife Alsana is an engaging creation. She earns a living sewing leather garments, at home, that are bound “for a shop called Domination in Soho.” Samad is a waiter at a restaurant in central London, an intelligent man, frustrated by his foolish occupation; and a moral man, frustrated by the lax country he lives in. He spends much of the novel in a fury—he is, precisely, a caricature more than a character—about England and English secularism. He is determined that his twin sons, Millat and Magid, will grow up in the ways of the Koran. But Millat, at least initially, has joined a tough street gang, who speak “a strange mix of Jamaican patois, Bengali, Gujurati and English,” and hangs out on streets populated by “Becks, B-boys, Indie kids, wide-boys, ravers, rude-boys, Acidheads, Sharons, Tracies, Kevs, Nation Brothers, Raggas and Pakis.” (Such an inventory is what Smith means by bringing us the information. But this crocodile of youths has a use-by date inside it: Colin MacInnes brought us the information about the London of the 1950s in Absolute Beginners, and where is that novel? At an absolute end.) Millat's brother, Magid, is a scientific rationalist, and apparently no more interested in Islam than his brother. But his father decides to send Magid, the better student, back to Bangladesh, for a safely religious education. The plan backfires, of course.
When Smith is writing well, she seems capable of a great deal. At several moments, for example, she proves herself skilled at interior monologue, and brilliant, in other passages, at free indirect style:
‘Oh Archie, you are funny,’ said Maureen sadly, for she had always fancied Archie a bit but never more than a bit because of this strange way he had about him, always talking to Pakistanis and Caribbeans like he didn't even notice and now he'd gone and married one and hadn't even thought it worth mentioning what colour she was until the office dinner when she turned up black as anything and Maureen almost choked on her prawn cocktail.
One of the novel's best chapters is a gently satirical portrait of the Chalfen family, middle-class North London Jewish intellectuals of impeccable smugness, with whom Millat, Magid, and Irie become involved. (One of the Chalfen sons, Joshua, attends Glenard Oak school with the Jones and Iqbal children.) There is Marcus Chalfen, busy with his genetic experiments, and his wife, Joyce, who writes about gardening. She lives the politically unexamined life of the liberal who is sure that she is right about everything. Even her gardening books encode her bien-pensées about the importance of hybridity. Smith funnily invents a long passage from one of them: “In the garden, as in the social and political arena, change should be the only constant. … It is said cross-pollinating plants also tend to produce more and better-quality seeds.”
Yet this same Joyce cannot help exclaiming, when Millat and Iris first appear in her house, about the delightful novelty of having “brown strangers” in the house. By mocking the Chalfens, even gently, Smith works against the form of her own novel, and guards against a Rushdie-like orthodoxy about the worship of hybridity. Here Smith evinces an important negative capability which she promptly deforms by inserting a needless little lecture into the same chapter: “This has been the century of strangers, brown, yellow and white. This has been the century of the great immigrant experiment.” Still, these are rare lapses. Far more powerful than such announcements on the authorial Tannoy is a lovely moment when Marcus Chalfen puts his arms around his adored wife (the two are devoted, if a little complacently, to each other), “like a gambler collecting his chips in circled arms,” whereupon the fifteen-year-old Irie, whose parents are much less communicative, thinks “of her own parents, whose touches were now virtual, existing only in the absences where both sets of fingers had previously been: the remote control, the biscuit tin, the light switches.”
Smith is a frustrating writer, for she has a natural comic gift, and yet is willing to let passages of her book descend into cartoonishness and a kind of itchy, restless extremism. Here, for instance, is her description of O'Connell's, a bar and café where Archie and Samad have been regulars for many years. Comically, it is run by a family of Iraqis, “the many members of which share a bad skin condition,” but it has kept its Irish name, and various Irish accoutrements. It is where, we are told, Archie and Samad have talked about everything, including women:
Hypothetical women. If a woman walked past the yolk-stained window of O'Connell's (a woman had never been known to venture inside) they would smile and speculate—depending on Samad's religious sensibilities that evening—on matters as far reaching as whether one would kick her out of bed in a hurry, to the relative merits of stockings or tights, and then on, inevitably, to the great debate: small breasts (that stand up) vs big breasts (that flop to the sides). But there was never any question of real women, real flesh and blood and wet and sticky women. Not until now. And so the unprecedented events of the past few months called for an earlier O'Connell's summit than usual. Samad had finally phoned Archie and confessed the whole terrible mess: he had cheated, he was cheating. … Archie had been silent for a bit, and then said, ‘Bloody hell. Four o'clock it is, then. Bloody hell.’ He was like that, Archie. Calm in a crisis.
But come 4:15 and still no sign of him, a desperate Samad had chewed every fingernail he possessed to the cuticle and collapsed on the counter, nose squished up against the hot glass where the battered burgers were kept, eye to eye with a postcard showing the eight different local charms of County Antrim.
Mickey, chef, waiter and proprietor, who prided himself on knowing each customer's name and knowing when each customer was out of sorts, prised Samad's face off the hot glass with an egg slice.
This kind of writing is closer to a low and unliterary “comic” style than it ought to be. It has a pertness, but it squanders itself in a mixture of banality and crudity. And unlike many passages in the book, it cannot shelter behind the excuse that it is being written from within the mind of a particular character. This is Smith as narrator, as writer. Yet nothing we know about Samad (and nothing we later learn, incidentally) convinces us that Smith is telling the truth when she tells us that this hot-headed Muslim sat talking about women's breasts; the topic seems, instead, to have been chosen by Smith from a catalogue of clichés called “Things Men Talk About in Bars.” And then there is the extremism of the language: Samad is not just anxious, but has bitten his fingers down to the cuticles, and has to be “prised” off the counter “with an egg slice.” It seems only a step from here to exploding condoms and the like. The language is oddly thick-fingered, and stubs itself into the vernacular: that juvenile verb “squished,” for instance. It comports bewilderingly with sentences and passages elsewhere that are precise and sculpted.
The first half of Smith's novel is strikingly better-written than the second half, which seems hasty, the prose and wild plots bucking along in messy harnesses. Just as the quality of the writing undulates, sometimes from page to page, so Smith seems unable to decide exactly the depth of her commitment to the revelation of character. Samad offers a good example. Overall, he must be accounted a caricature, complete with Indian malapropisms and Indian (or Bengali) “temperament,” for he has, really, only the one dimension, his angry defence of Islam. Still, every so often Smith's prose opens out into little holidays from caricature, apertures through which we see Samad tenderly, and see his frustrations, such as the restaurant he works in: “From six in the evening until three in the morning; and then every day was spent asleep, until daylight was as rare as a decent tip. For what's the point, Samad would think, pushing aside two mints and a receipt to find fifteen pence, what is the point of tipping a man the same amount you would throw in a fountain to chase a wish.”
This is breathtaking, and peers into a depth of yearning: it is very fine to link the tip to money thrown into a well, and to link both to Samad's large desires. One wonders if Smith knows how good it is. For it is bewildering when, thirty pages later, she seems to leave Samad's interior, and watch him from the outside, satirically (and rather crudely). She is describing Samad's and Archie's war experiences, and the moment they first met. The tone wavers drastically around the mock-heroic. Archie has been staring at Samad, and Samad, all of nineteen, malapropistically demands: “My friend, what is it you find so darned mysterious about me that it has you in such constant revelries? … Is it that you are doing some research into wireless operators or are you just in a passion over my arse?” We seem to be in the world of cartoons again.
Forty pages later, Smith has a funny passage about Samad trying and failing to resist the temptation of masturbation. Samad becomes, for a while, an enthusiastic masturbator, on the arrangement (with Allah) that if he masturbates, he must fast, as recompense: “this in turn … led to the kind of masturbation that even a fifteen-year-old boy living in the Shetlands might find excessive. His only comfort was that he, like Roosevelt, had made a New Deal: he was going to beat but he wasn't going to eat.” As in the passage about O'Connell's, the question is one of voice. Again, Smith is not writing from inside Samad's head here; the sophomoric comparison to a boy in the Shetlands is hers. So what is going on? The reference to the New Deal is hopelessly misplaced, and merely demonstrates the temptation that this kind of writing cannot resist, of bringing in any kind of allusion. And what of that phrase, “he was going to beat but he wasn't going to eat”? “Beat” is not Samad's word; he would never use it. It is Smith's word, and in using it she not only speaks over her character, she reduces him, obliterates him.
And so it goes on, in a curious shuffle of sympathy and distance, affiliation and divorce, brilliance and cartoonishness, astonishing maturity and ordinary puerility. White Teeth is a big book, and does not deal in fractions: when it excites, and when it frustrates, it “o'erflows the measure.” Indeed, its size tests itself, for one reason it disappoints has partly to do with the fact that it becomes clear that over the length of the book Smith's stories will develop, and develop wildly, but her characters will not develop at all. Yes, Smith's characters change; they change opinions, and change countries. Millat, once an urban rapper, becomes a fundamentalist terrorist; Joshua Chalfen, once a rationalist and loyal son of his scientist father, becomes an animal-rights freak. Yet whenever these people change their minds, there is always a kind of awkwardness in the text, a hiatus, and the change itself is always rapidly asserted, usually within a paragraph or two. It as if the novel were deciding at these moments whether to cast depths on its shallows, and deciding against.
Which way will the ambitious contemporary novel go? Will it dare a picture of life, or just shout a spectacle? White Teeth contains both kinds of writing. Near the end, an instructive squabble occurs between these two literary modes. The scene is the conference room, where Marcus Chalfen is delivering the news about the mouse. All of the book's major characters are present. Irie Jones is pregnant, and for a while we inhabit her mind, and her drifting thoughts. She looks from Millat to Magid, and cannot decide which twin is the father of her child. But she stops worrying, because Smith breaks in, excitedly, to tell us that “Irie's child can never be mapped exactly nor spoken of with any certainty. Some secrets are permanent. In a vision, Irie has seen a time, a time not far from now, when roots won't matter any more because they can't because they mustn't because they're too long and they're too tortuous and they're just buried too damn deep. She looks forward to it.”
Yet it is Smith who made Irie, most improbably, have sex with both brothers, and it is Smith who decided that Irie, most improbably, has stopped caring who is the father. It is quite clear that a general message about the need to escape roots is more important than Irie's reality, what she might actually think, her consciousness. A character has been sacrificed for what Smith called, in that interview, “ideas and themes that I can tie together—problem-solving from other places and worlds.” This is problem-solving, all right. But at what cost? As Irie disappears under the themes and ideas, the reader perhaps thinks wistfully of Mr. Micawber and David Copperfield, so uncovered by theme and idea, so uninsured, weeping together in an upstairs room.
SOURCE: Mathias, Anita. “View from the Margins.” Commonweal 127, no. 14 (11 August 2000): 27–28.
[In the following review, Mathias offers a positive assessment of White Teeth.]
So-called multicultural literature in many ways extends the enterprise of the early feminist writers: “the custodians of the world's best-kept secret: / Merely the private lives of one-half of humanity,” as Carolyn Kizer put it. In this first novel, Zadie Smith, the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant to Britain, continues the enterprise of giving us the view from the margins, as she sweeps Jamaican and Bangladeshi immigrants into mainstream literature in English. For a rambunctious and quirky take on our modern cities in their color and diversity, the melting pot simmering and boiling, we could do worse than turn to the dark eyes, pressed against the window, eyeing the party within with wistfulness and scorn.
White Teeth is the saga of World War II buddies, Archibald Jones—a self-effacing Englishman “whose significance in the Greater Scheme of Things could be figured along familiar ratios: Pebble: Beach. Raindrop: Ocean. Needle: Haystack”—and Samad Iqbal—a Bangladeshi torn between Allah, alcohol, and women. Archie marries Clara, an attractive Jamaican (and as a consequence is no longer invited to company banquets). Samad's marriage is arranged to Alsana, who can kick and punch her husband with a ferocity that matches his own; her in-laws speculate that her family has “some funny mental history.”
The children of these two couples, Irie Jones, and the twins, Millat and Magid Iqbal, are strangers in a strange land. Irie Jones (whose name means, in patois, “everything OK, cool, peaceful”), battles with “the bird's nest of her hair,” and her weight: her body has “brown bulges for children, bags of fruit, buckets of water, ledges genetically designed with another country in mind.”
Magid Iqbal, a freak genius, “given a glorious name like Magid Mahfooz Murshed Iqbal,” wants instead to be called Mark Smith, and attend the Harvest Festival at school “like some wood sprite,” instead of accompanying his father to Mecca. “It's not fair. I can't go on haj. I've got to go to school. I don't have time to go to Mecca. It's not fair.” Magid is returned to Bangladesh “to be brought up proper” by his grandparents, where he eerily turns, in a twist of poetic justice, into Macaulay's “brown-skinned Englishmen, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” He returns seeing God “in the millionth position of pi, in the arguments of the Phaedrus, in a perfect paradox. And what more is God than that?”
Meanwhile Magid's twin, handsome Millat Iqbal, is trouble, an exemplar of the predicted decline and fall of Western civilization. After continual scrapes with white women and authority, Millat finds his clan in KEVIN, Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation, militant immigrants with “an acronym problem,” hate and anger and revenge seething beneath the shibboleths of orthodoxy.
This edgy, hip, funny novel does for today's London what Salman Rushdie did for Bombay in Midnight's Children, or Dickens and Thackeray did for their more homogeneous city. We meet, skewered on Zadie Smith's Bosch-like canvas, Indian lesbian feminists, topless hippies in a commune, and teenagers wriggling in anomie and angst. Much of the plot hinges on the cultural and generational conflicts that spiral when their school's at-risk program subjects Millat Iqbal and Irie Jones to being mentored by the third family at the nucleus of the book, the liberal Jewish Chalfens. When Marcus Chalfen, an eminent scientist, seeks to patent his genetically engineered FutureMouse, the many groups on the loony fringe of this panoramic novel—black Jehovah's Witnesses, Islamic fundamentalists, radical animal rights activists—converge in outrage.
Smith limns the sadness of the immigrant experience in which, for the first generation, dreams steadily shrivel. Samad Iqbal, who becomes a waiter after the war, wants desperately to wear a placard saying, “I am not a waiter. I have been a student, a scientist, a soldier.” And in the background, always, is the mist of racism, overt or covert: “the oldest sentence in the world, ‘if you ask me, they should all go back to their own. …’”
Smith attributes the range of her characters to “Books, books, books.” She is certainly familiar with the multicultural canon, the best thing to emerge from the rapacity and crimes of slavery and colonialism. Her characters cut their teeth on The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the books of Alice Walker. They burn Rushdie's Satanic Verses. Samad owes something to Michael Ondaatje's (The English Patient) Indian soldiers fighting in Europe during World War II. We encounter twins forcibly cleft by the corrupt older generation as in Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. The sprawling novel covers Smith's life, commencing in 1975, the year of her birth, a device borrowed from Rushdie who set Midnight's Children in 1947, the year of his birth.
White Teeth is technically inventive, a refreshing original. Its exuberant high jinks can remind one of Rushdie's pyrotechnics. Smith captures the dialogue of London's contemporary tribes. “The F-word acts like padding to him; he can't help it; it's just a filler like beans or peas,” she explains. Her relentless sly wit, however, can be wearing and remind you that Smith is only twenty-five. Many of her characters are flat, one-dimensional, almost caricatures, their inner lives reduced to blurbs. Samad Iqbal: “Can't say fairer than that. To the pure all things are pure.” Millat Iqbal: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” I think of Hieronymus Bosch again. The novel ends with a bang, the major characters unsatisfyingly and irritatingly freeze-framed in medias res.
In the end, Smith is no Rushdie, or Toni Morrison. Compared to their iridescent prose and inventive, anguished meditations on history, love, evil, and God, White Teeth is slight. Smith, however, is something of a multicultural Garrison Keillor, and her snappy novel is delightful, hilarious, and interesting, a good companion for what remains of these hammock and deck chair days.
SOURCE: Moseley, Merritt. “The Modern World.” World & I 15, no. 9 (September 2000): 220.
[In the following review, Moseley assesses the depth and maturity of White Teeth, comparing Smith's sympathy for her characters and the role of her narrator to the similar traits of nineteenth-century English novelist George Eliot.]
Samad Iqbal, one of two central characters in White Teeth, Zadie Smith's remarkable debut novel, is a troubled man. He is troubled by his children, by his place in a multicultural Britain, by his inability to be the kind of good Muslim he wants himself (and others) to be. As he thinks to himself, “To the pure, all things are pure.” But who is pure? This question may be said to be at the heart of White Teeth. The first fact that will strike most readers is the multiracial texture of the novel. There are no pure English anymore. Samad's wife, Alsana, tells him that “you go back and back and back and it's still easier to find the correct Hoover bag than to find one pure person, one pure faith, on the globe.” Purity and its challenges go deeper than race and include the sexual, the religious, and the ideological.
White Teeth is one of the most assured first novels in many years. Its author has bypassed the usual pattern for first novels—a short, self-absorbed story about a young person's development into the book's author—in favor of a much more mature and absorbing book, full of narrative interest. It is a “condition of England novel,” in a way, but the social critic never subdues the storyteller. The book centers on three families in north London. Samad, a Muslim Bengali, and his much younger wife, who comes to him through an arranged marriage, have twin sons, Magid and Millat. Samad's lifelong friend (they served together in World War II), Archie Jones, is married to Afro-Caribbean Clara Bowden; they have one daughter, Irie. Halfway through the book the second generation—Magid, Millat, and Irie—become involved with the Chalfens, Marcus and Joyce, middle-class, Jewish, and educated, and their children, particularly son Joshua.
IMMIGRANTS AND RACE
A fair consideration of Smith's achievement is difficult to arrive at. One has to negotiate the enormous interest in who and what she is to recognize what she has accomplished. Because Smith is herself a mixed-race Briton writing about immigrants and race, reviewers want to appoint her spokesperson for Britons of color. While refreshingly undoctrinaire, White Teeth includes much on the subject. One memorable passage explains that
this has been the century of strangers, brown, yellow, and white. This has been the century of the great immigrant experiment. It is only this late in the day that you can walk into a playground and find Isaac Leung by the fish pond, Danny Rahman in the football cage, Quang O'Rourke bouncing a basketball, and Irie Jones humming a tune. Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checkups. It is only this late in the day, and possibly only in Willesden, that you can find best friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because Sita is white (her mother liked the name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best—less trouble). Yet, despite all the mixing up, despite the fact that we have finally slipped into each other's lives with reasonable comfort (like a man returning to his lover's bed after a midnight walk), despite all this, it is still hard to admit that there is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English.
The immigrant experience as reflected by her characters is hardly idyllic, but neither is it harrowing. The most color-blind character in the novel is Archie Jones, who is also the only WASP. His best friend and mentor is Samad, his Bengali mate from the tank squadron. Archie falls in love with the teenaged Clara, a Jamaican Jehovah's Witness, and he spends much of his time (with Samad) in O'Connell's, an “Irish” pub actually owned by Abdul-Mickey, a Muslim whose resistance to assimilation consists of refusing to serve pork and displaying fragments of the Qur'an on the walls of the pub. There are occasional racist incidents, it is true; Samad has fought a white supremacist in O'Connell's, and Archie has a cross-purposes conversation with his employer, Kelvin Hero. Blustering about Archie's strange attitude and the awkwardness of dining with Clara, who is “a bit of a boogie,” Hero smoothly disinvites the Joneses from a company dinner. Fortunately, Archive is not very penetrating and takes no offense, instead congratulating himself on the food coupons Hero offers him as compensation.
Some of the English, then, are uneasy about immigration—Hero says “it's like Delhi in Euston every Monday morning”—but so are the immigrants. Samad is a proud and touchy man. Trained as an engineer in Bengal, he has to settle for a low-paid job as a waiter in London (as his son contemptuously says, he is a “curry-shifter”). His own apostasy from the Islam he wants to value torments him. Guilt caused by his overmastering attraction to his sons' pretty red-haired music teacher causes him to send one of them, Magid, back to Bangladesh to be reared as a devout Muslim and potential imam. His gesture for purity works no better than many others in this story; Magid becomes a Western, scientistic infidel, while the twin who stays home, Millat, joins a squad of Islamic militant youths who burn The Satanic Verses and practice cultural intimidation.
The counterpart of white racism is white fascination with the Other. This stance is embodied in Joyce Chalfen, whose protectiveness toward Millat and, later, Magid—whether motivated by liberal guilt or the sexual attraction the smoldering Millat exercises effortlessly over females—shades over from taking an interest in a schoolmate of her children to housing him, making excuses for him, and even neglecting her own family for him.
PATERNITY, PATRIMONY, AND PATRIOTISM
Questions of paternity, patrimony, and patriotism occupy much of Smith's novel. Samad is proud of—almost everyone else, including his family, would say obsessed with—his great-grandfather Mangal Pande, who, he claims, rebelled against the British and is thus “the founder of modern India.” Like many of the other “facts” of late-twentieth-century life, this appears questionable on grounds of both historical accuracy and relevance. If Samad is unable to know his ancestor reliably, he has the same problem with his children and they with him. And this pattern is repeated in the next generation, as Irie, when the novel draws to a close, is expecting a child. Neither she nor the reader knows who the father is, but another racial permutation will clearly be introduced into Willesden Green. Life is already complicated enough there. Samad cries to a more comfortably assimilated Indian, “I don't wish to be a modern man! I wish to live as I was always meant to! I wish to return to the East! … Willesden Green! Visiting cards in sweetshop windows, Judy Blume in the school, condom on the pavement, Harvest Festival, teacher-temptress!”
Smith echoes the theme of fatherhood and heritage in the scientific realm. Marcus Chalfen is an experimental biologist who is working on—manufacturing, really—a genetically modified FutureMouse, which will be interesting, useful to researchers, but doomed to die of diseases programmed into its genes. All the novel's significant characters, acting for their own reasons, oppose Chalfen. There are Jehovah's Witnesses who object to man playing God, Islamic militants who agree that he is questioning the rightness of God's creation, and animal rights sympathizers; there is his son, who resents him for more traditional family reasons, and various Joneses and Iqbals, who also have mixed motives. From across London they come to the grand revelation of the supermouse. This climactic scene, which is set on the last night of the millennium and links up with Archie's and Samad's war experiences, is overdetermined and melodramatic and the only real false note in White Teeth. Still, it weaves together Smith's themes in a meaningful way.
I seem to have been writing about this book as if it were primarily of sociological or philosophical interest, its author a sage rather than an artist. It is a novel of ideas, and Smith is unafraid of authoritative commentary. But it is as a novelist that she shines. There is a large and complex plot here, tracing two or three generations of three families, covering 50 years of modern Western life and 150 years of Eastern history. It is held together by narrative urgency and several repeated motifs, including not only patrimony but, more daringly and successfully, teeth.
SMITH'S VIVID CHARACTERS
The author creates many vivid characters. She writes in all sorts of voices, hilariously sometimes. Her aging Jamaican Jehovah's Witness (“Some people … have done such a hol' heap of sinning, it late for dem to be making eyes at Jehovah. It take effort to be close to Jehovah. It take devotion and dedication. … Isn't dat right, Darcus?”) is as pungent and true as her account of the young Millat, speaking with the Jamaican accent that all the kids, whatever their nationality, employ to express scorn:
“I tax dat,” he said, pointing out an admittedly impressive small, shiny, red MG about to turn the corner. “And dat!” he cried, getting there just before Magid as a BMW whizzed past. “Man, you know I tax that,” he said to Magid, who offered no dispute. “Blatantly.”
Her world is full of men and women who, if only briefly, flare into vivid existence. The waiters in Samad's restaurant; two elderly black men perpetually grumbling and playing cards in O'Connell's; Mo Hussein-Ishmael, the butcher who saves Archie's life because when he tries to kill himself with the exhaust of his car he parks it in Mo's loading zone; the Indian boys who join Millat in the unfortunately named KEVIN (Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation); and Alsana's overly assimilated relative Neena, or Niece of Shame: All are alive in these pages.
A number of reviewers have linked Smith with Salman Rushdie, who gave her novel a strong recommendation. But, for all that both are ambitious novelists who write densely about matters including the life of immigrants in twentieth-century Britain, it is hard to see where the resemblance lies. Smith's powerful and personal style is not that of Rushdie, which is baroque and self-indulgent. The novelist she reminds me of most is George Eliot, in at least two powerful ways.
One is Smith's sympathy for the people she writes about. Eliot wrote to enlarge her reader's sympathies, and, whether Smith set out on the same mission, her novel has that effect. Though White Teeth is not a satire, there are satirical parts, invariably moved by a humane and liberal acceptance of the characters. Every one of them has some ridiculous trait; each has some dignity or aspiration, some essential human worthwhileness. They all have something interesting (and sometimes right) to say, even when they disagree. Millat and Magid become almost opposite figures, but we are forbidden to conclude that one is finally right and the other wrong. Alsana, for much of the novel a perplexed, not terribly smart woman nagging her husband, speaks up against intolerance when her son and his friends are burning The Satanic Verses (which none has read). She burns all of Millat's “secular stuff”—including his sneakers, his rap music, all the paraphernalia of his “Raggastani” lifestyle—on a pyre in her garden.
“Everyone has to be taught a lesson,” Alsana had said, lighting the match with heavy heart some hours earlier. “Either everything is sacred or nothing is. And if he starts burning other people's things, then he loses something sacred also. Everyone gets what's coming, sooner or later.”
It is striking that in the large cast of characters, Smith resists giving Irie, a promising and sensitive student who, like her, is half Jamaican and half English, any particularly special role. She alone seems to register that her family, or the Iqbals—the scene, every day, of a “huge battle between who they are and who they should be, what they were and what they will be”—is more stressful than other people's.
CONFIDENT AND MAGISTERIAL NARRATION
The other Eliotic trait is the role of the narrator, which is confident and magisterial. The narrator holds together the multifarious narrative and its ideas. And the narrator comments, with zest and wit and, most of all, wisdom (this is what makes the novel seem preternaturally accomplished for a 24-year-old author), about the events and themes of her work.
If religion is the opiate of the people [she tells her readers], tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein, and a needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made. To Samad, as to the people of Thailand, tradition was culture, and culture led to roots, and these were good, these were untainted principles. That didn't mean he could live by them, abide by them, or grow in the manner they demanded, but roots were roots and roots were good. You would get nowhere telling him that weeds too have tubers, or that the first sign of loose teeth is something rotten, something degenerate, deep within the gums.
A more audacious reflection begins, “It's a funny thing about the modern world.” The funny thing is the expectation (attributed here to “girls in the toilets of clubs”) that people ought to love them.
Now, how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll—then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greetings cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.
Not only is the assurance, the solidity, of this reflection unusual in a fictional landscape of postmodern jouissance and infinite ironic remove, but the idea it expresses is very much at odds with the presuppositions of the ordinary young person's novel. Bridget Jones and her friends—and the other characters in dozens of derivative accounts of “singletons” in London—meet for emergency, alcohol-assisted deliberations about men and their culpable refusal to love when and where and whom they should. Smith can be just as funny about young love but has it sized up better.
To call Smith a moralist may make her sound dreary, and she is not: She is hip. But the characters in White Teeth come to know what Samad tells Archie on the battlefield in 1945: “You must live life with the full knowledge that your actions will remain. We are creatures of consequence … My great-grandfather knew it. Someday our children will know it.” The plot reveals in unpredictable ways the consequences of actions the two of them take long before they can even believe they will have children.
Samad can be infuriating to Archie, whom he bullies for fifty years, his family, and sometimes the reader. But he is capable of wisdom, too. As he tells Archie,
“If you ever hear anyone, when you are back home—if you, or we, get back to our respective homes—if ever you hear anyone speak of the East,” and here his voice plummeted a register, and the tone was full and sad, “hold your judgment. If you are told ‘they are all this’ or ‘they do this’ or ‘their opinions are these,’ withhold your judgment until all the facts are upon you. Because that land they call ‘India’ goes by a thousand names and is populated by millions, and if you think you have found two men the same among that multitude, then you are mistaken. It is merely a trick of the moonlight.”
The same observation applies to late-twentieth-century Britain, as Zadie Smith knows and shows in this rich text, this brilliant panorama. White Teeth is at the same time full and sad and “a funny thing about the modern world.”
SOURCE: Soar, Daniel. “Willesden Fast-Forward.” London Review of Books 22, no. 18 (21 September 2000): 30–31.
[In the following review, Soar offers a mixed assessment of White Teeth.]
A woman at the counter of the newsagent I was in was charged £25. I looked over to see what she could have been buying. Twenty Benson and Hedges, a packet of crisps—and a clutch of lottery tickets. Not cheap. I picture her going into the same shop Saturday after Saturday, buying more and more tickets each time. At first it was just one: then it was two, four the week after, six the next—until it was twenty, and her chances of winning were multiplied twenty times. The trick with gambling is this: each time you lose, you raise the stake you put in so that when you win you cover all your losses. There's a catch: to be sure of winning you need to have a limitless supply of money. And you need to have enough time. If you buy twenty lottery tickets a week from the age of 18 you will, on average, be 700,000 years old before you win the jackpot, and if Richard Branson succeeds in his bid for the People's Lottery you're more likely to be a million.
The newsagent in question is on Willesden High Road, where every shop that isn't a newsagent is a takeaway. The streets of low-rise housing go on for ever and the main arteries are well supplied with buses. The people are from everywhere. At Willesden Green there's a shopping centre and a library. Willesden belongs to a part of the city that doesn't recognise a centre, where everything you need is in easy reach and you can move from suburb to suburb without ever seeing the London you read about in the guidebooks. There are estates and rundown stretches, but there are also trees, and it's fashionable, too: it lies just beyond Kilburn, and in the all-important hierarchy of London postcodes it has the respectable-sounding label of NW2; there are houses that go for £800,000. It's where White Teeth is set.
Zadie Smith won a kind of lottery: £250,000 in a two-book deal, and there's a £5 million BBC adaptation on the way. She was one of the deserving—just a step away from the prize-winning bus-driver novelist—only 23, half-Jamaican, half-English, parents divorced, resident of Willesden. So she did go to Cambridge, but then there's always a catch. Salman Rushdie called White Teeth ‘fizzing’—and it's been called many similar things since—which may sound a little misplaced with its hint of champagne, but it captures something of the boldness and variety of a novel that is 462 pages long and peopled with a generous selection of Londoners, immigrant and otherwise, who are followed over two or three generations as they mix and marry, argue and succeed. It's been made to stand, particularly in America, for a multicultural Britain, one thing about this country that's not to do with Heritage.
The book has at its centre Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshi living in Willesden, the great-grandson of Mangal Pande, who may or may not have been the catalyst for the Sepoy Rebellion, and whose nemesis, General Havelock, is commemorated by a statue in Trafalgar Square; and Archie Jones, resident of Willesden hailing from Brighton, twice married, who once came joint thirteenth in an Olympic cycling event. They are bosom pals, meeting regularly in O'Connell's Pool House, where there are no pooltables and the owner and sole employee, Abdul-Mickey (whose relatives are all called Abdul with an Irish or English name tagged on), refuses to serve pork (except on one notable occasion), and reads handbooks on how to look after the customers, of which there appear to be only four. Archie and Samad were brought together by the war, and their particular war involved driving a tank around defeated towns, until it broke down and they were left without support in a Bulgarian village. Samad is Archie's teacher, his guru, his misguided conscience, and he lectures him on great-grandfathers and ‘the East’ and Englishness—his moment of greatest inspiration came in the Bulgarian village as they waited, unaware that the war was over, fuelled by morphine collected from abandoned medicine chests.
Archie, eternally the pupil, finds it hard to know what to think without help. He tosses a ten-pence coin to make all life's more difficult decisions, and it's the result of a coin-toss that has him, as the novel opens, sitting in his car on Cricklewood Broadway trying to gas himself. His hysterical Italian wife has left him, and the car's right indicator is flashing, ‘signalling a right turn he never intended to make.’ By chance, a local shopkeeper notices the car illegally parked, and rushes over to insist that the interloper kill himself somewhere else, because ‘it's not halal.’ Archie feels he has been saved by fate: he turns right, and speeds off, racing round a roundabout six times in his elation. (He always seems to be going round and round: as a cyclist, he amazed his colleagues by managing to circle the track in exactly 62.8 seconds each time, never improving and never falling off. His current job is designing new ways to fold paper.) At this point, Archie's new life begins. It's New Year's Eve (1975), and he gatecrashes a party in a squatters' commune, feeling as young as can be. There he meets Clara Bowden, a beautiful Jamaican girl who has recently escaped from her Jehovah's Witness mother. They marry.
Part of the mission of White Teeth is to look at what comes from roots. As the novel progresses, the children largely take over: there are Magid and Millat, the problem twins of Samad and his wife Alsana; and there's Archie and Clara's too-plump, often depressed daughter, Irie. Late in the book another family appears, the Chalfens, who are as distinct from the earlier characters as could possibly be: they are straight-talking middle-class liberal intellectuals, and the Chalfen children (for ideological reasons) go to the same comprehensive as Samad and Archie's. When Joshua Chalfen, Millat and Irie are caught during a police raid of the drug haunts outside the school, their harried headmaster sends Irie and Millat on a course of improvement at Joshua's house. To everyone's surprise, the arrangement works well—initially at least Joyce, the mother, quickly takes to Millat, the street gangster, and in more than a motherly way; and Irie, much in love with the easy life, helps Marcus, the father, with his filing. The Chalfens are an entertaining lot who have an incredible capacity for self-belief (their favourite word is ‘Chalfenism’), but you get the impression that more than entertainment is at stake. With their introduction, class differences are nicely bridged (racial differences were smoothed over in the opening chapters), and the neatness of this achievement is compounded by the uses to which they are put. Joyce is a gardening expert who regularly appears on Radio 4's Gardeners' Question Time. Her surprise best-seller, The New Flower Power (1976), equated the sexual revolution with a horticultural one and praised the benefits of cross-pollination: ‘The fact is, cross-pollination produces more varied offspring that are better able to cope with a changed environment … If my one-year-old son is anything to go by (a cross-pollination between a lapsed-Catholic horticulturalist feminist and an intellectual Jew!), then I can certainly vouch for the truth of this.’ Marcus is a biologist, and he patents the technology that allows a mouse (FutureMouse) to be genetically programmed to live its life according to a fixed calendar, with diseases occurring at preordained points, which clear themselves up exactly on cue. The mouse is the focus for the grand dénouement—with guns—in which the disillusioned Joshua (who has joined FATE, an animal rights group), Millat (a member of KEVIN—Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation) and almost everyone else who has appeared at any point in the book attend the official press launch of the project on New Year's Eve 1992, just behind the National Gallery: for the first time London has a centre. Something programmatic is going on here.
FutureMouse is an embodiment of the idea that is present everywhere in the book: that someone, however unlikely it may seem, is in control of what happens. When Archie is trying to make up his mind about whether or not to kill himself, we have: ‘He thought about the dent he might make on the world if he disappeared, and it seemed negligible, too small to calculate.’ When he is saved: ‘Somewhere, somehow, by somebody, it had been decided that he would live.’ The decision-maker, of course, is Zadie Smith, and this confidence, this writerly power and ambition, is what really marks the novel. It extends to coincidences of plot: Magid and Millat, five thousand miles apart at the time, break their noses in quick succession; and it extends to all aspects of the prolix, inventive language. Smith has a tendency to choose the would-be Austenian quotable: ‘This is what divorce is: taking things you no longer want from people you no longer love.’ Thanks to the assured rhythm of her sentences, which can be flamboyantly careless (and there's a good smattering of unusual typefaces), she nearly gets away with it—and more words are always on their way, so none of her absolutes need carry emphatic weight. The snap judgment would be that a 23-year-old ought to be disqualified from too much assertiveness when it comes to speaking from the standpoint of the mid-life crisis, but it would be a judgment coloured by impatience with her bravura. The truth is that her assertions aren't wrong so much as self-evident. The experience she could be accused of lacking would only help her describe things in unexpected (and perhaps more interesting) ways. As it is, there is much that is to be expected. At Archie and Clara's wedding: ‘What other memories of that day could make it unique and lift it out of the other 355 that made up 1975?’ Never mind that there are usually 365 days in a year: remembered time doesn't exist in neat packets, one for every day, but as a continuum out of which it's hard to pick one event; there are markers, however, and a wedding day is one. Observation of a kind follows, though it's a little routine: ‘Clara remembered a young black man stood atop an apple crate, sweating in a black suit, who began pleading to his brothers and sisters; an old bag-lady retrieving a carnation from a bin to put in her hair.’ There are always things to be noticed, things that stand out: Smith doesn't invariably look for them.
Sometimes, though, the writing works beautifully. There's a scene in which Alsana, Clara and Neena (who is ‘Niece-of-Shame’ to Alsana) sit on a park bench discussing arranged marriages and the proper relation between man and wife. Alsana, who has undeniable problems with Samad, nevertheless believes in a certain order:
It was exactly because Eve did not know Adam from Adam that they got on so A-OK. Let me explain. Yes, I was married to Samad Iqbal the same evening of the very day I met him. Yes, I didn't know him from Adam. But I liked him well enough. We met in the breakfast room on a steaming Delhi day and he fanned me with the Times. I thought he had a good face, a sweet voice, and his backside was high and well formed for a man of his age. Very good. Now, every time I learn something more about him I like him less. So you see, we were better off the way we were.
Out of this assured handling of voices remarkable things come. Alsana has a knack for the perfect malapropism: ‘Getting anything out of my husband is like trying to squeeze water out when you're stoned.’ Her best speech comes when her attention is brought to Samad and Archie's supposed war heroism: ‘Shitty lies! If they are heroes, where are their hero things? Where are their hero bits and bobs?’ Great stuff, but then Alsana has to spoil the effect by repeating the same thoughts in various permutations.
Occasionally, Smith just can't stop herself. Ryan Topps, Clara's first boyfriend, makes friends with Clara's mother, leaving Clara out of the equation; so far, so funny. But it's an opportunity for another quotable: ‘Is there anything more likely to take the shine off an affair than when the lover strikes up a convivial relationship with the lovee's mother?’ This time the soundbite is wrong as well as banal. Perhaps in the teenage world a little parental disapproval is fuel for passion, but if the assertion only extends this far, why ‘affair,’ why ‘lover,’ why reach into the grown-up world? There is a world out there, sad as it may be, where the approbation of a person's family makes a relationship a relationship. And the shine may have gone, but it seems too much when Clara arrives to find Ryan and her mother talking intently at the kitchen table, whereupon ‘Ryan would make his excuses and leave.’ Sometimes it's worth stopping when the going is good (a basic rule in poker: don't be tempted to carry on betting because of the amount you've already put in); winners know how to rein themselves in, to create rules for themselves.
White Teeth has no rules: anything is possible. The moral of the story is that holding onto your past is impossible, that cultural cross-fertilisation is inevitable and necessary. (The epigraph reads: ‘What is past is prologue.’) Samad worries that his sons are being led into irreligious English ways, so he decides after much agonising to send Magid, the elder by two minutes, back to Bangladesh to learn some fear of God (he can only afford one airfare). He's confounded to find that it's Millat who, however perverse his motives, joins a fundamentalist group, while Magid returns as a cravat-wearing defender of all things British. Samad makes much of his faith, but it's here that Smith most brazenly skews the odds in favour of her message. As a vigorous and upstanding member of the teacher/parent committee at his sons' school, Samad parades his religion at meetings—with the joint motive of proving to himself that he is a good Muslim and embarrassing his wife. Alsana cringes, but he impresses the music teacher, Poppy Burt-Jones, with whom he begins a brief affair, causing himself much self-doubt which is nonetheless easily assuaged by a little deal-brokering with the Almighty. Samad is proof enough that belief and the past can't be clung onto when there is pressure to assimilate, but if there's counter-evidence we don't hear it.
There's a danger in novel-writing that women avoid. Colin Wilson's The Outsider, as much of a cult in its time as Joyce Chalfen's gardening manual, identified a kind of writing that blurs the boundary between fantasy and fictive imagination, with the result that you feel there is some abuse of power at work (though he didn't put it quite like this). Wilson's specimens all recognise their obsession because it's the fact that they know they're ill that interests him: his first is Barbusse, whose hero lives for the moment he sees a girl's skirt lift in the wind. A writer like Milan Kundera (not one of Wilson's outsiders) gets away (just) with making women walk naked up and down his pages because he writes about the fact of fantasy: he knows what he's doing. Douglas Adams, on the other hand, in one of his later novels, has a pretty, charming, 2CV-driving female character undress, run a bath full of all the salts and soaps she can find, and climb in to soak after a long day fighting off vultures. You can almost see him looking through the keyhole. When you have invented people you can do what you like with them, but it tends to be men who take the chance. Zadie Smith has power and she does exactly what she likes with her characters, but they're not projections of her desires: they're projections of herself. Her novel works because it's full of personality, the kind she's been seen in the papers with (she doesn't think much of men, who tend in her experience to have Arsenal toothbrushes, or worse): the characters are all sassy, voluble versions of each other and of her.
At times it can seem as if Smith short-circuits desire altogether. Her multicultural, teeming Willesden is its own kind of fantasy; though her optimism is infectious, it's clear that people don't mix so well in any real world. Her characters never really want: either, as in Archie's case, they are provided for out of the blue or they discover that they don't want what they thought they did. Irie, who dreams she comes across a sign saying ‘Lose weight to earn money,’ hates her frizzy hair and has it painfully bleached and then good Indian hair plaited in, but Neena and her lover Maxine tell her she looked great the way she was, and she has a change of heart.
There is a frequent Harry-Potterish deflation of tension; a mounting crisis tends to be resolved before it can cause the reader too much anxiety. When Archie's conservative paper-folding colleagues discover his new wife is black, he is called before his boss, Kelvin Hero, for a chat. Although Archie seems blissfully unaware that anyone might be upset, you start getting worried when Kelvin, finding the situation tough going, says: ‘I know you're getting on a bit, and the old leg gives you a bit of trouble—but when this business changed hands, I kept you on, Arch.’ We know what's coming. But two pages later he finally comes out with it: he'd rather Archie and Clara didn't come to the next works dinner. It didn't sound as if Archie wanted to go anyway.
A more disturbing deflation affects much of the second half of the book. The years from 1987 to 1989 are represented by three episodes, chosen for their historical weight: the storm in October 1987, nearly equal in its effect on the Iqbal house to the tornado in The Wizard of Oz; the issuing of the fatwah on Salman Rushdie (mysteriously referred to even in the quoted newscasts as ‘the writer’); and the pulling down of the Berlin Wall. I slept through the storm and I heard about the other two on TV, but it's not just that other things happened in those years: part of the problem is that we don't always feel time moving on like this—Smith has a way of dealing with time that's not far off that of her Jehovah's Witnesses. She glides over the terrifying fact of being stuck in the present moment—a terror that comes with need—by pressing fast-forward. More than this, it means that too many of the little things are lost, which are what Smith is best at. Early on in the book there is this: ‘At the corner of the road Alsana popped behind the post office and removed her pinchy sandals in favour of Samad's shoes. (It was an oddity about Alsana. She was small but her feet were enormous. You felt instinctively when looking at her that she had yet more growing to do.)’ Alsana's feet are never mentioned again. Nor is Alsana, much. It seems a shame.
SOURCE: Hodari, Askhari. Review of White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. Black Issues Book Review 2, no. 5 (September–October 2000): 27.
[In the following review, Hodari commends the wit, lively spirit, and self-assured narrative of White Teeth, but argues that the novel lacks a strong focus and its ending seems contrived.]
Many people, whether they admit it or not, have thought about suicide—have wished, if only momentarily, they were dead. Archibald Jones, a forty-something white man who folds paper for a living, took his desire to the edge of fruition.
As [White Teeth] begins, Archie is sitting locked in a car breathing noxious fumes and waiting for death's doors to open. Instead of ending up in death's arms, he falls into the long, graceful embrace of the beautiful Clara Bowden, a 19-year-old Jamaican Jehovah's Witness who has lost her faith in God. Clara—who had abandoned the teachings of the society but “was not yet the kind of carefree atheist who could laugh near altars”—was running from a boyfriend who had befriended her mother and her god. Instead she settled for Archie, who had left behind the passion in his life long ago in favor of North London Security.
Their unlikely union brought about a daughter named Irie, patois for “everything okay, cool, peaceful, you know?” Clara strikes up an equally unlikely friendship of convenience with Alsana, the Muslim wife of Archie's best friend, Samad Iqbal. Alsana is a woman who, despite her timidness in life, looks at things “dead straight between the eyes; an unflinching and honest stare, a meticulous inspection that would go beyond the heart of the matter to the marrow, beyond the marrow to the root—but the question is how far back do you want?”
Smith goes as far back as World War II where the patriarchs of her story first form the bond of men locked in a life-and-death struggle none of them understands. She goes as far back as turn of the twentieth-century Jamaica and the circumstances which precede the birth of Clara's mother who, in the throes of a Kingston earthquake, stands unwavering in her faith in God's wrath on her unenlightened neighbors. She ventures to the marrow through the story of Pandie, Samad's Samad'smisbegotten revolutionary ancestor notable for both firing the shot which began a new phase in the Indian uprising against English colonialists as well as contributing his name to the English.
With the same literary leapfrog of grace, Smith moves forward to tell the story of Irie's coming of age, along with Samad and Alsana's twin sons, and their entanglement with the representative forces of pseudo-postmodernism and enlightenment.
None of her characters are typical and each is written with a multilateral depth that betrays a wisdom beyond Smith's 24 years. And although some of the topics tackled in White Teeth are fundamental, such as religion, assimilation, intergenerational conflict, genetics and multiculturalism—their treatment is anything but. Smith offers us an optimistically urban and hilarious look at life through the eyes of some seriously funny characters.
If characterization is the strength of White Teeth, then plot is its greatest challenge. The climax is anticlimactic and attempts unsuccessfully to unite all the characters in an ending which reads falsely.
More than 400 pages in length, the book is large, but the concepts explored are larger still. Smith's writing style multiplies the plot with each word. In the hands of a less generous editor, the novel might have had more focus. But, then again, we may have missed the daring and arrogance of an assured first-time novelist.
SOURCE: O'Grady, Kathleen. “The Empire Strikes Back.” Women's Review of Books 18, no. 1 (October 2000): 19–20.
[In the following review, O'Grady examines the multicultural themes, characters, and settings of White Teeth.]
When the renowned Andrew Wylie literary agency secured a rumored ＄400,000 advance for a first-time author, based on only a plot synopsis and two completed chapters, the British literary world took a serious look at the young woman who could command such numbers for the mere idea of a novel. The media tagged along, too, having already fueled the sudden rise of J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series. As it turned out, 24-year-old Zadie Smith did not disappoint. White Teeth has summoned (accurate) comparisons to Salman Rushdie and David Foster Wallace, and has stolen a bit of the limelight from the infamous British “lad lit” of Martin Amis, Irvine Welsh, Will Self, Nick Hornby et al.
White Teeth seems an unlikely first novel from a student who, during its composition, was completing her BA in English literature (with modest grades) at Cambridge University. Stylistically, it is epic in scale and does not shy away from the biggest issues of urban living: cultural identity, assimilation, exile and estrangement. Set in polyglot and multiracial London, the novel is a comedic charge through the Post-Colonial theory camp. But this is terrain that Smith knows well; the daughter of a black Jamaican mother and a white English father, she has lived most of her life in London and continues to make it her home.
As she writes in White Teeth:
This has been the century of strangers, brown, yellow, and white. This has been the century of the great immigrant experiment. It is only this late in the day that you can walk into a playground and find Isaac Leung by the fish pond, Danny Rahman in the football cage, Quang O'Rourke bouncing a basketball, and Irie Jones humming a tune. Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checkups. … [I]t makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears—dissolution, disappearance.
I first came across Smith's writings during my own doctoral studies at Cambridge University in the mid-1990s, when I sat on the editorial board for the May Anthologies, a two-volume compilation of prose and poetry by Oxbridge students that is published each academic year. I well remember sitting on the floor in my damp flat, tea at the ready, papers strewn across every conceivable surface, searching rather desperately through hundreds of poems and stories for a single piece that did not read like a pseudo-autobiographical account of failed romance or the literary pastiche of a budding student of literature. It took only two paragraphs of my first Zadie Smith short story to experience the visceral charge that comes when you read one finely turned sentence after another. In this early work, Smith already managed a complex and sophisticated plot line with vivid characterizations etched in clean, clear prose. And it was from one of her subsequent publications in the May Anthologies that an agent “discovered” her.
In a recent conversation with Zadie, I asked her how she managed the media attention. She remains remarkably unseduced by the glowing reviews she has been receiving (enthusiastic sentiments from Salman Rushdie, with whom she recently completed a New York book tour, adorn the cover of White Teeth). She conceded that few women of late have secured the spotlight for serious novel writing, and it sometimes gets lonely among the literary lads. “It does feel like a boy's gang,” she told me. But she is equally frustrated at the kinds of fiction that women are writing at the moment, noting that it's “the kind of ‘Bridget Jones-ish’ school [which] is about being looked at and observed and judged by other people. And that is not a good state of mind to be in if you want to write fiction. … Women need to feel that they are the subjects and the person who is doing the writing and not the thing who is being looked at or judged or observed by other people.”
Undoubtedly, White Teeth is a far cry from Bridget Jones or the equally popular The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing. Smith pays scant attention to the crises of the single, white, thirty-something female of the Prozac generation. Her novel jostles between the patois of London's Raggastani gangs, the lyrical consonances of Jamaican immigrants, the clipped tones of second-generation Londoners and the Bollywood hyperbolic expressions of the Indian diaspora. It was written with a poet's ear for cadence, nuance and rhythm, and constitutes nothing less than an ode to contemporary London living.
White Teeth is framed by the story of two rather ordinary middle-aged men—Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslim transplant to London who waits tables, and Archibald Jones, an unprepossessing native Englishman who folds paper for a living. These seemingly banal companions, World War Two veterans, spend their free hours at O'Connell's, the local Irish pub. Typical of hybrid London, O'Connell's is owned and operated by a Middle Eastern family, Ali and his five sons (all named Abdul). Abdul-Mickey, as one of the sons is familiarly known, serves eggs, beans and beer; on the wall of the pub hang fragments of the Quran, alongside pictures of Irish racehorses and the pub license, registered under the name “Andrew O'Connell Yusuf.”
As the novel's backdrop, the pub provides an escape from the complications of Archie and Samad's family lives, which rival O'Connell's in their composite origins. Archie is the husband of Clara Bowden, a Jamaican woman half his age; Samad marries Alsana Begum, a Bengali Muslim who does not take well to London. Alsana is fond of repeating the story of nineteenth-century Lord Ellenborough, who sent a one-word telegram to declare his conquest of the Sind province in India: peccavi, meaning “I have sinned” in Latin. “‘The English are the only people,’ she would say with distaste, ‘who want to teach you and steal from you at the same time.’” White Teeth traverses the complex genealogy of each family and foretells the impact this cultural and familial history will have on their London-born children: Irie, the endearingly awkward daughter of Archie, and Millat and Magid, the sexy twin sons of Samad.
Smith has a talent for constructing extraordinary characters, placing them in extraordinary circumstances, and making it all appear perfectly ordinary. So it goes with Millat and Magid, who are separated by their father Samad as young boys. In order for Magid, the smarter of the two, to learn to respect and cherish his cultural and religious roots, Samad has him raised and educated in Bangladesh while Millat remains in polyphonic London.
Smith handles the contrast between the twins to great comic effect. Magid returns to London an ardent atheist and Anglophile, clad proudly in white Levi jeans. Millat, meanwhile, joins an Islamic fundamentalist group, Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (with the unfortunate acronym KEVIN), a militant anti-Western organization claiming Quranic roots. He bandies about gangster film lines in his head—“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”—transforming them for KEVIN: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a Muslim.” He struts, Rambo-style, around his prayer mat.
But it is Irie, half-Jamaican, half-English and all Londoner, who is at the core of the novel. We follow Irie's endeavors to make her (mother-inherited) Jamaican proportions and features conform to a willowy British femininity, and the extreme pain and self-deprecation she endures in her attempt to make the impossible happen—all the while incapable of seeing her own natural beauty.
Smith writes about the “deathly thing” a black hair salon can be:
Here, the impossible desire for straightness and “movement” fought daily with the stubborn determination of the curved African follicle; here ammonia, hot combs, clips, pins, and simple fire had all been enlisted in the war and were doing their damnedest to beat each curly hair into submission.
“Is it straight?” was the only question you heard as the towels came off and the heads emerged from the dryer pulsating with pain.
Irie's self-mortification in the quest for beauty is not just an individual battle. As Smith editorializes, mid-novel, there are Iries everywhere striving for European straightness: no curves, no curls, please.
While Millat, Magid and Irie each struggle with their cultural shadows—alternately embracing and rejecting their heritage with an eclectic and haphazard frenzy—other white Londoners are just as frantically trying to reconstruct, create, or steal an “exotic” heritage for themselves: “It is only this late in the day, and possibly only in Willesden, that you can find best friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because Sita is white (her mother liked the name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best—less trouble).” White Teeth capers through this minefield of “origins,” satirizing equally the most earnest efforts of those who seek a return to their roots and those desperate for Western homogenization, but with deep sympathy and understanding. We are all in this now, Smith suggests, and the proliferation of differences has only just begun.
It is Irie who becomes the bearer, in almost messianic terms, of the third generation of Londoners. The grand, moralizing finale is the only weakness of Smith's sophisticated plot structure. Irie becomes pregnant with the promise of the next generation. Herself a “half-caste,” Irie's progeny adds to her English-Jamaican mixture a Bengalese heritage that is as complex in its origins as her own.
Smith revels in this coming new age of polyracial Londoners, and the novel often has a celebratory tone. In our conversation, she said: “I find a lot to celebrate in the community I live in and the people I see around me. … There's a red head [walking with] a Chinese kid, a black kid, an Asian kid, and it doesn't even seem to concern them. And it really lifts your spirits.” In White Teeth, the cultural past infuses the present generation, and the future is an experiment already in motion. For Smith, this variegated London landscape promises abundant beginnings for a new age that will never outgrow—nor escape—its many birthrights.
SOURCE: Lanchester, John. “The Land of Accidents.” New York Review of Books 48, no. 2 (28 February 2001): 29–31.
[In the following review, Lanchester examines White Teeth, focusing on the characters's searches for self-identity in culturally diverse England.]
In April 1990, Norman Tebbit, the former chairman of the British Conservative Party, made a speech on the subject of immigration. He imagined Asian and Afro-Caribbean citizens of the United Kingdom watching a cricket match between their former homelands and their adopted country, and posed a question:
Which side do they cheer for? It's an interesting test. Are you still looking back to where you came from or where you are? Well, you can't have two homes. Where you have a clash of history, a clash of religion, a clash of race, then it's all too easy for there to be an actual clash of violence.
“The cricket test,” as it came to be called, immediately entered the British political vocabulary. Tebbit was one of the most virulently right-wing figures in Mrs. Thatcher's government, and his question was asked in no well-meaning spirit. (The Observer described it at the time as “neat, jocular and infinitely depressing.”) Nonetheless, it remains an interesting question, most of all to the British blacks and Asians whom Tebbit was seemingly trying to stigmatize and provoke. Zadie Smith is a young writer—impossibly young: born in 1975—with an English father and Jamaican mother, and her brilliant first novel, White Teeth, uses part of Tebbit's speech as one of its epigraphs. But as Northrop Frye once pointed out, “To answer a question is to consolidate the mental level on which a question is asked.” White Teeth is not so much an attempt to answer “the cricket test” as to encompass it, to move beyond it, and to show why things are more complicated and more multivalent than it implies.
The novel revolves around a central friendship, that of Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. We learn in an extended flashback that the two men became close in the Second World War, as the only survivors of a tank crew whose vehicle broke down outside a Bulgarian village in the very last days of the conflict. After the war Samad went home to Bengal, as it then was—the province of India which was to become first East Pakistan and then, after the war of 1971, Bangladesh. The friendship was in suspended animation for almost three decades, until Samad, newly married to “the diminutive, moon-faced Alsana Begum, with her shrewd eyes,” moves to London. “In a fit of nostalgia, and because he was the only man Samad knew on this tiny island, Samad had sought Archie out, moved into the same London borough.” That borough is Willesden, where Smith herself grew up, an unfashionable, uncelebrated, racially mixed, placidly suburban part of northwest London.
The novel opens in nearby Cricklewood (which is Willesden, only more so) on New Year's Day, 1975, with things looking bleak for Archie. He is sitting in his car with a vacuum cleaner connected to the exhaust, trying to commit suicide by carbon monoxide fumes. Archie is the weaker, more passive and put-upon of the two friends, and life has not treated him kindly since the war. In the 1948 London Olympics Archie had a brief moment of glory when he came in thirteenth on the cycling track, hampered, or helped, by the fact that “for three years he got precisely 62.8 seconds on every lap. The other cyclists used to take breaks to watch him do it.” He subsequently went to work for a printing firm, “designing the way all kinds of things should be folded—envelopes, direct mail brochures, leaflets.” Archie married an Italian girl, Ophelia, whom he met during the war, and it is the breakup of this marriage, thirty years later, that is the proximate cause of his suicide attempt.
Fortunately, the attempt fails, thanks to the proprietor of the Muslim butcher's shop outside which he has decided to end it all. (“No one gasses himself on my property. … We are not licensed.”) Reprieved, Archie then drops in on a party, where he meets nineteen-year-old Clara Bowden, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, “magnificently tall, black as ebony and crushed sable, with hair braided in a horseshoe that pointed up when she felt lucky, down when she didn't.” Six weeks later, Clara and Archie are married.
Samad is the more intelligent, fiery, and willful of the two friends. Despite only having one functioning arm—a legacy of an old Indian army wound—he works as a waiter in a curry house:
No matter how bad a Muslim he might be, no one could say Samad wasn't a consummate waiter. He had taken one tedious skill and honed it to perfection. Here at least he could show others the right path: how to disguise a stale onion bhaji, how to make fewer prawns look like more, how to explain to an Australian that he doesn't want the amount of chili he thinks he wants.
Samad's job is a nice touch from Smith, since the curry restaurant is perhaps the most ubiquitous point of encounter—mutually uncomprehending, mutually patronizing—between contemporary Britain and its imperial past. That past is a sore point for Samad. His great-grandfather, Mangal Pande, was executed by the British in the early stages of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, earning himself a place in the Oxford English Dictionary in the process, as a synonym for “any mutineer or traitor … any fool or coward in a military situation.” Samad is obsessed with proving that his ancestor was in fact a hero, and loses no opportunity to harangue bystanders on the subject. It's one of many irritations about life in Britain—which is also a place of terrible temptation for Samad, a would-be devout Muslim. The temptation takes the particular form of Poppy Burt-Jones, his twin sons' red-haired music teacher, whom fifty-seven-year-old Samad finds he cannot get out of his mind. In his confusion, he asks the advice of his younger and more sexually experienced colleague Shiva Bhagwati:
“You've got to learn this stuff, mate,” said Shiva, speaking slowly, patiently. “Female organism, gee-spot, testicle cancer, the menstropause—midlife crisis is one of them. Information the modern man needs at his fingertips.”
“But I don't wish for such information!” cried Samad, standing up and pacing the kitchen. “That is precisely the point! I don't wish to be a modern man! I wish to live as I was always meant to! I wish to return to the East!”
“Ah well … we all do, don't we?” murmured Shiva, pushing the peppers and onion around the pan. “I left when I was three. Fuck knows I haven't made anything of this country. But who's got the money for the air fare? And who wants to live in a shack with fourteen servants on the payroll? Who knows what Shiva Bhagwati would have turned out like back in Calcutta? Prince or pauper? And who,” said Shiva, some of his old beauty returning to his face, “can pull the West out of 'em once it's in?”
Samad continued to pace. “I should never have come here—that's where every problem has come from. Never should have had my sons here, so far from God. Willesden Green! Visiting cards in sweetshop windows, Judy Blume in the school, condom on the pavement, Harvest Festival, teacher-temptress!” roared Samad, picking items at random. “Shiva—I tell you, in confidence: my dearest friend, Archibald Jones, is an unbeliever! Now: what kind of model am I for my children?”
That question is not rhetorical for Samad, and it leads him to do something rash. He remortgages his house, raises £3,245, and sends Magid, the brighter and quicker of his twins, back to Bangladesh on a 3 AM flight—and does so without letting his wife Alsana in on the plan. The idea is to insulate Magid from the dangers of the West, but the reader feels a disaster is in store, since we are told that in the last fourteen years, 1971 to 1985, “more people died in Bangladesh, more people perished in the winds and the rain, than in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden put together. A million people lost lives they had learned to hold lightly in the first place.” But the half-expected tragedy fails to materialize. Instead, the serious-minded and intelligent Magid grows up in Bangladesh to be an atheist and a lawyer, while it is Millat back in Willesden who gets into trouble. At first it is nothing more than farting in mosque and smelling of tobacco, but then the trouble begins to take more concrete form:
All women, of every shade, from midnight-black to albino, were Millat's. They slipped him phone numbers, they gave him blow jobs in public places, they crossed crowded bars to buy him a drink, they pulled him into taxis, they followed him home. Whatever it was—the Roman nose, the eyes like a dark sea, the skin like chocolate, the hair like curtains of black silk, or maybe just his pure, simple stink—it sure as hell worked. Now, don't be jealous. There's no point. There have always been and always will be people who simply exude sex (who breathe it, who sweat it). A few examples from thin air: the young Brando, Madonna, Cleopatra, Pam Grier, Valentino, a girl called Tamara who lives opposite the London Hippodrome, right slap in the middle of town; Imran Khan, Michelangelo's David. You can't fight that kind of marvelous indiscriminate power, for it is not always symmetry or beauty per se that does it (Tamara's nose is ever so slightly bent), and there are no means by which you can gain it. Surely the oldest American sentence is relevant here, pertinent to matters economic, politic, and romantic: you either got it or you don't. And Millat had it. In spades. He had the choice of the known world, of every luscious female from a size 8 to a 28, Thai or Tongan, from Zanzibar to Zurich, his vistas of available and willing pussy extending in every direction as far as the eye could see. One might reasonably expect a man with such a natural gift to dip into the tundishes of a great many women, to experiment far and wide. And yet Millat Iqbal's main squeezes were almost all exclusively size 10 white Protestant women aged fifteen to twenty-eight, living in and around the immediate vicinity of West Hampstead.
Millat and Magid are not the only representatives of the younger generation: there is also Irie, Clara and Archie's daughter, born in 1975. (Irie is a much-used Jamaican patois term which, Clara explains, “means everything OK, cool, peaceful.” Alsana objects that this is like calling a child “Wouldsirlikeanypoppadumswiththat?” or “Niceweatherwearehaving.”) Irie is preoccupied with her own looks, her crinkly hair and ample figure, and she is nursing a serious crush on Millat, who is at the same school. One day they are caught smoking marijuana with another boy, Joshua Chalfen, who is desperate to seem cool, and are sent for after-hours supervision with his middle-class, intellectual parents. The household is a revelation for Irie: “It seemed to Irie that here nobody prayed or hid their feelings in a toolbox or silently stroked fading photographs wondering what might have been. Conversation was the stuff of life.” By now, however, confused young Millat is lurching toward Islamic fundamentalism, impelled partly by the Rushdie affair, which in White Teeth (as in real life) was an important event in creating a militant sense of self-consciousness in British Muslims. Not that Zadie Smith takes this too seriously:
“I am from the Kilburn branch of the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation,” said Hifan proudly.
“Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation,” repeated Millat, impressed. “That's a wicked name. It's got a wicked kung-fu kick-arse sound to it.”
Irie frowned. “KEVIN?”
“We are aware,” said Hifan solemnly, pointing to the spot underneath the cupped flame where the initials were minutely embroidered, “that we have an acronym problem.”
The main focus of the novel's attention shifts to the world of the younger characters, Archie and Samad's children—a shift Smith handles with immense assuredness. A key figure is Joshua Chalfen's father, Marcus. He is involved in the early stages of genetic engineering, and has a program to create what he calls FutureMouse™. This creature is designed to come down with specifically engineered diseases at specific stages of its life, to live for seven years—double normal mouse life expectancy—and then to die at some point in the year 2000.
By now Magid has come back to London, and he is working for Marcus Chalfen. His experiences in Bangladesh have led him to be in love with the vision of order the FutureMouse represents: “No potluck. No random factors. No you have your father's snout and your mother's love of cheese. No mysteries lying in wait. … No other roads, no missed opportunities, no parallel possibilities. No second-guessing, no what-ifs, no might-have-beens.” (Samad is depressed by how things have turned out. “The one I send home comes out a pukka Englishman, white-suited, silly-wig lawyer,” he complains to Irie, toward the end of the book. “The one I keep here is fully paid-up green-bow-tie-wearing fundamentalist terrorist.”)
The FutureMouse is due to be unveiled to the public on New Year's Eve 1992, and it is on this occasion that the novel's characters climactically converge: Magid passionately pro, Millat and Joshua Chalfen passionately anti (for Islamic and animal-rights reasons, respectively), Irie keen to attend because of her closeness to the Chalfens. All the respective parents are in tow, and the plot has a final surprise to spring: Dr. Perret, the French godfather of FutureMouse, is a former Nazi whose life Archie spared at the end of the war—and is about to save once again.
The narrative voice of White Teeth is wonderfully unafraid, whether it is heard in character sketch (“Denzel and Clarence were two uniquely rude, foul-mouthed octogenarian Jamaicans”), or satire (“according to the PTA booklet, ‘post-class aberration consideration period’ was a suitable replacement for the word detention”) or omniscient commentary (“it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears—dissolution, disappearance”). And Smith has an ear as well as a voice. Her novel has a thrilling range of impersonations, from Alsana's view of À Bout de Souffle (“Two young people running around France talking nonsense, killing policemen, stealing vehicles, never wearing bras”) to Millat abusing Irie's picnic preparations (“‘We got apples, you chief,’ cut in Millat, ‘chief’ for some inexplicable reason hidden in the etymology of North London slang, meaning fool, arse, wanker, a loser of the most colossal proportions”) to a Jehovah's Witness imagining the end-of-the-world weather report:
And tomorrow, coming in from the coast, we can expect a great furnace to rise up and envelop the area with flames that give no light, but rather darkness visible … while I'm afraid the northern regions are advised to wrap up warm against thick-ribbed ice, and there's a fair likelihood that the coast will be beaten with perpetual storms of whirlwind and dire hail, which on firm land thaws not. …
It will be clear from all this that White Teeth is not a realistic novel. The events of the book overlay contemporary British history, at times closely and at other times more flexibly and loosely. (For the reader old enough to remember the times described there are small distractions, usually at the level of popular culture references and the like. One example: no NHS hospital performed ultrasound scans in 1976. But nothing turns on these little anachronisms.) The version of race relations it describes is utopian, a vision of how things might be rather than how they are. O'Connell's Poolroom, for instance, where Archie and Samad spend too much of their time, and which has no pool tables, is, notwithstanding its Irish name, run by a family of Arab brothers. “I was saying to my brother Abdul,” begins one of them, when Samad interrupts:
It was a tradition, in both Mickey's wider and nuclear family, to name all sons Abdul to teach them the vanity of assuming higher status than any other man, which was all very well and good but tended to cause confusion in the formative years. However, children are creative, and all the many Abduls added an English name as a kind of buffer to the first.
This is knockabout, but it has a serious point. Part of the great and deserved success White Teeth has enjoyed is to do with this optimistic vision of racial easiness. It is easy to make a dark story out of race, a story of disasters; it is harder to make an account which celebrates differences as well as acknowledging them. Smith does so, in what amounts to a utopian historical novel about the recent past. Her novel features Norman Tebbit's clashes of history, religion, race, as well as the violence he lovingly predicted, but it does so in a determinedly optimistic spirit. Samad takes a negative view of what the novel sees as a positive process.
“And then you begin to give up the very idea of belonging. Suddenly this thing, this belonging, it seems like some long, dirty lie … and I begin to believe that birthplaces are accidents, that everything is an accident. But if you believe that, where do you go? What do you do? What does anything matter?”
As Samad described this utopia with a look of horror, Irie was ashamed to find that the land of accidents sounded like paradise to her. Sounded like freedom.
“The land of accidents” is a good name for this optimistically reimagined contemporary London. Perhaps the real city will increasingly come to resemble it.
In White Teeth, a deeply stoned Millat approaches the Trafalgar Square statue of Major-General Sir Henry Havelock, the man who ordered the execution of his great-great-great-grandfather Mangal Pande, before going on to put down the great mutiny of 1857. “It means you're nothing and he's something,” Millat muses. “And that's it. That's why Pande hangs from a tree while Havelock the executioner sat on a chaise longue in Delhi. Pande was no one and Havelock was someone.” On October 19, in a comic real-life sequel to the events of White Teeth, the left-wing politician Ken Livingstone, who in May became the first elected mayor in the history of London, made a speech about that very same statue of Major-General Sir Henry Havelock, suggesting that it be removed. “The people on the plinths in the main square of our capital should be identifiable to the generality of the population,” Livingstone said. “I haven't a clue who two of the generals are or what they did. I imagine that not one person in 10,000 going through Trafalgar Square knows any details about the lives of those two generals.” The Tory press exploded with rage; passers-by cheerfully agreed that they had no idea who the generals were.
Samad, who often thinks bitterly of the general “on his plinth of pigeon-shat stone,” would be entertained by Livingstone's proposal, and even more so by the fact that, so far, the only place to offer the statue a new plinth is the eponymous town of Havelock North, 12,000 miles away in New Zealand.