By Zadie Smith
Hamish Hamilton, 2000
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
A more divisive book than you might expect, given how fervent its supporters are. White Teeth earned rave reviews upon its release, won all sorts of awards, sold gangbusters, and placed Zadie Smith on the forefront of young British writers. She was all of twenty-four when she wrote this novel, which led many to believe we had a genius in our midst. It's possible, of course, that all the hype around Zadie Smith made the backlash inevitable, and it came down hard. Literary critic James Wood (no, not the actor) even coined the phrase "hysterical realism" in a broadsheet against this novel, tying it to other greats like DeLillo's Underworld, Pynchon's Mason & Dixon and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Wood's essay is a curious piece of work, and if conventional realism's stranglehold on the literary marketplace ever loosens, we'll all look back on it as a relic of a different time. Besides, did Wood know about or care about the sheer disrespectfulness of branding a work by a woman "hysterical?" I mean, is he aware of that word's history and etymology?
Needless to say, I don't at all see it Wood's way; his White Teeth review calls to mind John Gardner's equally goofy saber-rattling about "moral" fiction. I only bring it up because it's representative of the criticisms faced by both White Teeth and postmodern literature in general - how it's not "real" enough, how it's more focused on the broader systems of the world than on real human characters, all of this. Yet Smith responded to Wood's review, and to me, her response is more convincing: "literature is - or should be - a broad church." So there's plenty of room for books that choose not to enlighten or ennoble the human spirit, but rather address the zeitgeist and treat it as a sort of character in and of itself, with all its foibles and inward contradictions and so on and so forth. My point? White Teeth is such a novel, one that digs right into what we might call the modern world and digs out quite a few interesting conclusions.
But first, a few words on the plot. As many before me have pointed out, White Teeth is a sort of multigenerational saga, spanning from 1975 to 2000. In '75, an Englishman by the name of Archie Jones attempts suicide after his wife walks out on him, only to abandon the attempt after a chance encounter. He instead finds his way to a party, where he meets his future wife, the Jamaican-born Clara Bowden. A description of Clara's home life, which includes a devout Jehovah's Witness mother, includes some brilliant analyses and deconstructions of faith's inner workings. We're also introduced to his old army buddy, Samad Iqball; their regiment went to World War II but missed the action due to a series of comic but also touching accidents involving a tank. Incidentally, this friendship is portrayed exquisitely well, which sort of blows up the whole idea that Smith can't write characters. Anyway, Samad finds himself torn between his Islamic values and his desire to live an English life. This divide is complicated further by his two sons: Magid, a scientist and atheist who happily assimilates to English life, and Millat, whose devotion to Islam leads him to join an organization known as Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (KEVIN for short), which among other things protests against Salman Rushdie. As Magid gets more involved in genetics and cloning, his path is placed on a collision course with Millat's.
Of course, that's far from everything you get here. This is a postmodern novel, after all. That means the novel is shown from all sorts of viewpoints. It begins in Archie's but sure doesn't stay there, bouncing around whenever Smith needs it to. It's often used to create remarkable tension, like when the elderly Indian woman Alsana first encounters Clara; this scene depicts Alsana's inward prejudices against black people close-up and despite Alsana's outward friendliness. The intertwining themes of this novel also jump out at me as classically postmodern, if you will; it concerns many of Britain's social changes, underscoring how its prejudices and harmonies shifted as the country moved toward the end of the twentieth century. Hence zeitgeist; besides the Rushdie protests, you get nods to Bruce Springsteen, discussion of the relationship between British Muslims and the rest of Britain, and even a bit about the more controversial scientific discoveries of the late '90s. Plus, as you'd expect from a maximalist-type novel, a ton of characters. Out of them, I was most drawn to Neena. Decidedly minor as she is to the plot, she livens up every scene she appears in. A sharp-tongued lesbian feminist raised in a more traditional Indian household, she won herself the epithet "niece-of-shame" and wears it with pride.
"Sharp-tongued" is a good way to describe Zadie Smith herself, especially her prose style. Some readers might dismiss its relentless cleverness as sort of wearying, and I'll grant that Smith never saw a punchline she didn't like. As Smith herself said, "I wrote like a script editor for The Simpsons who'd briefly joined a religious cult and then discovered Foucault." If that doesn't sound like a good thing to you, you might not enjoy this book. It just happens that her voice is tailor-made for the sort of sharp, hyper-self-aware fiction I tend to love, which means it's the best possible way to write this book. After all, its characters are all forced to come to terms with their roots throughout this novel. Some embrace them, others reject them, still others come to a more complex and uneasy relationships with them. The point is they're all aware of them, so Smith's own narrative self-aware, even self-reflexive tendencies fit her characters' conflicts perfectly.
Her sharpness especially comes out in her dialog, which seems polished for maximum coolness. Which doesn't mean it's not realistic; for as stylized as she is, she's attentive to natural patterns of speech, but within these natural patterns fall a sort of easy wit that doesn't come out in real dialog. If anything, it has a Tarantino twist, which is always good by me. Her prose is also sharp, reminiscent of David Foster Wallace in a way. She's not in the Nabokov/Woolf super-lyrical vein, but she has a way of picking just the right word for the right situation, even if it doesn't look like it at first. A word that'll make you rethink the whole sentence, I suppose you can say. To me, that's as important to great prose writing as lyricism. It not only allows the writer to describe the situation beautifully, but also allows them access to what might be under the scene. A little bit of play with a word's meanings and associations can go a long way, after all. You can find a great example of this on the first page: "[Archie] lay in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed on either side of him like a fallen angel; scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage license (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him." Check out how it not only allows us to access Archie's character, but also sets up some of the novel's key conflicts. That's some writing.
After this monster debut, things changed for Zadie Smith a little. None of her subsequent novels - the Autograph Man, On Beauty, and NW - attracted anywhere near the accolades White Teeth won her. Having only read NW, which wasn't as good as White Teeth but did sport a brilliant fragmented segment that followed the lives of two best friends, I can't tell you if they're as disappointing as their critics claim, but I can tell you that the "promising-young-author" hype cycle is merciless. The trouble with dropping a great first novel is everyone wants a great second novel, and everyone wants that great second novel to fall in line with the great first novel. Since NW was quite the departure from White Teeth, I have to wonder if her later novels' tepid reception (excluding the highly acclaimed On Beauty, that is) have to do with their own qualities or their readers' expectations. She's also made a name for herself as an essayist, and Changing My Mind is a must-read for anyone who liked this book's style; it's got a lot of the same insights, but since it's nonfiction, she expands her net into book and film reviews, talk about her own evolution as an artist, and a touching piece on her father. Of especial note are her review of Tom McCarthy's Remainder, where she expands on her claim that "literature is - or should be - a broad church," and a hilarious string of movie reviews.
So there you have one of my favorite contemporary novels. Some readers are skeptical of anything that wins as many prizes as White Teeth did, but every so often the prize committee gets it right.