Tuesday, 23 October 2012

White Teeth

White Teeth - Zadie Smith

Right at the start of this book we are shown that there will be some darkness in this light comedy of modern metropolitan life in London. We arrive "Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 06.27 hours on 1 January 1975" to witness the suicide attempt of Archie Jones, recently divorced. Smith loads this one image with religion, marriage and war, three of the big themes taken on in this big, sprawling, comic novel "He lay forward in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed either side like some fallen angel: scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage licence (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him." The image of the hoover tube which is to form a part of the failed suicide attempt stayed with me, it "lay like a great flaccid cock on his back seat, mocking his quiet fear.."

The overriding theme of the novel is identity, particularly as it is formed in the furnace of cultural expectations. More specifically the competing cultural expectations at play on the second generation, represented in this novel by Archie's daughter Irie, and Millat and Magid, the two twin sons of Archie's best friend Samad, great grandson of Mangal Pande, the sepoy who fired the first shot in the Indian rising of 1857. (The uprising upon which J G Farrell based his comic masterpiece The Siege of Krishnapur). The uprising was a result of bullets being covered in "a grease made from the fat of pigs, monstrous to Muslims and the fat of cows, sacred to Hindus. It was an innocent mistake - as far as anything is innocent on stolen land - an infamous British blunder." And the date, New Years Day, introduces the idea of new beginnings.

As anyone who has played with magnets knows, the same force can both attracts and repel. In White Teeth everyone reacts differently to their wider cultural and family conditions. This is shown not just in the second generation children of immigrants but also in the Chalfens, a middle class, liberal English family who come into the book quite late on, out Fockering the Fockers. They are all 'in treatment', post-religious and bored. When Millat and Irie enter their lives they are changed completely.

Back to Archie. When he is stopped from killing himself by a Halal butcher he has a chance to start again and feels the burden of his past lift. It is as if a new Archie has emerged from his chrysalis: "Generally women can't do this, but men retain the ancient ability to leave a family and a past. They just unhook themselves, like removing a fake beard, and skulk discreetly back into society, changed men. Unrecognizable."Attracted by a sign which announces an end of the world party he enters the world of the young. The party has been named by Clara Bowden, daughter of an evangelical Jehovah's Witness. The witnesses have predicted the end of the world. Like Archie, the world has survived and Archie catches Clara on the bounce from her scooter and mod obsessed boyfriend Ryan. They soon marry.

 After an accident in which she lost half her teeth, Clara's boyfriend Ryan has also changed, from mod to Jehovah's Witness. Her dreams of being "Mod Widow, wearing black polo necks for a year and demanding "Waterloo Sunset" be played at his funeral" are replaced by the nightmare of her boyfriend and mother joining forces to evangelise for the religion she is breaking free of. "Somehow the opposites of Hortense and Ryan had met at their logical extremes, their mutual predilection for the pain and death of others meeting like perspective points on some morbid horizon. Suddenly the saved and unsaved had come a miraculous full circle. Hortense and Ryan were now trying to save her."

Archie's WWII comrade Samad turns up in England also with a younger wife, the marriage having been arranged long before her birth but his dream of a new life in the motherland turns into a form of service industry purgatory, serving tables in his cousins restaurant. The two men meet up with great regularity at O'Connell's Pool House, "neither Irish nor a pool house." They are more at home here than at home. "O'Connell's is the kind of place family men come to for a different kind of family. Unlike blood relations, it is necessary here to earn one's position in the community; it takes years of devoted fucking around, time-wasting, laying-about, shooting the breeze, watching paint dry - far more dedication than men invest in the careless moment of procreation."

In this mongrel stewpot of identities Samad rails against the erosion of their cultural heritage in his sons - "They won't go to mosque, they don't pray, they speak strangely, they dress strangely, they eat all kinds  of rubbish, they have intercourse with God knows who. No respect for tradition. People call it assimilation when it is nothing but corruption. Corruption!" Samad decides to send one of his sons 'home' so that he will grow up in the culture Samad grew up in, a move which has unintended but not unexpected results. Samad seems incapable of analysing his own situation in the way he analyses others. This is a common failing of men in the novel.

I could go on listing the various arenas in which the action of this novel takes place for quite a while more. It is certainly rich in settings and character. What are it's weaknesses? I guess the tendency of some characters to trade occasionally in SITCOMmerce is a flaw and this is a fault of the wider plot and incident as well. There is also a tendency to coin aphorisms which don't always come off although it works sometimes: "This is what divorce is: taking things you no longer want from people you no longer love."

The book includes an Islamic terrorist group called K.E.V.I.N. (they are aware they have an acronym problem) who attract one of Samad's sons from a life of delinquency. Although they propose a form of Moslem fundamentalism Millat is as much influenced by Scarface as the Koran. In a reflection of the end of times theme introduced via the Jehovah's Witnesses they are compared to Yeats' antichrist moving towards Bethlehem. "Ten years early, while the happy acid heads danced through the Summer of Love, Millat's crew were slouching towards Bradford." The gathering of these disaffected youths into a group is shown clearly to be a result of discrimination. The book constantly pokes fun at the idea of racial or cultural purity. Everything is mongrel, it seems to say, and that's not a bad thing.

At the end it seems that all the characters and most of the themes are all being forced together in one scene involving a sort of Big Brother for a genetically altered mouse. This feels forced to me and slightly the wrong side of the sitcom line. However this is a very likeable book and I am interested in reading more by Zadie Smith, while not feeling that I must rush out to get my hands on her oeuvre.


  1. I'd like to try this at some point - at least it seems like something a little different. 'NW' seems interesting too (although I've read a few reviews which stank a bit of backlash...).

    1. It's full of interesting stuff, Tony, but it is often as if the perspective of the narration is slightly off or that sometimes the facility with plot and character leads to some facile episodes or jokes which dilute the really interesting stuff. However it's a very energetic and likeable book.

  2. Great review - I read this when it first came out and remember loving it, but have forgotten so much about it. Just finished her latest, NW, which touches on many similar themes (culture, identity) but feels more grown up and serious...mostly it made me want to go back and reread White Teeth.

  3. That's a fair take, but I'm just not feeling all that fair these days. I've tried and can't seem to get past her odd aggressive-yet-cutesy tone. She's got a great, inventive brain clicking away, but one wonders whether her internal editor needs switching on more often. It might help temper some of the graphomaniacal tendencies. Reading you, though, it's clear I'll have to give the book another shot.

    1. Fully agree on the need for the internal editor to be switched off. The really good parts do get swamped at times by unnecessary stuff.