I read Zadie Smith’s canon in the wrong order. Started with The Autograph Man, the middle book–interesting, but not so hot. Then On Beauty, the latest–masterful. Now White Teeth–her first, showing the potential for On Beauty. Things may have gotten a little glamorous for her lately. Look at the attitude in the photo above compared to the later photo below.
Photos are just a moment, of course, but despite the calm sophistication of the second picture, the brash and bratty twenty-four-year-old (Twenty-four, for god’s sake!) of the upper picture and of White Teeth is still there in On Beauty. The spirit behind that insolent, challenging gaze gives birth to the most appealing (the devil always being the most appealing) characters in both books. Seven years after White Teeth, we have a barely-thirty author of international importance with three important novels behind her and lord knows what in front of her. A great time for Z.S. and for English Lit.
Why would you name a novel, White Teeth? Even after reading it, the answer is still a little puzzling because, although the theme is significant, it’s not predominant, not a franchise-maker. White teeth can get you shot–if you’re a black man in the Congo trying to remain invisible in a dark rainforest. White teeth can get you celebrity–if you’re a pretty person trying to gain and keep notice in the 21st century media. White teeth can cover a deep character secret–if you’ve had your teeth knocked out and want to keep your false choppers covert. In all these cases, they suggest fakery, danger, identity–all of which are important themes in the novel. But as material objects, white teeth are on the periphery of the ideological action.
In the forefront are science vs. religion vs. cultural hubris, all expressed in the persons and actions of the Jones and Iqbar families. The Jones are headed by a black Jamaican mom (shades of On Beauty and Smith herself) and a blue-collar father of limited intellect and sensitivity (no On Beauty or autobiography here). The Iqbars are a product of a Bengali (often–so often, infuriatingly often–mistaken for Indian) arranged marriage between a mutilated (war injury) waiter and a seamstress. As part of the book’s humor, she sews articles for an S&M sex shop, following patterns whose purpose she doesn’t understand and doesn’t care to.
Smith delights in mixing races and families in ways which seem improbable until you look around you and see people combining and recombining in manners beyond even her comically imagined relationships. The white boy friend joins in a religious (sexual? You’ll have to decide) alliance with the black mother of the dark daughter who marries on the rebound a forty-eight year-old printer/paper folder. The daughter of the union falls in unrequited love with one of the twins issuing from the arranged marriage. All of these are delivered into the home of a white middle class family via a school disciplinary program designed to rehabilitate delinquents. Everyone is both redeemed and corrupted in the course of struggles over rejection and assimilation of the outrageous–criminal conduct, lesbian race-mixing–and the whole process is mightily reflective of the current world’s attempt to deal with all the questions of borders, language, and culture. The U.S. is now one-third “minority” on its own soil. Statistics vis-a-vis the rest of the world? With 1.6 billion Chinese alone to our 350 million total, you figure it out. As a public school principal, I had to try to explain how students could choose to accept or which parent they were honoring or dishonoring by questions about race identification on all kinds of official forms. But I digress.
Smith takes the novel’s conflicts in their obvious directions, parents trying to preserve traditions in the face of the irresistible flood of cultural revolutions; Islamic fundamentalism battling western/Christian rationalism. Black kids trying to be white. White adults trying to understand in naive and pathetic ways these poor underprivileged newcomers into their world.
She’s erudite, Smith is. A huge chunk of the book is devoted to genetics and cancer research. And she sounds very knowledgeable. There’s a lot of history and insight into religion. But this is not a text book because she’s funny. And witty.
Sometimes she just flips you off in the same simplistic, destructive way adolescents are when they challenge the absurd blustering, helpless school authorities as in The Breakfast Club or Ferris Beuller’s Holiday. Other times, in more subtle ways as when a teacher is parsing “My Mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” and trying to explain away to black students why lines such as “black wires grew on her head” could not possibly refer to a Negro woman. Try this little passage on for both character an humor and wisdom a twenty-four year old shouldn’t have.
Four months in the life of a seventeen-year-old is the stuff of swings and roundabouts: Stones fans into Beatles fans, Tories into Liberal Democrats and back again, vinyl junkies to CD freaks. Never again in your life do you possess the capacity for such total personality overhaul.
But it’s the humor, the dazzling language, and the fantastic characters that save the novel. They help us forgive the fact that the book needs cutting, that there wonderful scenes left suspended and unconnected to the main plot, that the ending is rather like the contrived deus ex machina of The Threepenny Opera, but unlike that great work unconscious of its contrivance. She spends a lot of time preparing us for a climatic event that . . . well, read it and judge for yourself
Still I would have hoped had I read this in 2000, or read it before reading her other works or before reading what others had written, I’d have spotted her as an explosive new talent destined for great things, one whose future work I salivated to read. Now all I can do is acknowledge the talent, appreciate what she’s done so far, and salivate waiting for the rest.