Book Review: White Teeth

This was one of the books that I read in my modern literature class in college in the late nineties. I hadn’t read much literary fiction before then, and I loved many of the books in that class. This one, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, was new and was soaring in popularity, especially since the British author was so young and new on the scene. The characters were a little reprobate for my previous experience, but they were also so interesting: British all—a Bengali man and a white man (army buddies of sorts) marry a Bengali woman and a Jamaican woman twenty years their juniors. Each couple becomes pregnant—one with a girl and the other with twin boys. The story covers four generations of the families, centering on the stories (in quarters) of Archie (dad #1), Samad (dad #2), Irie (daughter), and Millat and Magid (twin sons).

One of my favorite things that a story can do (excuse my mixed metaphors) is weave many different ropes of stories and then smash them all together at the end in one big explosion of revelations and happenings. That is probably the thing that I most enjoyed about White Teeth and why I said for decades after reading it that it was one of my favorite books. It has proven interesting to re-read books from my childhood, teen years, and even young adult years. I often do not have the same opinion of them later in life as I did before. (Some exceptions have been The Things They Carried and Anne of Green Gables.) So you might know what I am going to say next: I just (finally) re-read White Teeth and I didn’t love the book the way I did the first time. But I still liked it, quite a big bit.

Not that the story contains some sort of straightforward plot. Smith does work the many pieces of plot into a compelling, coherent whole in the end, but for half the book you have no idea where anything is going and you’re just learning about individuals through what feels like fairly random stories. The point of this book, no matter how you dice it up, is the point of (I think) much of Smith’s body of work—the immigrant life in modern(ish) London. Smith has become a sort of expert in both strong, interesting voice and also in representing the newer immigrants of Willesden and surrounding boroughs, the boroughs that appear to be the have-nots and yet the place where immigrant dreams are pinned. She is rather deft at portraying the Begali/Pakistani/Indian characters, the Jamaican characters, the Muslim characters, and indeed the more English of the English (the white ones, the ones who were immigrants more generations back: the Irish, the Polish who have changed their last names and now act like theirs is the inheritance).

It’s New Year’s Eve, 1975, the date that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have set for the end of the world and that Archie Jones has chosen to end his life. Neither plans are destined to succeed, and—in a chance meeting that spares Archie’s life in one of many flitting and originally unseen interactions of characters—set in motion almost twenty years of story that will bring no less than four groups and some twenty characters to a dramatic head at the grand opening of the Future Mouse exhibit. It’s also the moment that Samad Miah Iqbal realizes that forty years of history with his best friend have been built on a lie while their children’s lives are suddenly, inextricably connected, leaving one character to decide the narrative for the next generations. And, if you are an especially astute reader, you’ll find many other smaller connections between characters and even generations.

All this interconnection and random-stories-that-lead-to-one-place-while-also-developing-characters: that’s what I so enjoy about White Teeth. And I’m lost in this place and these times, suddenly someone I have never been in a visceral sense, which is what I love about reading. But I already said all that. What bothered me this time was three-fold: first, Smith’s famous “voice” and perspective are a little immature. I’m going to guess this has changed with her later books (which I’ll be reading over the next few weeks). At the time of my first reading, I was about Smith’s age, so it is not surprising that I would have found the feel familiar and not immature. I mean, Smith was insightful for her age, to be sure, but reading Teeth in my forties, there is something about the tone and the writing that highlights her own inexperience and youthfulness. I can hardly explain what I mean, but there were many passages where I felt this way. Second, I didn’t enjoy being with any of the characters, though I think I could have had Smith not painted them all with only the ugly colors in the paintbox. Does that make sense? I know a serious reader is not supposed to care if she “likes” any of the characters, but I like to like some of them, and what got in the way here was the negative way the characters were portrayed as opposed to their actual humanity. Speaking of which, third, the whole thing was quite depressing. And depraved. White Teeth is a book of antiheroes. Everybody’s despicable to the point that no one even has good intentions or even loves their own kids properly. This might be part of the point—a realistic portrayal of immigrant life in London, un-romanticizing the idea while exposing the racism from the well-intentioned to the violent—but I also am a sucker for some hope in a great book.

In the end, I would recommend White Teeth and there are some great moments that I just plain enjoy. The characters and the story are compelling, as well as many of the ideas, and Zadie Smith is a great writer, which we’ve all accepted (though she appears to have her limits, twenty years later). Don’t go looking for likeable characters or hope, though you might be able to winkle out some of that, here, if you really try. You want to read a classic of the twentieth—or is it twenty-first (it was published in January 2000)—century? This is one you shouldn’t miss.

MINISERIES:

Image from Netflix.com

I found this little-known, Channel 9, 4-part miniseries from shortly after the publication of the book. It just happened to be available on the Roku Channel (!). I spoke of the antiheroes in the book review, but the only character who I actually found myself respecting even a little by the end was Irie. In the book, there are four sections, and the third one is centered on Irie. In the miniseries, her section (episode) gets given to one of the Iqbal twins (instead of them having only one). Not sure why they did that, as Irie still remains central to the story… actually, I do. With the aging of the characters, it was easier to cut out the middle years, and with one actor playing both teenage twins, they couldn’t easily share a section, at least on camera. It was also strange of the miniseries to introduce the Chalfens so early in the family histories (and change their name to Malfen). Why? I couldn’t figure out a reason. There were a handful of characters who didn’t fit the physical descriptions in ways that make things nonsensical (like Samad not being super handsome and Alsana not gaining weight as she aged) and there were some awkward aging-casting choices, too (leading to children and parents played by actors only a few years off from each other). Still, besides these things, I found the miniseries to be a good complement to the book, well-acted and fun to have some visualization. Much of it is the same, at least in spirit. I would recommend watching it after the read, if you can find a copy, but only after reading the book. And don’t bother trying to use it to take a test: it’s not similar enough.

QUOTES:

“Bloody hindsight, thought Archie. It’s always 20/20” (p11).

“The principles of Christianity and Sod’s Law (also known as Murphy’s Law) are the same: everything happens to me, for me (p37).

“For ridding oneself of faith is like boiling seawater to retrieve the salt—something is gained but something is lost” (p37).

“It was during this time that Archie learned the true power of do-it-yourself, how it uses a hammer and nails to replace nouns and adjectives…” (p79).

“…when the male organ of a man stands erect, two thirds of his intellect goes away,’ said the Alim, shaking his head. ‘And one third of his religion’” (p116).

“Oh, there was a certain pleasure. And don’t ever underestimate people, don’t ever underestimate the pleasure they receive from viewing pain that is not their own, from delivering bad news, watching bombs fall on television, from listening to stifled sobs from the other end of the telephone line. Pain by itself is just Pain. But Pain + Distance can = entertainment, voyeurism, human interest, cinema verite…” (p177).

“’It just goes to show,’ said Alsana, revealing her English tongue, ‘you go back and back and back and its 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!’” (p196).

“She was that age. Whatever she said burst like genius into centuries of silence. Whatever she touched was the first stroke of its kind. Whatever she believed was not formed by faith but carved from certainty. Whatever she thought was the first time such a thought had ever been thunk” (p198).

“No better historians, no better experts in the world than Archie and Samad when it came to The Postwar Reconstruction and Growth of O’Connell’s Poolroom” (p204).

“Why tell an old man that there can be smoke without fire as surely as there are deep wounds that draw no blood?” (p209).

“The truth does not depend on what you read” (p213).

“One was impressed by the Jamaican’s faith but despairing of his work ethic and education. Vice versa, one admired the Englishman’s work ethic and education but despaired of his poorly kept faith” (p253).

“Irie thought 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 lid, the light switches” (p267).

“Children with first and last names on a direct collision course” (p271).

“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” (p334).

“…it feels to me like you make a devil’s pact when you walk into this country …. In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Just tolerated. Like you are an animal finally housebroken” (p336).

“’Dat’s always bin de problem wid de women in dis family. Somebody always tryin’ to heducate them about something, pretendin’ it all about learnin’ when it all about a battle of de wills” (p338).

“…involved… An enormous web you spin to catch yourself” (p363).

“Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time” (p382).

“But it wasn’t calm so much as inertia” (p411).

“New Years come and go, but no amount of resolutions seem to change the fact that there are bad blokes. There were always plenty of bad blokes” (p427).

“He was so unfazed by it. Because there aren’t any alien objects or events anymore, just as there aren’t any sacred ones. It’s all so familiar. It’s all on TV” (p436).

“Only those who are sufficiently strong and well disposed to life to affirm it—even if it will just keep on repeating—have what it takes to endure the worst blackness” (p446).

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