Monday, January 11, 2010

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

It's a funny thing about the modern world. You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, "Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He didn't love me. He just couldn't deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me." Now, how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as 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. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.

I love this passage, for several reasons. First of all, there's the sheer brutality of it--nothing like Love to give a swift, cynical kick in the crotch. Secondly, Smith lets a key phrase slip in unnoticed through the verbal detritus: "This unlovable century." White Teeth was published in 2000, as that unlovable century came to a close, and packed tightly within her choice of words is a sense of hope that the next century will in some sense be worthy of our love, and by extension the people in it. How odd to think, then, that White Teeth, as concerned as it is with the origins of domestic terror movements, was published a year before September 11th--perhaps the surest sign that modern times had not yet reached the nadir of their lovability.

And thirdly, there is something afoot here that I don't even think Smith realizes, that her words are betrayed by how much she loves the characters in this book--often to a grating extent--and how much control she exhibits over their lives. White Teeth begs to be loved, and its most significant asset--and its most significant drawback--is that the author has crafted it as an object of love, that Smith smothers it with her love, and though she endows it with great vitality and passion, that may be the reason that she cannot see its flaws. Simply speaking, White Teeth might have been improved with a step backward and a pair of pruning shears.

It is the story of an "unlovable century." It spans roughly four generations in two English families: The Joneses and the Iqbals. Of the former, we begin with white Archie who marries a younger Jamaican girl named Clara; together they have a daughter named Irie. But we also go back in time to hear the story of Clara's mother and grandmother, the Bowdens. Of the Iqbals there is Samad, Archie's best friend, war buddy, and devout Muslim, as well as his wife Alsana and twins Magid and Millat. On top of that, the story is peopled with minor and semi-minor characters, some of whom are interesting, many of whom are not. There is also a subplot which becomes more significant in the book's latter act in which a scientist, known to these families through a number of contrivances too exhausting to explain here, strives to create a mouse with tailor-made genes that predict the exact date which he will die: FutureMouse.

As a turn-of-the-century investigation into racial and religious strife, White Teeth is unparalleled. Samad struggles to be a devout Muslim, and yet cheats on his wife. This conflict between piety and worldliness is played out in the life of this twins: Magid, who goes to India and becomes a secular scholar, and Millat, who stays in England and dabbles with Islamic extremism. This is, in my mind, the most interesting and significant plot thread in the book, so I won't go into detail about the others, which all have the same basic thrust: the Sophie's choice of the immigrant, who must lose what defines him or risk becoming alien.

And yet, if White Teeth is meant to be the quintessential turn-of-the-century book, perhaps it is appropriate that it is deeply flawed. First of all, it's incessantly tongue-in-cheek and not nearly as funny as it thinks that it is:

It is better to marry than to burn, says Corinthians I, chapter seven, verse nine.

Good advice. Of course, Corinthians also informs us that we should not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain--so, go figure.

Yawn. I will add to that that the Islamic extremist group in this book is called KEVIN. ("We acknowledge we have an acronym problem." Yawn.) And for every fascinating turn of phrase:

Then every nerve in his body would be alive... Then his head would open out like a deckchair... Tonight, after just more than enough [morphine], Samad felt particularly lucid. Like his tongue was buttered and the world was a polished marble egg.

...Smith puts her foot in it:

The morphine had sharpened his mind to a knife edge and cut it open.

Yes, because knives are so frequently cut open.

But more than that, White Teeth is simply too cumbersome. It's a respectable 450 pp., but it's so crammed full of characters and story lines that it becomes exhausting. If Smith can't keep her attention, why should we? The tragedy is that for every interesting character or plotline, like Samad's struggle with his piety, there is a fatuous clunker like the story of Irie and Millat's friend Josh, who takes up with an extreme animal rights group. Smith means this to parallel Millat's venture into Islamic extremism--and it does, a bit too neatly--but it detracts from Millat's story by its vapidity. I understand what Smith wants to do, but I wonder if she had to sacrifice focus and clarity to do it.

Lastly, as I said, White Teeth is too much a labor of love. It is easy to see that Smith agonized over the creation of this novel, but she put too much of herself in it. Let me give you an example, from a section in which Samad is pondering the reputation of his ancestor:

The story still clung, like a gigantic misquote, to the Iqbal reputation, as solid and seemingly irremovable as the misconception that Hamlet ever said he knew Yorick "well."

Here is a character who is deeply suspicious of England, and disparaging of the English influence on his family. And yet, he's pondering Shakespeare? These words don't belong to Samad, of course, they belong to Smith, but that's the point: They should belong to Samad and they don't. The best metaphors adhere to their element; they match the mindset of the character. In this way they belong to both the character and the author, and to neither. White Teeth is criss-crossed by authorial trespassing, by Smith commandeering her characters' voices, like a mother who only wants best for her children but won't let them speak for themselves. If you're uncharitable, you might even call it a form of egotism.

And despite that, Smith's great passion for this novel is enough to make it enjoyable to read. As for the novel of the next, more lovable century, well--she's got time.


Amanda said...

This is an excellent review, but I don't think I'll be reading this book any time soon.

Christopher said...

Really, it's not that bad--I guess I overdid it a little on the negatives.