I hope I m not making White Teeth sound pious In fact, I would argue Smith wrote the novel in part as a reaction to the piety that obscures truthful narrative She builds each character from the ground up and knows when to move from one to the next I m also not sure if I understood every metaphorical nuance I m not English, Bengali, Muslim, or a Jehovah s Witness, all elements intrinsic to the storyline, so I most likely missed symbolic elements While I don t want to minimize the immigrant experience, white readers, I believe, feel some of the same vertigo as the characters when navigating a landscape with different cultural touchstones, e.
g signs in Polish and Korean up and down Chicago s Milwaukee Avenue Zadie Smith doesn t praise or criticize these landscapes She focuses on the fear and hope inherent in characters reactions to the stimuli The players can t control the landscape as much as accept and respond to it This is a sprawling, well structured novel White Teeth is a near masterwork, the best book I ve ever read about different cultures slow, tectonic plate like creep past, toward, and into each other.
White Teeth is an expansive, detailed, and beautifully written attempt to encapsulate the social chaos that blossoms at the bridging of generational, national and sexual mindsets It reminds me very much of the freeflowing histories written by Marquez and Allende, as well as Salman Rushdie s strange little one off treatise on cultural alienation, Fury Samad, in particular, reminds me quite a bit of Fury s Malik Solanka The book does many things well Smith has a serious ear for dialogue and accent, she knows how to manage the flow and pacing of a story, and she s quite skilled at employing large concepts genetic manipulation, immigrant psychology, the concept of history itself both as fact and as metaphor Her cast of characters is varied and nearly every one of them comes off as a fully flesh and blood human being However, it s in terms of these personalities that I feel she makes her biggest misstep.
Zadie Smith is what I d call an Ironist I don t mean this in the Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Jon Stewart sense I don t mean that she s a comedian I mean it in the sense that the territory she stands on that her narrator in White Teeth stands on is one whose boundaries are staked out in terms of what she is not My friend Brandon commented below that Smith shows blatant contempt for every character except the one who is clearly based on the author While I understand where he s coming from, I don t think it s contempt per se On the contrary, I think Smith has deep feelings for most of her characters even the despicable ones like Crispin and Millat I think that what Brandon interprets as contempt is something far ambiguous let s call it detached superiority.
The Ironist defines herself through the process of over defining others Every character in this novel is over defined, over drawn While this provides us with a great, at times excruciating level of detail, it also paints each of them into a kind of cage wherein all of their actions are predictable Each of them has a sort of final vocabulary cf Rorty that defines the limits of what they might do or say the doctrines of Islam and the Watchtower Society, of PETA or clinical science In the worst cases, their adherence to these vocabularies allows Smith to slip them into easy types see Mr Topps, Crispin, Joshua, Marcus, the various members of FATE Smith creates her authorial narrative identity what s called a metastable personality by passively proving that she is not limited by such a final vocabulary, and that in escaping their confines she has a broader, comprehensive view of the social workings of the world This is, generally speaking, the goal of any omniscient narrator, but the way that Smith goes about writing this one in particular imparts a certain sense of smugness the parenthetical asides to the reader, the knowing winks, the jokes at the expense of easy targets that isn t always present.
The metastable personality is the natural reaction to uncomfortability with final vocabularies, but it itself is of course just as self defining as any of them albeit in the opposite direction It instinctually yearns for instability, but prefers to admire chaos from afar rather than living in it The metastable personality knows that in order to maintain coherence it must remain stable, and that the only way to remain stable is to balance itself on the disbelief of all known final vocabularies Smith writes off worldview after worldview, but is of course unable to articulate her own because her own is simply the absence of adherence to any such worldview.
This isn t so much a criticism of Smith s work as it is an explanation of why it is the way it is, and why it can be read as contempt.
One star Of course this is not a one star wretched ignominous failure, this is a mighty Dickensian epic about modern Britain But not for me It s a question of tone I have now tried to read this one twice and each time I find I m groaning quietly and grinding my teeth Zadie Smith s omniscient narrator, alas for me, has an air of horrible smirkiness, like a friend who just can t help pointing out all the less than pleasant attributes of everyone else, all in the name of life affirming humour, allegedly, but gradually wearing you down Didn t anyone get sick of this apart from me I hear this kind of humour in current British comedy all the time When it s cranked up to the max and runs at 200 miles an hour, it s great, as in the recent political satire movie In the Loop recommended but when it s on a low leisurely level, as in a big sprawling novel, it just gets on my wick It might be a symptom of the cultural cringe I discuss a propos The Age of Elegance British writers can no longer take their country and culture that seriously, they feel somehow that it sjust not very cooland so their default attitude is self deprecation You don t get this in big novels about modern America American Pastoral , We Were the Mulvaneys and The Corrections and Freedom spring to mind Franzen, for instance, uses humour all the time and excoriates large areas of American society, but there s no perpetual undermining of his own characters for the sake of inexpensive laughs My head says I should like White Teeth but my heart says Zadie Smith was a literary ad man s dream come true For a good, funny book about multicultural Britain, see The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi For a great review of White Teeth which eloquently puts the case against, whilst trying not to, see Ben s review herehttp www.
com review show.
As many other reviewers have commented, I wanted to like this book than I did It approached greatness in many ways the clever and often hilarious dialogue, the quirky characters, the creative family histories, the rich and convincing place descriptions, and so on Despite the strengths of each of these parts, as a whole the book fell far short of greatness It took me until the final pages to figure out what was missing for me I did not genuinely care about most of the characters I did not feel sympathy for them, or root for them, or have my own ideas of how I hoped things would turn out This is likely due to the many, many story lines at play in the novel story lines that span a hundred years in some cases But it still felt unacceptable to me that the book begins with one of the most intimate moments a person can experience though it is treated with humor and closes with an equally major event in the life of that same character, yet we hardly KNOW this character He is a central presence on page one and the final page, but he is lost in between While I laughed at Joyce Chalfen, Alsana, Abdul Mickey, Magid, Hortense, and a dozen amusing and creative characters, I felt no emotional connection to them at all The biggest disappointment perhaps was the disappearance of Clara s voice from the pages They remained, though entertaining, very flat to me The only character I sincerely rooted for and felt drawn to was Irie Jones Her story alone, though it does not emerge until the second half of the book, made the novel worth reading to me.
I was intrigued enough by Zadie Smith s writing to give her other works a try, but I closed the book last night with a definite sense of a letdown.