‘He was helping me with my faith, yeah? He’s the head of the Cricklewood branch of the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation.’The headmaster frowned. ‘KEVIN?’‘They are aware they have an acronym problem,’ explained Irie.
In case you’re interested, this is the first Zadie Smith book I ever read, and it’s the only one I have read. I actually read it in February of last year, an entire year ago. Yet my feelings about this book are as fresh as they were then. Some of these feelings pre-date the actual act of reading – I remember my reluctance to read it, because White Teeth is what Jonathan Franzen referred to in Strong Motion as ‘implicating’. Being on the young side of your twenties, sitting on a tram seat, reading this book: you might as well also project the screen of your ipod onto the inner tram wall and show everyone that you are listening to Joanna Newsom and are going home to drink a wine whose purchase price is only slightly but definitely outside your means. You might as well whisper into your fellow tram-traveller’s ear that you are going to see your friend’s band play tonight and are likely to earn a bruise from falling off your bike when riding home afterwards.
Notwithstanding my distaste for being so easily pigeonholed by my reading matter, which is easily a kind of snobbery or at least a manifestation of guilty defensiveness that Smith was my age when White Teeth was published to international acclaim, I finally got on with it. I had two broad reactions to this novel; the first relates to pages 27-520, the second relates to the first and final chapters.
Reaction the first: The wily weaving of Smith’s writing encompasses the doings of a multitude of characters, each as beguiling, funny and complete as a major character should be. White Teeth‘s scintillating dialogue and component predicaments suggest that Smith has equably mastered a coherent vision of the state of migrant culture. Plus, it’s extremely readable – the observational narrative wiggles along without the extraordinary heft with which Salman Rushdie invests his geographically similar postcolonial landscapes. Central to White Teeth are the comings and goings of three families: the (Anglo-Jamaican) Joneses, the (liberal Jewish-Catholic) Chalfens and the (Bangladeshi) Iqbals. The antics of these clans have been prepared in such a way that, despite their ready wit, conflicts of religion and race constantly display their tiny claws. At these junctions there is rarely resolution, a condition that even the patent intelligence and tenacity of Irie Jones, the most compelling of the second-generation characters, cannot displace.
Reaction the second: The main body of the novel is uniformly complex and precise. It is micro-detail at its best, and this is why I found the first and final chapters so disappointing. The first chapter reveals Archie Jones, soon to be patriarch of the London Joneses, within the grasp of (a nonetheless very funny and awkward) suicide attempt. Its tone is that of a short story rather than the opening of a novel; more strident than the remainder and less faithful to Archie Jones than it perhaps should be. However, it certainly serves some literary purposes; it introduces Jones, whose story is the catalyst for those of others, as well as establishing White Teeth’s a patently multicultural setting.
The conclusion of the novel however was what I found most troubling. Each character’s journey collides in a surprising and extremely neat way. Yet this reveals a macro-structure which reduces the effects of the novel’s extreme sensitivity to detail, a kind of reverse resolution. From inspecting the minutiae of the drama, from traversing the streets at pixel-level, we are dragged into a somewhat farcical culmination of these filaments. I’m not sure everyone would react in the same way – there is certainly a level of genius to the hysterical but consummate convergence of the many narrative strands.
Despite these bitter complaints, the greater part of White Teeth constitutes an alluring and accomplished venture. The subjects of science, fanaticism and family are broached with a lightness of touch and a prodigious sense of character that does smith credit and beyond. By the way, in case you’re interested, it’s also one of Time Magazine’s 100 books of all-time.