Friday, October 7, 2016
White Teeth - Zadie Smith (2000)
On August 17, 2016, a little over a month ago, I posted my "15 authors" list on Facebook. The first comment was, "This is a lot of dudes." And yeah, right after I posted, I noticed to my horror that all 15 authors were male, and perhaps even worse, all were white. Apparently my worldview is extremely limited and I can only appreciate authors that reflect my privilege. But let's put all that to the side, because the real point of sharing such a list was to find out other writers I should be reading. My friend Melissa suggested about a dozen other authors, most of them female, most or all of them non-white. From that, I asked her which books she would recommend the most highly. This was not an easy decision, but she settled on White Teeth and Americanah. Well Americanah will be picked up from the library shortly, and White Teeth was a good read. Will it be named to the "best books" list? No, but I would still highly recommend it.
Here is the plot: as the novel opens, Archie Jones, 47, white English male, is attempting suicide by asphyxiation in his car. He is depressed over the departure of his wife. On a side note this was a very good way to open up a novel. A list of "compelling opening scenes" should be compiled at some point. In short it was immediately engaging. Anyways, his attempt is thwarted, and he goes to a kind of hippie commune that same day and meets Clara, the 19-year-old daughter of a Caribbean immigrant. This takes place in roughly 1975.
The novel then jumps to the perspective of Samad Iqbal, Archie's friend of 30 years. They first meet while serving together in World War II. Samad is originally from Bangladesh, and also marries a much younger woman around 1975, Alsana. Both women become pregnant around the same time: Clara with a girl, and Alsana with twin boys. These children--Irie, Millat and Magid--eventually drive the narrative to its climax.
And that's kind of my problem with the novel. It's not that the material with Irie, Millat and Magid is inferior to the rest of the novel; it just feels like it was written to have a "real plot." The "real plot" of the novel does not get introduced until page 343 (out of 448). I'm not saying the last 100 pages are bad, I'm just saying they are not as good. Regardless, many may actually find the ending to be the best part, because it does pose some interesting questions, and there is a delightful twist of sorts at the very end. But I say this for my own personal feelings on the novel. It is at its best when it is examining and developing the interior lives of its characters.
I read in City Lit bookstore in my neighborhood that Smith received an advance of 350,000 pounds for the novel at age 24. To me, it feels like she got the advance, and still had to write the last 100 pages. I am probably completely wrong with this, but that's what it felt like. Certainly, she makes a good case that she deserved an advance of that size, but for me personally, it felt like the end of the novel feels padded. Particularly when, for example, in the final denouement, characters make commentary on the way other characters talk:
"...Archie says Science the same way he says Modern, as if someone has lent him the words and made him swear not to break them. 'Science,' Archie repeats, handling it more firmly, 'is a different kettle of fish.'
Mickey nods at this, seriously considering the proposition, trying to decide how much weight he should allow this counterargument Science, with all its connotations of expertise and higher planes, of places in thought that neither Mickey nor Archie has ever visited (answer: none), how much respect he should give it in light of these connotations (answer: fuck all. University of Life, innit?), and how many seconds he should leave before tearing it apart (answer: three).
'On the contrary, Archibald, on the bloody contrary. Speeshuss argument, that is. Common fucking mistake, that is. Science ain't no different from nuffink else, is it? I mean, when you get down to it. At the end of the day, it's got to please the people, you know what I mean?'
Archie nods. He knows what Mickey means. (Some people--Samad for example--will tell you not to trust people who overuse the phrase at the end of the day--football managers, estate agents, salesmen of all kinds--but Archie's never felt that way about it. Prudent use of said phrase never failed to convince him that his interlocutor was getting to the bottom of things, to the fundamentals.) " (432-433)
Within that example of what I consider "padded writing," there are some alluring turns of phrase, so even though I may accuse Smith of tacking on a few words, there is no doubt that she is an extremely talented writer.
Sometimes when I'm struggling to figure out what to say about a book, I go on the Wikipedia page. There I found that White Teeth was apparently named one of the 100 best books from 1923 - 2005 by Time Magazine. It seemed like an alluring list, so I tried to check it out, but it's in one of those annoying slideshow formats where you have to click every time you want to see the next novel. I thought I'd make a list of the things I hadn't read, but there were already many in the A-B section (The Adventures of Augie March, Appointment at Samarra, An American Tragedy, Animal Farm, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, The Assistant....) and then upon revisiting it, realized you may view it by simply clicking "view all."
I'm not sure how I feel about this, but I guess people feel this book is pretty special. I mean, I'm certainly open to the idea of reading more of Zadie Smith (I think she has a new book coming out very soon--Swing Time, due out November 16, 2016, upon investigation). But I feel like none of her books after this have really made as big a splash. I mean, she is like, eight years older than me, and she published this sixteen years ago! It's kind of an old school preternatural literary debut. Who knows, her best work may still be ahead. (Of special note, this list does also include Watchmen in the W section so we agree at least on one book, and a few others it seems--I didn't formally name American Pastoral to the list, but I feel it belongs there. So maybe that's a project for another day, updating that list--it's on my Profile to the right if you don't know what I'm talking about. I haven't added anything to that list since January--but let me put it this way: I really liked this book, but I also really liked The Goldfinch and I think that book moved me more deeply. And on that so-called "second tier" I would still place higher Then We Came to the End.)
In a way I read this book to try to understand my own privilege as I have lately been accused of being blind to it. Once I was attacked upon an argument involving the issue, and directed to read an article online that someone had written, a white girl who had every conceivable woe foisted upon her, including a particular poverty-stricken childhood, and who had doubted her own privilege until she made a certain realization. One of them was seeing a person of your own race on the front of the newspaper. The most poignant passage on the topic comes on the heels of a brief conversation about Salman Rushdie, though he is not mentioned by name (it has to be Rushdie, right?):
"'You read it? asked Ranil, as they whizzed past Finsbury Park.
There was a general pause.
Millat said, 'I haven't exackly read it exackly--but I know all about that shit, yeah?'
To be more precise Millat hadn't read it. Millat knew nothing about the writer, nothing about the book; could not pick out the writer in a lineup of other writers (irresistible, this lineup of offending writers: Socrates, Protagoras, Ovid and Juvenal, Radclyffe Hall, Boris Pasternak, D. H. Lawrence, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, all holding up their numbers for the mug shot, squinting in the flashbulb). But he knew other things. He knew that he, Millat, was a Paki no matter where he came from; that he smelled of curry; had no sexual identity; took other people's jobs; or had no job and bummed off the state; or gave all the jobs to his relatives; that he could be a dentist or a shop-owner or a curry-shifter, but not a footballer or a filmmaker; that he should go back to his own country; or stay here and earn his bloody keep; that he worshiped elephants and wore turbans; that no one who looked like Millat, or spoke like Millat, or felt like Millat, was ever on the news unless they had recently been murdered. In short, he knew he had no face in this country, no voice in this country, until the week before last when suddenly people like Millat were on every channel and every radio and every newspaper and they were angry, and Millat recognized the anger, thought it recognized him, and grabbed it with both hands." (194)
I am still not adequately convinced. At least by the character of Millat. There are a couple elements to the book that I find uneven, and one of them is Millat and his embrace of KEVIN. I mean, I've just got to say, Millat to me, as a character, does not scream "underprivileged." Much is made of his attractiveness, and how he sleeps with tons of girls starting when he is like 13. He is one of the most popular kids in his class. Ultimately his character flaws show by how sarcastic and casually disrespectful he is towards seemingly everyone, but that does not mean one would not want to have his life (or think he had any less options than them). He seems to have it pretty good--so why would he join KEVIN? I think if this book were written today, he would not be nearly as popular at school.
This review has taken a long time to write because a lot of things happened during the month of September. I feel that I've said enough, but a quick summary, as I read through the plot summary on Wikipedia:
(1) Yes, the book starts on a high note--and opening up a book with a major character's attempted suicide seems like it was pulled out of The Crafty Author's Bag o' Tricks (not a real book).
(2) The scene set in World War II is particularly memorable, and the "twist" at the end (despite my general misgivings about the "plot") is almost masterful, one of the highlights of the novel.
(3) All of the stuff about Mangal Pande is boring, to me at least. I think it's funny how the other characters are also bored by it, and the novel seems to keep putting off telling his story, even seeming to refer to it in one of the "years" that the chapters of the novel are organized by, only to skirt over the story briefly, which turns it into an intriguing delusive move.
(4) The Chalfens are an interesting curveball to throw into the novel, to set the plot in action, and actually the last "set" of chapters before the "plot" commences at page 343 is probably my favorite part of the book.
(5) Irie is the one character that rings most true in the novel.
(6) I do not believe that Samad would get away with sending Magid to Bangladesh. That is another major element of the novel that I just do not find realistic, I'm sorry. Not that he would go, but that he would go in the manner he does.
Now I've also found that a television adaption of the novel was made for Channel 4 in 2002. Perhaps I'll seek that out. Even though I am kind of drawn to the idea of reading and watching The Girl on the Train, in the same way that I did with Gone Girl, that movie isn't getting very good reviews and I feel like this would be a more interesting adaptation to see.