#6: White Teeth (2000), by Zadie Smith

“What a peaceful existence. What a joy their lives must be. They open a door and all they’ve got behind it is a bathroom or a living room. Just neutral spaces. And not this endless maze of present rooms and past rooms and the things said in them years ago and everybody’s old historical shit all over the place. They’re not constantly making the same old mistakes. They’re not always hearing the same old shit. They don’t do public performances of angst on public transport. Really, these people exist. I’m telling you.”


“I’ve never read White Teeth. Five years ago I tried; I got about ten sentences in before I was overwhelmed with nausea. More recently, when people tell me they have just read that book, I do try to feel pleased, but it’s a distant, disconnected sensation, like when someone tells you they met your second cousin in a bar in Goa.”
–Zadie Smith, 2008*


Few literary books came packaged with such hype and anticipation as White Teeth. There is not a piece that has ever been written about this novel that doesn’t mention that Smith was 24 when she published it, and (obviously) younger than that as she was writing it at Cambridge. That’s not an idle fact, or something to be used strictly for PR purposes on book jacket biographies. It seems like a built-in dividing line for readers: either she’s a preternaturally gifted wunderkind or another overcooked media sensation, and WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?

But the 24-year-old thing is important because the idea of someone fresh out of college writing something this confident, this dense, this audacious (as one of its characters might have put it) doesn’t seem possible–or fair.

Smith clearly possesses a brilliant mind, but there are plenty of brilliant 20-somethings. What separates her is that she can take in her disparate range of knowledge, absorb it, and then re-interpret it for folks much older than herself. In short, she has perspective. (And it does take a certain kind of youthful arrogance to pull off a sentence like this: “Still, eighty-four is not seventy-seven or sixty-three; at eighty-four there is nothing but death ahead.”)

Her sprawling, multi-generational tale is funny and incisive, falling just on the right side of coincidence and fabulism for my taste. It takes its time unpacking each character in three different families, and does so with such care that it comes as a surprise when the story suddenly converges with about 50 pages left to a riveting conclusion that’s probably a bit too tidy but hey what the hell.

White Teeth’s publication at the turn of the century is timely, since we’re introduced to characters caught between their roots to the past and their desire to advance and direct their future.

Whereas best friends Archie and Samad, linked forever by a fateful decision on the battlefield in World War II, now spend most of their time rehashing old arguments in a dumpy pub, scientist Marcus Chalfen is creating a genetically-engineered mouse that would presumably eliminate disease and discomfort.

When Samad nearly gives in to his desire to sleep with another woman, his allegiance to the Koran fills him with such guilt that he immediately sends one of his twin sons back to Bangladesh to “become a man.” But his son doesn’t become the man of tradition and duty to Islam that Samad expects, aligning himself instead with the scientist and his blasphemous mouse — becoming, in his father’s eyes, a Westerner.

Meanwhile, a horticulturalist, comparing plants with humans, writes about the necessity of cross-pollination to make offspring more adaptable to changing landscapes; another character, carrying the child of one of Samad’s twin sons whose father she will never definitively know, sees the uncertainty as a deliverance, “a perfectly plotted thing with no coordinates.”

Over and over again we see the conflict between the millennium-era folks, those second- or even third-generation immigrants with tenuous connections to their homelands, brushing up against the Old World tribalism of their off-the-boat parents and grandparents. They are as much influenced by television as they are by their native culture.

It is to Smith’s credit that one side isn’t lampooned in favor of the other; her novel has the space and the heart to take them all in. I could elaborate further, but I think this excerpt, along with the quoted dialogue that opened this piece, does the trick:

This has been the century of strangers, brown, yellow, and white. This has been the century of the great immigrant experiment. It is only this late in the day that you can walk into a park and find Isaac Leung by the fish pond, Danny Rahman in the football cage, Quang O’Rourke bouncing a basketball, and Irie Jones humming a tune. Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checkups.

But it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegnation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears — dissolution, disappearance. Even the unflappable Alsana Iqbal would regularly wake up in a puddle of her own sweat after a night visited by visions of Millat (genetically BB; where B stands for Bengaliness) marrying someone called Sarah (aa, where a stands for Aryan), resulting in a child called Michael (Ba), who in turn marries somebody called Lucy (aa), leaving Alsana with a legacy of unrecognizable grandchildren (Aaaaa!), their Bengaliness thoroughly diluted, genotype hidden by phenotype. It is both the most irrational and natural feeling in the world.

White Teeth came out a few years after my generation’s Great White Whale, Infinite Jest. Smith is on record as a staunch David Foster Wallace devotee (her essay about Brief Interviews with Hideous Men doubles as a touching eulogy to DFW*), and you can see Wallace and his ilk’s fingerprints all over her novel: a vivid, encyclopedic imagination unafraid to jump into the deep end and tackle huge themes (assimilation, randomness versus fate), rendering the spoken word of dozens of characters with pitch-perfect ear. It’s totally natural that Smith, by now well in her 30s, would look back at her first novel and feel the customary revulsion of early efforts; everything she’s written since seems like a streamlining of White Teeth‘s expansive approach. 

If her age works against her, it’s that she probably hadn’t yet mastered how to come off as witty and whip-smart without sounding smug; there are times when all her omniscient narrator is missing are invisible wink-winks after certain sentences.

But that’s pretty much my only complaint about a book that was such a pleasure to read. It’s a shoot-for-the-moon novel that throws a lot of balls in the air, juggles most of them deftly, and even if one or two hit the ground, we still marvel at the ambition (unless you’re this guy).

Six books in, White Teeth is my current favorite on the list.


*The Zadie Smith quote about herself and the DFW tribute come from her wonderful essay collection Changing My Mind. If reading her fiction doesn’t seem like your thing, try her essays. It’s worth it entirely for her takedown of Date Movie.

Next up: John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold!

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