Here’s an old review I wrote of “White Teeth,” Smith’s first book, for Commonweal Magazine in 2000
White Teeth Zadie Smith Random House, $24.95, 448 pp. A VIEW FROM THE MARGINS.
by Anita Mathias
So-called multicultural literature in many ways extends the enterprise of the early feminist writers: “the custodians of the world’s best-kept secret:/ Merely the private lives of one-half of humanity,” as Carolyn Kizer
puts it. In this first novel, Zadie Smith, the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant to Britain, continues the enterprise of giving us the view from the margins, as she sweeps Jamaican and Bangladeshi immigrants into mainstream literature in English. For a rambunctious and quirky take on our modern cities in their color and diversity, the melting pot simmering and boiling, we could do worse than turn to the dark eyes, pressed against the window, eyeing the party within with wistfulness and scorn.
White Teeth is the saga of World War II buddies, Archibald Jones–a self-effacing Englishman “whose significance in the Greater Scheme of Things could be figured along familiar ratios: Pebble: Beach. Raindrop: Ocean. Needle: Haystack”–and Samad Iqbal–a Bangladeshi torn between Allah, alcohol, and women. Archie marries Clara, an attractive Jamaican (and as a consequence is no longer invited to company banquets). Samad’s marriage is arranged to Alsana, who can kick and punch her husband with a ferocity that matches his own; her in-laws speculate that her family has “some funny mental history.”
The children of these two couples, Irie Jones, and the twins, Millat and Magid Iqbal, are strangers in a strange land. Irie Jones (whose name means, in patois, “everything OK, cool, peaceful”), battles with “the bird’s nest of her hair,” and her weight: her body has “brown bulges for children, bags of fruit, buckets of water, ledges genetically designed with another country in mind.”
Magid Iqbal, a freak genius, “given a glorious name like Magid Mahfooz Murshed Iqbal,” wants instead to be called Mark Smith, and attend the Harvest Festival at school “like some wood sprite,” instead of accompanying his father to Mecca. “It’s not fair. I can’t go on haj. I’ve got to go to school. I don’t have time to go to Mecca. It’s not fair.” Magid is returned to Bangladesh “to be brought up proper” by his grandparents, where he eerily turns, in a twist of poetic justice, into Macaulay’s “brown-skinned Englishmen, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” He returns seeing God “in the millionth position of pi, in the arguments of the Phaedrus, in a perfect paradox. And what more is God than that?”
Meanwhile Magid’s twin, handsome Millat Iqbal, is trouble, an exemplar of the predicted decline and fall of Western civilization. After continual scrapes with white women and authority, Millat finds his clan in KEVIN, Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation, militant immigrants with “an acronym problem,” hate and anger and revenge seething beneath the shibboleths of orthodoxy.
This edgy, hip, funny novel does for today’s London what Salman Rushdie did for Bombay in Midnight’s Children, or Dickens and Thackeray did for their more homogeneous city. We meet, skewered on Zadie Smith’s Bosch-like canvas, Indian lesbian feminists, topless hippies in a commune, and teenagers wriggling in anomie and angst. Much of the plot hinges on the cultural and generational conflicts that spiral when their school’s at-risk program subjects Millat Iqbal and Irie Jones to being mentored by the third family at the nucleus of the book, the liberal Jewish Chalfens. When Marcus Chalfen, an eminent scientist, seeks to patent his genetically engineered FutureMouse, the many groups on the loony fringe of this panoramic novel–black Jehovah’s Witnesses, Islamic fundamentalists, radical animal rights activists–converge in outrage.
Smith limns the sadness of the immigrant experience in which, for the first generation, dreams steadily shrivel. Samad Iqbal, who becomes a waiter after the war, wants desperately to wear a placard saying, “I am not a waiter. I have been a student, a scientist, a soldier.” And in the background, always, is the mist of racism, overt or covert: “the oldest sentence in the world, ‘if you ask me, they should all go back to their own….'”
Smith attributes the range of her characters to “Books, books, books.” She is certainly familiar with the multicultural canon, the best thing to emerge from the rapacity and crimes of slavery and colonialism. Her characters cut their teeth on The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the books of Alice Walker. They burn Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Samad owes something to Michael Ondaatje’s (The English Patient) Indian soldiers fighting in Europe during World War II. We encounter twins forcibly cleft by the corrupt older generation as in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. The sprawling novel covers Smith’s life, commencing in 1975, the year of her birth, a device borrowed from Rushdie who set Midnight’s Children in 1947, the year of his birth.
White Teeth is technically inventive, a refreshing original. Its exuberant high jinks can remind one of Rushdie’s pyrotechnics. Smith captures the dialogue of London’s contemporary tribes. “The F-word acts like padding to him; he can’t help it; it’s just a filler like beans or peas,” she explains. Her relentless sly wit, however, can be wearing and remind you that Smith is only twenty-five. Many of her characters are flat, one-dimensional, almost caricatures, their inner lives reduced to blurbs. Samad Iqbal: “Can’t say fairer than that. To the pure all things are pure.” Millat Iqbal: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” I think of Hieronymus Bosch again. The novel ends with a bang, the major characters unsatisfyingly and irritatingly freeze-framed in medias res.
In the end, Smith is no Rushdie, or Toni Morrison. Compared to their iridescent prose and inventive, anguished meditations on history, love, evil, and God, White Teeth is slight. Smith, however, is something of a multicultural Garrison Keillor, and her snappy novel is delightful, hilarious, and interesting, a good companion for what remains of these hammock
and deck chair days.
Anita Mathias’s essay, “I Was a Teenage Atheist,” appeared in the October 8, 1999 Commonweal