White Teeth: the Debut Author’s Hysterical Realism

3 STARS

Zadie Smith, 2000

 

Shiva shook his head. ‘I been out with a lot of white birds, Samad. A lot. Sometimes it’s worked, sometimes it ain’t. Two lovely American girls. Fell head-over-heels for a Parisian stunner. Even spent a year with a Romanian. But never an English girl. Never works. Never.’

‘Why?’

‘Too much history,’ was Shiva’s enigmatic answer, as he dished up the Chicken Bhuna. ‘Too much bloody history.’

White Teeth is an extremely well-known, highly regarded and critically acclaimed book. Nearing the twentieth anniversary of its publication, it’s nearly as old as I am, and I thought it was well past the time I read it. I was excited to do so; I’d heard such a lot about this author and knew that White Teeth was still widely seen as her masterpiece.

On the whole, I enjoyed the read. ‘Big’ is the best word to describe this novel. ‘Warm-hearted’ would do almost as well. It has a vast array of characters from many different backgrounds, and every member of this huge cast, from the main characters to the supporting acts or one-liners, are given their own moment in the sun; the back-story, the habits, the hidden desires, the wit. The dialogue is particularly well-written, with a natural touch with accent and slang. It’s also often very funny.

Hadn’t Magid spotted Marcus from a crowd of many? Hadn’t they recognized each other, just now, at a far deeper, fundamental level? As rationalists are wont, Marcus abandoned rationalism for a moment in the face of the sheer wonder of the thing. This instinctive meeting at gate 32 (Magid had strode across the floor and walked directly to him), finding each other like this in a great swell of people, five hundred at least: what were the chances?

‘Yes! Magid! We finally meet! I feel as if I know you already – well, I do, but then again I don’t – but, bloody hell, how did you know it was me?’

Magid’s face grew radiant and revealed a lopsided smile of much angelic charm. ‘Well, Marcus, my dear man, you are the only white fellow at gate 32.’

Though it is a long novel, it is packed full of content and well-paced. I was very rarely bored. It’s ambitious in its scope, reaching forward and backward in time, through generations, across continents, through different religions and political groups, following the implications of events down the years and across communities.

They are not wanting this, they are not willing it – they are just involved, see? They walk IN and they get trapped between the two revolving doors of those two v’s. Involved. The years pass, and the mess accumulates and here we are. Your brother’s sleeping with my ex-wife’s niece’s second cousin. Involved. Just a tired, inevitable fact. Something in the way Joyce said it, involved – weary, slightly acid – suggested to Alsana that the word meant the same thing to her. An enormous web you spin to catch yourself.

It is this ambition, this largeness, which is what must have made it so impressive as not only a debut, but a debut from a young author; though it was published when Smith was 25, the first draft was begun when she was aged 19 and finished during her final year at Cambridge. That such an energetic text, magnificent in its daring, spreading its arms wide so as to sweep up a vast and varied array of life and hold it all out in a multicoloured patchwork, should come from a young debut author is very impressive.

Born of a green and pleasant land, a temperate land, the English have a basic inability to conceive of disaster.

However, it is this very largeness which James Wood cited, back in 2000, as the book’s main failing in an article for the New Republic which, I found, explained much of what I found missing in White Teeth. Or rather, what I found not to be missing in White Teeth, for it was here that he coined the term ‘hysterical realism’, a common ailment, he says, among ‘big, ambitious, contemporary books’. Diagnosing DeLillo’s Underworld with the same disease, he writes that it ‘carries within itself, in its calm profusion of characters and plots, its flawless carpet of fine prose on page after page, a soothing sense that it might never have to end, that another thousand or two thousand pages might easily be added.’

This is the sense one gets of White Teeth – perhaps not in the run-up to the very structured ending climax, but certainly in the middle section where, simply, ‘things happen’, in both the present and the past. I was never struck with a sense of selectiveness. What was stopping Smith from adding a few more squares to her patchwork portrait of 20th century London? The answer: nothing.

As a kind of pre-emptive defence mechanism, Londoners have learnt not to look, never to look, to avoid eyes at all times so that the dreaded question ‘What are you looking at?’ and its pitiful, gutless, useless answer – ‘Nothing’ – might be avoided.

Wood continues, scathingly, ‘bright lights are taken as evidence of habitation. The mere existence of a giant cheese or a cloned mouse or several different earthquakes in a novel is seen as meaningful or wonderful, evidence of great imaginative powers. And this is because too often these features are mistaken for scenes, as if they constituted the movement or the toil or the pressure of the novel, rather than taken for what they are—props of the imagination, meaning’s toys.’

I would venture the same remark of many of the characters. Characterisation is the weakest element of the novel. Though it is true that Smith takes care to give every character their own backstory and idiosyncrasies, they rarely felt more than two-dimensional. They are often boxed in by their own characteristics and thus become predictable and unexciting. Again, Wood articulates this well: ‘Yes, Smith’s characters change; they change opinions, and change countries. Yet whenever these people change their minds, there is always a kind of awkwardness in the text, a hiatus, and the change itself is always rapidly asserted, usually within a paragraph or two.’ This lack of ability to carefully illustrate character development seems indicative of a lack of depth in these characters.

A key factor in this problem was the plot’s temporal length. Clara and Archie were particularly badly handled, given shining moments very early on and then put down and never picked up again with the same care and attention, like a toy Smith was bored with. Archie was stuck in at crucial moments at the very beginning and end of the novel, taking very much of a back seat for the lengthy middle, such that it felt that he was being forced to matter.

On reflection it did seem that a special effort of predestination had ensured his life had been picked out for him like a company Christmas present – early, and the same as everyone else’s.

Though Alsana has a main part, I felt we never ‘met’ her properly, so she remained out of reach for the rest of the novel. She must have had an interesting story to tell, meeting her much older husband as a young woman on her wedding day. There was a missed opportunity here to introduce her, giving us a closer intimacy with her for the rest of the novel.

In my opinion, Samad was by far the most well-handled character. His struggle with his identity seemed central to the ‘point’ of the novel. I think it would have worked better if we had followed him more closely throughout, delving deeper into his psychology.

‘These days, it feels to me like you make a devil’s pact when you walk into this country. You hand over your passport at the check-in, you get stamped, you want to make a little money, get yourself started… but you mean to go back! Who would want to stay? Cold, wet, miserable; terrible food, dreadful newspapers – who would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Just tolerated. Like you are an animal finally house-trained. Who would want to stay? But you have made a devil’s pact… it drags you in and suddenly you are unsuitable to return, your children are unrecognizable, you belong nowhere. And then you begin to give up the very idea of belonging… and I begin to believe that birthplaces are accidents, that everything is an accident. But if you believe that, where do you go? What do you do?’

Over on Goodreads, Ben blames Smith’s persistent tone of superiority, something which other reviewers there pick up on too. It’s hard to care about characters who are drawn as cartoonish figures of derision and mockery. He concludes: ‘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.’ A novel so ‘big’ needs a centre around which to spin.

Magid, Magid at least, will, in a matter of four hours, be flying east from this place and its demands, its constant cravings, this place where there exists neither patience nor pity, where the people want what they want now, right now (We’ve been waiting twenty minutes for the vegetables), expecting their lovers, their children, their friends and even their gods to arrive at little cost and in little time, just as table ten expect their tandoori prawns…

I liked the way that the ending was set up as a climax from a long way off and we moved towards it faster and faster until everything collided. However, even here I don’t think the ‘big moment’ was high impact enough. Again, there was too much clutter around it. So often, Smith’s writing was over-flowing, riffing off on themes for huge paragraphs, adding more and more. Many of the quotes I have used in this review had sentences cut out of them which I thought superfluous (something I usually do for brevity’s sake but had to do much more of here).

There also wasn’t a sufficient dénouement. We hurtle towards the conclusion and screech to a sudden halt, the ‘epilogue’ section only a couple of pages. What epilogue there was was very scant on detail. Many characters had had drastic changes of heart; we were told about their new lives but with no sense of how or why. Our final impression is that perhaps we never knew them all along.

Irie nodded. She was sympathetic to moments of clarity. Her seventeenth year was proving chock-a-block with them. And she wasn’t surprised by Joshua’s metamorphosis. Four months in the life of a seventeen-year-old is the stuff of swings and roundabouts; Stones fans into Beatles fans, Tories in Liberal Democrats and back again, vinyl junkies to CD freaks. Never again in your life do you possess the capacity for such total personality overhaul.     

I think this ‘largeness’, this overflow, must be a particular issue for debut novelists. You only get your debut once, your chance to say to the world: ‘this is me and this is what I care about’. Is it surprising, then, that ‘what I care about’ is so big, so jam-packed, so indelicate? The excited ambition, the energy with which the young writer embarks on their literary journey must very rarely result in something elegant, minimalist, selective, toned-down and pared-back.

Wood cites Smith saying in an interview that she searches for ‘ideas and themes that I can tie together—problem-solving from other places and worlds’. This is her big mistake, he says, her desire to ‘solve’ the ‘problem’ of modern London by tying together every thread she can find; exhibited clearly in her ending, in which every character congregates at the same place at the same time, all simultaneously at their own moral crossroads. ‘Life is never experienced with such a fervid intensity of connectedness’ he says. And yet, in Smith’s big, ambitious, lively debut which sweeps together everything she knew then about life, is it surprising that she attempted to create some sort of pattern which would join the mess of dots?

It seems Smith couldn’t win; either the novel was too ‘big’, with no structure or meaning – too real – or it was too connected, too organised, too fateful – not real enough. The sweet spot, of course, must lie somewhere in between. Smith answered Wood’s various critiques in a 2001 Guardian article whose tone can best be described as ‘exhausted’, never more so than in her simple, weary response: ‘writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.’

There aren’t any alien objects or events any more, just as there aren’t any sacred ones. It’s all so familiar. It’s all on TV.

She admits that she agrees with Wood on several points and describes her determination to keep striving towards the creation of truly ‘human’ writing (whilst at once admitting she has, currently, no idea what this would look like). She lovingly speaks of many of her favourite books in a tone of awe, a young craftsman admiring the work of masters. Speaking of a work by Tolstoy, she writes: ‘every time I read it, I find my world put under an intense, unforgiving microscope. But how does it work? I want to dismantle it as if it were a clock, as if it had parts, mechanisms. I wonder if Wood will take that question, then, as a replacement for my earlier one. Not: how does this world work? But: how is this book made? How can I do this?’

This, in 2001, was a young author moving from the former question to the latter. 18 years later, Zadie Smith remains an authoritative voice in the UK, not only on literary and academic matters, but within social commentary (see, for example, this article on her recent comments on identity, political correctness and social media). As much as I found White Teeth lacking in some respects, I would still recommend it wholeheartedly. As you can probably tell, it’s given me loads to think about. And I can’t wait to explore more of Smith’s subsequent work.

Read 7 – 15 July 2019

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