Towards a Post-National Novel

'White Teeth' by Zadie Smith (Vintage)

Archie Jones is the English everyman: a bit dithering, culturally ignorant, but fiercely loyal in a pinch. Jones lives in an England haunted by the Second World War and the disintegration of the British Empire, one reeling from the influx of brown-skinned people with gleaming white teeth. He takes it all in his distinctly English way, his big eyes and open countenance accepting without understanding: “He liked people to get on with things, Archie. He kind of felt people should just live together, you know, in peace or harmony or something.”

But reality often isn’t that simple. London’s strange, new ethnic milieu—the setting of Zadie Smith’s amazing first novel “White Teeth”—is rife with fear and uncertainty. A generation on the decline—Archie’s generation—retreats into an imagined past for comfort, while the next struggles with a seemingly divergent identity. With an acute sense of both the pathos and the humor of the modern immigrant’s lot, Smith crafts a narrative that entertains and evokes and succeeds in both superbly.

Thirty years after the war in which they fought together, Archie is reunited with his best friend, the Bengali Muslim Samad Iqbal. “White Teeth” follows the Iqbal and Jones families before and after the reunion. Samad and his feisty wife Alsana raise their twins, Magid and Millat, while Archie and Clara raise their daughter Irie. The children attempt to eke out their place in English society, not really belonging to the culture of their parents or the place where they were born: “Millat was neither one thing nor the other, this or that, Muslim or Christian, Englishman or Bengali; he lived for the in between, he lived up to his middle name, ‘Zulfikar,’ the clashing of two swords.” Like many of the writers of the emergent “hysterical realism” movement, Smith sets her agenda in character dynamics rather than plot. Dialogue explicates characterization well beyond the ability of any narrative description, and Smith’s skill with dialects provides comic relief through amusing background characters. With their delight in vulgar-language, even in salutation, two ancient and impossibly rude Jamaicans, Denzel and Clarence, steal every scene they’re in:

“‘What dat bambaclaaat say?’

‘’Im say evenin’.’

‘Can’t ‘im see me playin’ domino?’

‘No man! ‘Im ‘ave a pussy for a face. How you expec’ ‘im to see any little ting?’”

O’Connell’s Poolroom, Samad and Archie’s home away from home, represents the new Britain; neither Irish nor a poolroom, it’s owned by Abdul-Mickey, an Arab with bad skin whose family names “all sons Abdul to teach them the vanity of assuming higher status than any other man, which was all very well and good but tended to cause confusion in the formative years.” Abdul-Mikey adds the second­—English—name as a sort of qualifier for the first.

Archie floats serenely above the new racial order, buoyed by his belief in the power of the coin toss. But Samad, confronted with a hostile, foreign culture and a young, indifferent wife, retreats into what he thinks he knows best: his own culture and religion. Smith makes it clear, however, that the latter—already irrevocably changed by his life in England—is reaching for a past that never existed.

Smith is at her parodic peak when depicting the characters’ cultural misunderstandings, and their casual racism. In a flashback where the pair are lost in a tank, waiting out a war, Samad and Archie’s talk inevitably turns to girls, specifically Samad’s unborn betrothed. This amuses Archie. “‘Where I come from,’ said Archie, ‘a bloke likes to get to know a girl before he marries her.’ ‘Where you come from it is customary to boil vegetables until they fall apart. This does not mean,’ said Samad tersely, ‘that it is a good idea.’” The irony of course is that Archie, who met his first wife in Italy after the war, knows nothing of her long history of mental illness, “two hysteric aunts, an uncle who talked to eggplants, and a cousin who wore his clothes back to front.” Smith’s novel condemns neither side, and instead shows flawed and evocatively human aspects of both cultures.

Samad and Archie’s stories, as well as the stories from their long-suffering young wives’ points of view, make up the first and best half of the book. But “White Teeth” changes once Smith takes up the mantle of the new generation, the products of cross-cultural fertilization. Smith provides a snapshot of Archie’s daughter Irie writing feverishly in her diary. Her depiction of overwrought adolescence is pitch-perfect: “8:30 P.M. Millat just walked in. He’s sooo gorgeous but ultimately irritating! Tight jeans as usual. Doesn’t look at me (as usual, except in a FRIENDLY way).” Once the new generation, Irie and Millat, becomes old enough for their own narratives, the focus on character voice wavers. But their struggles to assimilate are no less universal than their parents’.

Smith ties up the characters’ story arcs into a neat little bundle at the end of the book. She contrives to unite the old and young in one room. Every main character attends the launch of a genetically engineered mouse with something to prove, whether in protestation or celebration. By putting them together to duke it out, Smith purposefully offers a chance for redemption and closure unavailable in real life. This conclusion is an unsatisfying end, but the point of the book is not the plot. Her rich, realistic portrayal of the characters and their view of London make “White Teeth” a book worth reading.

“White Teeth” is funny. It is a charming and thought-provoking look into British society, the immigrant experience not seen by the outside world. It reveals the society’s flaws, poking fun at everybody but condemning nobody. Zadie Smith shows the confusion of trying to understand the present in the context of a past that never existed; “The funny thing about getting old in a country is people always want to hear that from you,” Archie muses. “They want to hear it really was once a green and pleasant land. They need it.”

—Staff writer Candace I. Munroe can be reached at cimunroe@fas.harvard.edu.

Tags