Quirky, Sassy And Wise In a London Of Exiles
By Zadie Smith
448 pages. Random House. $24.95.
”White Teeth,” by the young British writer Zadie Smith, is not one of your typical small, semiautobiographical first novels. It’s a big, splashy, populous production reminiscent of books by Dickens and Salman Rushdie with a nod to indie movies like ”My Beautiful Laundrette,” a novel that’s not afraid to tackle large, unwieldy themes. It’s a novel that announces the debut of a preternaturally gifted new writer — a writer who at the age of 24 demonstrates both an instinctive storytelling talent and a fully fashioned voice that’s street-smart and learned, sassy and philosophical all at the same time. This, ”White Teeth” announces, is someone who can do comedy, drama and satire, and do them all with exceptional confidence and brio.
On the surface, ”White Teeth” recounts the misadventures of two World War II veterans — Archie Jones, an unassuming Englishman, and his best friend, Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslim — and the stories of their extended and very dysfunctional families. Beneath its antic surface, however, ”White Teeth” opens out to become a meditation on the varieties of historical experience and the impact that cultural and familial history can have on the shape of an individual’s life. It is about immigration and exile and the legacy of British colonialism; it is about roots and rootlessness and the contradictory yearnings for freedom and connection.
Ms. Smith — who began working on this novel during her final year at King’s College, Cambridge — sets her story in London, not the London of imperial monuments and long-running West End shows, but a cacophonous, Martin Amis-ish London of curry shops and pool halls and cheap hair salons. Here, frustrated waiters dream of making their mark on history, street people like Mad Mary and Mr. Toupee flaunt their eccentricities, and ”Becks, B-boys, Indie kids, wide-boys, ravers, rudeboys, Acidheads, Sharons, Tracies, Kevs, Nation Brothers, Raggas and Pakis” swagger and limp their way, like Yeats’s ”rough millennial beast,” toward their own purgatories and heavens.
Archie, who is married to a young Jamaican woman named Clara, deals with the change and chaos he sees around him with good-natured, if dim, good humor. He wonders why people can’t ”just get on with things, just live together, you know, in peace or harmony or something.” His pal, Samad, in contrast, rages against the decadence of contemporary culture and the corrupting effect he sees it having on his twin teenage sons.
For Ms. Smith, Archie and Samad are representatives of two worldviews: one practical-minded and pragmatic, the other ideological and absolutist; one accepting of randomness as a byproduct of freedom, the other determined to try to stage-manage fate. Archie, who works for a direct mail company, designing folds for their folders, accepts the fact that he was ”a man whose significance in the Greater Scheme of Things could be figured along familiar ratios” of pebble to beach, raindrop to ocean, needle to haystack; he is happy to go with the flow. Samad, on his part, remains obsessed with the role his great-grandfather played in the Indian mutiny; he craves glory and distinction and rages against his own lowly job as a waiter.
Samad is also intent on leading an impeccable life as a devout Muslim, and when he succumbs to an adulterous affair with a pretty young Englishwoman, he vows to turn his sons into defenders of the family’s honor. He decides to send Magid, the smarter and more accommodating of the twins, back home to Bangladesh to receive a proper Muslim education. That way, he figures, at least one of his boys will grow up proud of his familial and cultural roots.
Needless to say, Samad’s blueprint for his sons’ future does not exactly work out as planned. Magid returns home from Bangladesh an ardent Anglophile, a would-be lawyer who wears white suits and talks like David Niven. His brother, Millat, meanwhile joins a radical Islamic group named Kevin (”Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation”) that preaches revolution and renunciation.
Both twins also become involved with a former schoolmate’s father — a scientist named Marcus Chalfen who is working on a controversial plan to create a genetically engineered mouse. Like Samad, Marcus wants to eliminate chance and accident in the world, and his ”FutureMouse” project will draw the wrath of a varied assortment of religious and political groups — groups that just happen to count among their members Millat Iqbal; Archie’s mother-in-law, Hortense; and Marcus’s own son, Joshua.
Though Ms. Smith grows a bit long-winded in discussing these groups’ millennial schemes, her gift for sympathetic characterization enables her to satirize her peoples’ vanities and self-delusions without ever seeming patronizing or judgmental. In recounting the story of Archie and Samad’s families, she shows not only how one generation often revolts against another — sons against fathers, daughters against mothers — but also how they repeat their predecessors’ mistakes, retrace their ancestors’ dreams, and in the case of those who are immigrants, commute nervously between the poles of assimilation and nationalism, the embrace of the Other and a repudiation of its temptations.
Samad’s son, Millat, may dismiss his father as a ”faulty, broken, stupid, one-handed waiter” who has failed to make his mark on the world, and yet one of the very reasons he joins Kevin is that he has inherited his dad’s fantasy of writing his name in history books. As for Archie and Clara’s daughter, Irie, she vacillates between wanting to be English and laying claim to her mother’s Jamaican roots. She will eventually embrace the confusions and complexities of doubleness and exile as a blessing, even as she adopts her practical father’s attitude toward a career: disappointed in her dreams of becoming a scientist, she will settle, not unhappily, for becoming a dentist.
These characters are all players in Ms. Smith’s riotous multicultural drama, living out their stories on her chessboard of postcolonial dreams and frustrations, and yet at the same time, they’ve been limned with such energy and bemused affection that they possess the quirks and vulnerabilities of friends and neighbors we’ve known all our lives. In what will surely rank as one of her generation’s most precocious debuts, Ms. Smith announces herself as a writer of remarkable powers, a writer whose talents prove commensurate with her ambitions.