Excerpts:

This chapter begins Jane Smiley's reading of 100 novels that is presented in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. View the complete list here.

98 . Zadie Smith . White Teeth
(New York: Random House, Vintage , 2000) , 448 pp.


From time to time, White Teeth made me think of Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone. Possibly of all the novelists of his day, it was Collins, who began his tale with the theft of a holy jewel from the forehead of a holy statue in India, who had an inkling of the English world that would grow out of the British Empire, a world that Zadie Smith depicts with richness and intelligence, and with a stylistic exuberance that would be worthy of some of her Victorian predecessors. In Smith's North London there is hardly a white Englishman to be seen other than Archie Jones, whose wife, Clara, is Jamaican and whose best friend is a Bengali, Samad. The people they know who act most English are a Jewish geneticist whose grandfather came from Central Europe and his protege, Samad's son, who has returned from Bengal, where he had been sent to an Islamic religious school at age ten. The rule of the new British culture is mixing-blood, religion, DNA, ideas, names, foods, languages, accents. But as the cultures mix more and more thoroughly, the characters find themselves striving with ever-increasing frustration (and angry conflict) for purity and tradition. Or, rather, the men do. With good and bad motives and good and bad results, the women characters in the novel all strive to connect to someone or other across some boundary or other.

The story of White Teeth is loose, more of a progress than a plot. The first generation consists of Archie and Samad, both soldiers in World War II, and their much younger wives, Clara and Alsana. Irie, Archie and Clara's daughter, grows up with Millat and Magid, Samad and Alsana's twin sons. Although the novel is told from the omniscient point of view, Irie comes to be the central consciousness of the narrative, and it is through her that all of the warring factions are finally reconciled. "Plot" elements are really thematic elements-events and motifs that recur in the lives of the characters, informing actions that seem random, or at least free, to the characters themselves with a certain fated, or at least inherited, pattern evident to the reader. The richness of Smith's depiction of her characters and their milieu allows the reader to entirely give up all allegiance to plot. The novel does not move quickly or suspensefully; rather it moves majestically, first considering one thing and then another, tying thread after thread into a compelling and vivid fabric that comes to seem a true picture of English life at the turn of the millennium.

Smith was in her early twenties when she wrote White Teeth. That plus the broad liveliness of her canvas resulted in comparisons to Charles Dickens, who wrote his first book in his early twenties and was also remarkable for the abundance of characters and scenes he seemed to portray with utter natural genius. Without denigrating either author's wonderful skills, I think that what White Teeth and The Pickwick Papers both show is the remarkable effect the English language itself has on the nascent novelistic mind. Like Smith, Dickens was exposed, and consciously exposed himself, to a garden or even a jungle of English dialects-speakers of all classes and from everywhere, gathered together in London, entertaining themselves and doing business day and night. Dickens's characters, especially his minor characters, are never reticent. They are always spouting off, announcing their opinions, narrating their lives, trying to put something over on someone else. For whatever reason, English people prize verbal fluency and use it. The result has been logorrhea given form and purpose, the novel. A hundred fifty years after Dickens, and in a new way and a new world, White Teeth, too, demonstrates the pure capaciousness of the English language-the characters may seek purity, and even purgation by violent means, but the language, as written by Zadie Smith, incorporates and grows, promoting its own allinclusive form of cultural intelligence.

I waited all the way to the end of the novel to see if Smith would, perhaps unconsciously, yield to the English habit of bringing the love and the money together at the last minute, and I have to say that she did, though I won't say how. I will say that after exploring several realms of ideology, including Islamic and Christian fundamentalism, and giving a good deal of insight into religiously based critiques of Western empirical, racist, and imperialist ways of looking at the world, Smith proves herself a novelist to the core, because she saves the humane in her characters and lets them connect in the time-honored manner, not because they are pure or right or just or true or powerful or holy, but because they are good enough individuals who have affection for one another and for whom the reader, too, has developed an affection.

<< Go back


Excerpted from Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley Copyright © 2005 by Jane Smiley. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.







Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel
1-4000-4059-0
$26.95