Sunday, February 26, 2017

Review: White Teeth

White Teeth White Teeth by Zadie Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to know how to categorize this novel.

It’s a pre-millenium story, culminating as it does on New Year’s Eve 1999 and concerned as it comes to be with the power of technology to reshape our very biology.

It’s a philosophical novel, one where clear ideas of East vs. West play out as ideas. We see that almost bluntly in the way a pair of identical twins get split up, one growing up in lower-middle class London and the other in late 1980s Bangladesh. (In fact, the clear layer of such interrogation reminded me often of Saul Bellow – not a bad author to be compared to, but it did sometimes make me feel as if the characters themselves were secondary to the underlying argument. I felt sometimes as if they behaved in order to further the experiment of the characters’ lives rather than as figures growing out of an organic identity.)

And, most evidently, it’s a post-colonial novel, one that interrogates what it means to be a British citizen at the dawn of the 21st Century when someone is as likely to be of Indian or African descent as to boast a posh pedigree. That’s what put it on the map and established Smith as not merely a world novelist but also a prominent public intellectual.

Across those lines, it’s clear that this is often masterfully written. Smith is as insightful here (the first of her novels I’ve read) as she is in her public musings. She can turn a phrase brilliantly, and often summed up difficult thoughts with what felt like a pen stroke. One example from late in the book comes when a couple working class characters acknowledge they are not OxBridge graduates. Our narrator observes (and I paraphrase) instead, they had both attended the School of Life. It’s just that they were there at different times. That particular gem, and countless others, came quickly and made it hard to reflect on. As I do, though, I see a wonderful irony. There is a certainty that comes in reflecting on one’s growth and education. There’s also a limit to it, though, and like the best philosophers, Smith has a skepticism about the unexamined life. A line like this isn’t preachy; it’s just a drive-by shot at certain kinds of self-satisfaction.

It's also clear that this is effectively plotted. As tangled as the story is – it’s three generations across three different families – everything ties together. That’s almost too much a virtue; the final scene brings almost every character we’ve met into a single conflict, and it feels almost more like the summation of an argument than the resolution of separate characters’ concerns. Still, you can’t help but admire the ambition behind it all.

The bottom line for me is that I did admire this at every turn. Any time I stopped to think about what I was reading, I had to marvel at the construction of the story and the ultimate efficiency of a narrative that sometimes seemed to proceed sideways (introducing us to major characters sometimes as late as halfway through the narrative) but that always wound up going in the direction of its overarching concerns.

I also often – but not always – enjoyed this novel. Smith writes with such cleverness, and she layers such finely woven backstories, that I often got happily lost in the proceedings. Other times, though, I had the opposite reaction: I’d be aware of how she’d arranged contrasts – at the way the separated twins balanced each other, at the way the early story of Archie and Samahd’s encounter with a Nazi eugenicist spoke to the later story of Marcus’s gene manipulation of a “Future Mouse,” or at the way our immigrant characters valorized a Britishness our British-born characters had lost sight of – and I’d feel a bit manipulated. In other words, the plan of the novel is so remarkable, that sometimes I found myself remarking on it rather than reacting to what I felt was the emotional heart of the piece.

That secondary, more clinical feel came often enough for me to wish myself finished with the novel more quickly than I was, but it never tempted me to put it down. Instead, I found this worked best for me when I allowed myself leisure to work through it. It functions so well as a novel of concepts that, if I did get distracted by its ideas, I could just let it all breathe. When I’d find my way back into it, Smith’s terrific prose and her vast field for exploring ideas would gradually pull me back in. And then I wasn’t merely processing but also enjoying things again.

Smith’s been on my list for years, and I certainly want to get to the more recent novels. Something tells me she’s learned from this already impressive debut, that she’s lost the sharp focus of her inquiry in favor of letting more of her characters define their own ambitions. Even if she hasn’t, though, she must still be worth reading. For all that this is engaging on so many levels, it’s also powerful for the sense that it’s a fresh perspective asserting itself in prose. This is, not just by reputation but across page after page, the emergence of a world-class novelist. It’s always impressive and usually a deep pleasure.

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