The year formerly known as Y2K began with euphoria and not — as many had predicted — a computer crash. As subsequent events proved, a different sort of crash was just around the corner. The dot.com bubble wouldn’t burst for a few more weeks — the NASDAQ reached its all time high on March 10, 2000 — so the fin de siècle sense of good times and prosperity could hang around for a bit longer. Even the publishing industry felt the exuberance, irrational or otherwise, as it anticipated the first novel by a young sensation scheduled to appear on January 27, 2000. Back in 1997, at age 21, Zadie Smith had received a £250,000 advance for White Teeth and an even more distant second novel, although she was still a student and an unproven author. Now the reading public would see what the fuss was all about.
Born Sadie Smith in North London in 1975 — she eventually opted for Zadie because it sounded more exotic — the future writer was the child of a British father and a Jamaican mother who divorced when she was fifteen. Intersecting (and often conflicting) ethnic and religious currents would become Smith’s trademark, and in her story-telling she rarely restricts herself to a two-car cultural crash. White Teeth deals with Bangladeshi, Afro-Caribbean, British and Muslim elements the same way a world fusion bandleader might mix a salsa beat with European and jazz ingredients to create some provocative new sound. For extra spice, Smith adds in Jewish, Catholic, Jehovah's Witnesses and several other perspectives in her literary gumbo.
You might be tempted to call White Teeth the ultimate melting pot novel — except for the fact that there is more simmering than melting here. The skeptical and cynical, yet also humorous and life-affirming tone of this novel permeates every page. This is a book where, when the doorbell rings, an acceptable greeting is “Encyclopedias or God?” Friends and families here have endearing ways of addressing one another. When Bangladeshi Alsana deals with her outspoken and Westernized relative Neena, she calls her “Niece of Shame.” Another typical salutation might be: “Get your fat Ganesh Hindu backside up there Elephant Boy and bring some of that mashed pigeon stuff with you.” Perhaps you associate the post-colonial novel with a sober and respectful tone, but much of White Teeth’s appeal stems from its unwillingness to play that game.
The novel opens with Archie Jones attempting suicide because his wife Ophelia, “a violet-eyed Italian with a faint mustache,” has divorced him. But he survives and a few weeks later marries Jamaican Clara Bowden, 28 years his junior, “magnificently tall, black as ebony and crushed sable, with hair braided in a horseshoe that pointed up when she felt lucky, down when she didn’t.” His position is contrasted with that of his friend from Jones’s old military days, Samad Iqbal. Samad is also husband to a much younger wife, Alsana, but their union is the result of an arranged marriage. Both couples have children — Magid and Millat, the twin sons of Samad and Alsana, and Irie, the daughter of Archie and Clara. Needless to say, generational tensions add to the ethnic and assimilationist frictions, building into a complex counterpoint of agendas and attitudes.
No one could accuse this line-up of insufficient diversity, yet Smith adds more into the mix. The Jones and Iqbal families are drawn into contact with the Chaffens, an upwardly mobile Catholic-Jewish family. Mr. Chaffens is a scientist working on a genetically-engineered mouse — an interesting twist in a book in which contrasting DNA and all the issues of nature-versus-nurture are given ample room to play out their tricks without any control group or laboratory in sight. But, yes, there’s more (as Billy Mays might say): Smith adds in a radical animal rights group to play adversary here, as well as a Muslim brother hood known as the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (or KEVIN). Throw in Clara’s Jehovah’s Witness mother, a Salaman Rushdie book-burning, and other assorted arguments, indiscretions and conflicts, and you end up with a novel that has no shortage of issues to propel it to an explosive conclusion.
I would love to say that all of these differences are ultimately reconciled and that in the final chapter everyone gets together in a big love pile. That would not only impart a fitting ending to the book, but maybe give sociologists and urban planners a blueprint for solving some of the pressing problems of modern urban life. No dice! Instead Smith sets a stage for all the latent conflicts — okay, maybe not all, but most of them — to come to the surface in a tautly scripted free-for-all. Maybe she comes up short on the happily-ever-after, but she definitely delivers on the fireworks.
Some have praised this book for its realistic comprehension of a Britain that is not quite British any more, thank you very much. Or, perhaps it is more correct to say, for its grasp of the expanding definitions of national identity in an age when the world is flattening by the minute. But White Teeth is only realistic in the same sense that Dickens or Trollope are realistic — with characters who are distilled into their (potentially more flammable) essences, personages more stylized and theatrical than those you meet down at the mall or post office. The effects sometimes seem more suited for the motion picture screen or footlights than the novel as commonly conceived. The street-smart and punchy dialogue — one of the highlights of this author’s work — would also work well in a film.
All in all, White Teeth stands out as one of the grandest literary debuts of recent memory. I could also tell you that it represents a fresh take on relevant contemporary themes, but that would make it sound so much heavier than it really is. Instead, Smith has done something much more difficult — deftly moving from worldview to worldview with a fluency and light touch that is uniquely her own. And, yes, maybe the rest of us could learn something from her example.