Continental Drift

First-time novelist Zadie Smith maps the shifting plates of race and culture in postmodern Britain

Halfway into her debut novel, White Teeth (Random House), Zadie Smith inadvertently provides us with a pithy description of her talents as a writer: "That girl...swallowed an encyclopedia and a gutter at the same time." Like many scribes of her generation (such as the now ubiquitous Dave Eggers), 24-year-old Smith blurs the high and low with an ironic smirk. She spends an equal amount of time digressing on masturbation (there are more than 20 synonyms for the "five-knuckle shuffle") as she does on the Indian revolution of 1871. But unlike the case of Eggers, there is more to Smith's humor than mere attention seeking. This biracial author uses her subversive mixture of the literary and the lowbrow (as well as the mundane and the historic) to show how much multiculturalism has destabilized English society. The result is a rollicking debut, an expansive novel reminiscent of Salman Rushdie's early work.

The scene that opens White Teeth brilliantly sets the book's sourly comic tone. A white Englishman named Archie Jones attempts suicide by running a Hoover tube from his car's exhaust pipe into his mouth. Just as he begins to lose consciousness, however, fate intervenes: A man across the street notices with annoyance that Archie's car is blocking the driveway to his butcher shop. By sending a man to tell Archie to move, the butcher ironically saves our poor bloke's life. Thus begins Smith's narrative, which builds in layers and cuts across large swathes of history and two continents.

A one-woman encyclopedia Britania: Novelist Zadie Smith
A one-woman encyclopedia Britania: Novelist Zadie Smith

The first layer tells the story of Archie Jones and his family. The second relates that of Archie's former WWII tank mate, Bengali Muslim Samad Iqbal (forever pronounced ICK-ball by non-Indians). In 1975 the two men run into each other for the first time in 30 years. And though previously close, they now couldn't be more different in their worldviews. Archie is decidedly pragmatic. He has adapted to the mixing of races and the loosening of social mores with aplomb, marrying a Jehovah's Witness from Jamaica. They've had a child together and named her Irie--a good island name.

Samad, however, remains decidedly tribal. He finds himself entering his fifth decade in an unhappy arranged marriage to a fiery-tempered Bengali woman, while still making his living as a waiter. Like Archie, he works tirelessly so his twin sons can live in a decent neighborhood. Yet fate throws a wrench into Samad's settled life in the form of Poppy Burt-Jones, a comely, young, white schoolteacher who has a hankering for all things Indian. She and Samad conduct a horrible adulterous affair, which Samad ends when his children discover them. He tries to expiate his guilt by sending one of his twins to Bangladesh for a proper Muslim education.

As Smith spans centuries, countries, and classes, she reveals an amazing ability to mimic the speech of nearly any character, from Jamaican patois to the many variations on the traditional British accent. She uses this gift to reveal the way generations (and different races) speak at one another rather than to one another. For example, when a white middle-class parent asks Iqbal's son Millat where he is from, we get this passage:

 

"Willesden," said Irie and Millat simultaneously.

"Yes, yes, of course, but where originally."

"Oh," said Millat, putting on what he called a bud-bud-ding-ding accent.

"You are meaning where from am I originally."

"Whitechapel," said Millat, putting out a fag. "Via the Royal London Hospital and the 207 bus."

Smith is just as astute in depicting the cultural barrier between parents and children. Archie and Iqbal's children are moving toward a post-racial society, even as their parents inhabit one defined by race. As Smith writes, "[I]t is only this late in the day, and possibly only in Willesden, that you can find best friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because is Sita is white (her mother liked the name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best--less trouble)." This cultural gap makes it difficult for Archie and Samad's children to understand the importance of their parents' ethnic roots. In the end, such misapprehension causes dramatic tension, which serves Smith's novel well. (In fact, the plot lines and conflicts resonate so sharply in Blair's Britania that White Teeth was recently optioned for television in a $7.5 million BBC-1 production.)

Being able to masticate and swallow the meal of one's heritage, Smith seems to argue, becomes harder (and less essential) with each subsequent generation. Sadly, cultural wisdom becomes as irrelevant to future generations as one's wisdom teeth. One older character tries (in vain) to explain this double bind to Archie and Samad's offspring. "[O]ne is never quite sure whether one's mouth will be quite large enough to accommodate them. They are the only part of the body a man must grow into." With this perceptive, complicated debut, Smith shows she has grown into her own wisdom teeth quite nicely.

 

 
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