"These days, it feels to me like you make a devil's pact when you walk
into this country. You hand over your passport at the check-in, you get
stamped, you want to make a little money, but you mean to go back! Who
would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated.
Like you were an animal finally housebroken. But you have made a devil's
pact: it drags you in and suddenly you are unsuitable to return, your
children are unrecognizable, you belong nowhere."
It starts with the suicide of Archie Jones. Or, the attempted suicide,
because Fate, or Chance, or something out in the universe decides that
Archie will carry on. In this case, the savior is an enormous brown butcher
called Mo Hussein-Ishmael. A fresh start - the troubles, worries, misadventures,
and losses of he past wiped clean, and Archie moves through London in
a rootless haze, until he happens upon Clara, the beautiful, toothless
young Jamaican woman he quickly marries.
From here, Zadie Smith (the 24-year-old British writer who's first novel's
got agents and critics salivating on more than one continent) takes you
through a tangled web of identity crises and cultural confusion that sprouts
(not begins, mind you) from the simple, kindhearted, wishy washy white
Brit Archie Jones. We're then led to Bengali Muslim Samad Miah Iqbal -
WWII buddy and best friend to Archie - a man whose roots in his faraway
homeland have him glorifying a past that never was, and cursing a present
that has his kids caring more about Robert DeNiro, smoking pot, and changing
their "ethnic" sounding names to Mark Smith than studying the Koran. Samad's
stubborn in the truest sense of the word, and so is his feisty wife Alsana,
a" little pressure cooker" who physically attacks him when things don't
go her way. Headlocks and right hooks, fingernail clawing etc. They're
a tumultuous pair who stay locked together partly for love, but mainly,
it seems, because of their mutual status as foreigners in the West.
White Teeth's all about finding yourself in a world that you don't fit
into - whether it's culturally, spiritually, physically, or mentally.
Everyone's an outsider here. I fact, I've never seen the so-called "melting
pot" depicted so gracefully and intelligently. Samad and his family are
merely Pakis to the white faces in London. Archie and Clara are an interracial
couple - and on top of that, Clara's a beautiful black woman with fake
teeth speaking Jamaican patois. Alsana's eager to lose her accent. Samad's
an intellectual that's forced to wait tables in an Indian restaurant that
caters to whites. And the cultural tug-o-war goes on from there. But as
the years fly by, it's the children of these couples that suffer the most.
Irie is Clara and Archie's intelligent, overweight daughter, who hangs
out with the Iqbal twins Millat and Magid throughout childhood.
Their threesome's abruptly split up when a frantic Samad (frantic because
of the guilt he feels at fooling around with a white teacher at the boys'
school) decides to ship one of the twins back to Bengal, so at least one
of them won't be tainted by Western ways. He decides on Magid, the nerdy,
cerebral one instead of Millat the burgeoning punk. So off he goes, into
the night, separated from his family and the only home he's known. Initially
the kidnapping feels awkward. It paints Samad as a fanatic, and as a terrible
father. Eventually though, Smith reveals that he's desperate (and slightly
fanatical) - Samad's the character who holds onto the past and to his
religion so tightly that there's no room for growth or change. The struggle
to maintain any sense of identity in white society forces him to cling
onto his religion, and his outrageous ideals, and it eventually wreaks
havoc on his family.
So if Samad's the stubborn, and hypocritical, anti-assimilationist,
then Archie's, well, just Archie. He's the guy who flips a coin every
time a decision has to be made - including whether or not to kill a Nazi
POW during the war. Archie bumbles along, half Zen master, half village
idiot. He has no concern for past or present, no crippling ties to his
roots (he broke those when his suicide was botched and "Life had said
Yes to Archie Jones"), so he's the peacekeeper. He has no concern for
religion, unlike almost every other character in the book, and so he's
the clean slate that the mess of the cultural melting pot can overflow
onto, stewing in all the aggravation and soul searching that everyone
else has to face.
Smith tackles so many issues in White Teeth that it's slightly daunting
until you're about a third of the way into the novel and the web of time,
fate, religion, family, culture, sexuality, belief, and identity comes
together. She's never preachy - this isn't a dry treatise on immigrant
communities or a rant about how white culture is evil, though all that's
in the book. With a perception, humor, and care that makes her seem much
wiser than her age, Smith proposes a not so new way of looking at the
things that humanity's struggled with for eons: Just Be.
It's simple. Buddha knows this, Leonard Cohen knows it, your neighbor
might know it, hell, you probably know it. But what Smith's getting at,
which is so amazingly poignant, is that when people are displaced, without
an identity, forced to mingle their selves with all the myriad faces and
ideas of the West - it's almost impossible to Just Be. You have to struggle.
You have to dig through painful layers just to find out who the hell you
are. Are you a Muslim or a pork eating Guiness drinker? A scientist or
a Jehovah's Witness? A person, or just a shadow in a world of white faces?
The only real problem with White Teeth is that so many of Smith's verbal
experiments just don't work. Even the metaphor of the title - constant
descriptions of white teeth (usually Imperialists or white men), no teeth
(Clara), chapter titles like "Molars" and "The Root Canals of Hortense
Bowden," and the fact that Irie wants to study dentistry - it feels weak
and superfluous. There's plenty to read into the metaphors, but they're
not meaningful enough for the story, and in the end all the talk about
teeth just feels like an annoyance. It's by no means enough to detract
from Smith's moving, thought-provoking, and sometimes hilarious first
novel though. And who knows, maybe most readers glean something from the
periodontal allusions that this reviewer just failed to see.