The World-Class Mediocrity of Archie Jones
Well I’ve been building up the awesomeness of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and today I thought I’d share one of my favorite passages from early in the novel with you.
Archie Jones is one of the novel’s two protagonist. He’s a middle-aged white guy who works at a paper company (Michael Scott, anyone?). He’s been divorced twice, and the novel opens with a failed suicide attempt on his part.
I know what you’re thinking. Such a dark novel!
The beauty of White Teeth, though, is the way in which Zadie Smith dances around this darkness with humor. This is a really funny novel.
Take a look at this passage in which the narrator describes Archie’s younger days as an athlete.
What else? Well, Archie hadn’t always folded paper. Once upon a time he had been a track cyclist. What Archie liked about track cycling was the way you went round and round. Round and round. Giving you chance after chance to get a bit better at it, to make a faster lap, to do it right. Except the thing about Archie was he never did get any better. 62.8 seconds. Which is a pretty good time, world-class standard, even. But for three years he got precisely 62.8 seconds on every single lap. The other cyclists used to take breaks to watch him do it. Lean their bikes against the incline and time him with the second hand of their wrist watches. 62.8 every time. That kind of inability to improve is really very rare. That kind of consistency is miraculous, in a way.
Archie liked track cycling, he was consistently good at it and it provided him with the only truly great memory he had. In 1948, Archie Jones had participated in the Olympics in London, sharing thirteenth place (62.8 seconds) with a Swedish gynaecologist called Horst Ibelgaufts. Unfortunately this fact had been omitted from the Olympic records by a sloppy secretary who returned one morning after a coffee break with something else on her mind and missed his name as she transcribed one list to another piece of paper. Madam Posterity stuck Archie down the arm of the sofa and forgot about him.
Is it just me or is that an incredible passage–in both content and the way in which it’s written?
Archie was a world-class athlete. But, hilariously, clocked 62.8 second on every single lap he cycled. “That kind of inability to improve is really very rare. That kind of consistency is miraculous, in a way.”
If things continue this way with White Teeth, it might turn out to be one of my favorite novels from the list.
More to come.