Book #82: White Teeth
I’m a sucker for satire.
Any novel that has well-written characters with a witty sense of humor draws me in almost immediately. White Teeth was one of those novels.
The novel opens with a bang, a failed suicide attempt, seemingly a dark way to start a story. But Zadie Smith navigates that beautifully, writing with dark humor while illustrating one of the main character’s incredible lack of confidence.
The novel tells a story through the eyes of several different characters: Archie, a boring, indecisive, mediocre white guy who marries a 19-year-old African-American girl, Clara. Then there’s Archie’s best friend, Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshian Muslim who immigrates to England, fights in WW2 with Archie and eventually ends up serving as a waiter in an Indian restaurant.
There’s Samad’s twin sons, Millat and Magid, one a budding scientist, the other a ladykiller-turned-fundamental Muslim. Then there’s the entire “white bread” Chalfen family, led by world-renowned scientist Marcus Chalfin, who’s developing a ground-breaking experiment called “Future Mouse”—a mouse clone.
The depth of Zadie Smith’s characters is incredible. She’s really good at building a richness (word?) into these flawed characters. I’m such a huge fan of her writing now.
With characters diverse as the ones I described above, you can imagine the conflict present in White Teeth.
Thematically, the novel illustrates issues of religion and tradition…
“If religion is the opiate of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein, and a needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made.”
…and chance versus destiny…
“Our children will be born of our actions. Our accidents will become their destinies. Oh, the actions will remain. It is a simple matter of what you will do when the chips are down, my friend. When the fat lady is singing. When the walls are falling in, and the sky is dark, and the ground is rumbling. In that moment our actions will define us. And it makes no difference whether you are being watched by Allah, Jesus, Buddah, or whether you are not. On cold days a man can see his breath, on a hot day he can’t. On both occasions, the man breathes.”
…and relationships and sex…
“Where I come from,” said Archie, “a bloke likes to get to know a girl before he marries her.”
“Where you come from it is customary to boil vegetables until they fall apart. This does not mean,” said Samad tersely, “that it is a good idea.”
“When the male organ of a man stands erect, two thirds of his intelect go away. And one third of his religion.”
…and the life of an immigrant…
“Please. Do me this one, great favor, Jones. If ever you hear anyone, when you are back home…if ever you hear anyone speak of the East,” and here his voice plummeted a register, and the tone was full and sad, “hold your judgment. If you are told ‘they are all this’ or ‘they do this’ or ‘their opinions are these,’ withhold your judgment until all the facts are upon you. Because that land they call ‘India’ goes by a thousand names and is populated by millions, and if you think you have found two men the same among that multitude, then you are mistaken. It is merely a trick of the moonlight.”
As you can see, it’s such a quotable novel. If you’re looking for a good read on vacation, I’d heartily recommend White Teeth. I finished the novel during our beach trip, and it’s become one of my favorites from the Time list.
Opening Line: Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 0627 hours on January 1, 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate facedown on the steering wheel, hoping the judgment would not be too heavy upon him.
The Meaning: No matter how different we all are—and the characters in this novel are overwhelmingly unique—we all have white teeth. I think that’s the overarching them in White Teeth.
Highlights: The characters and character development here are memorable. Some of the best written characters in any novel I’ve read. Love Zadie Smith’s use of satirical humor as well.
Lowlights: My only slight disappointment with White Teeth is the disappearance of Archie Jones. The novel opens with his story and expands upon it a bit—but he disappears for most of the novel after that.
Memorable Line: “You are never stronger…than when you land on the other side of despair.”
Final Thoughts: Great book with humor along the lines of Catch 22. Definitely worth a read if that’s your thing.