The Iqbals: Samad and Alsana and their twin sons, Magid and Millat.
The Joneses: Archie and Clara and their daughter, Irie.
White Teeth is the story of these two families, brought together by a wartime bond as solid and true as Clara’s set of pearly whites, a set that she pops out every night.
The immigrant’s straddling of Britishness and home country, the cheeky prose, the idioms infused with a frank literalism, the comic obsession with fate…none of this is new, but it takes a practiced hand to write it well. Salman Rushdie (to whom Smith gives a nod with her inclusion of the Bradford book-burning that followed publication of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses) is perhaps the only other recent author who’s mastered the serio-comedy.
But where Rushdie satirized politics and politicians, Smith used her wit in White Teeth to drill into the sociology of immigrant life. With less violence than Rushdie and more patience for the mundane, Smith’s story never forsakes Britain for absurdistan: her brand of realism is that of the hysterical, rather than the magical (though her Samad Iqbal seems a character written by Mr. Rushdie himself).
There’s a note of false fatalism that runs through White Teeth. Unseen and relentless, it shows up already on page one with Archie’s post-divorce attempt at suicide (and his attendance at an End of the World New Year’s party a few pages later).
From the obsession with Revelations that consumes the Bowdens (Jehovah’s Witnesses the lot of them), to the maybe/maybe not of what happened in the woods with a Nazi doctor (memory lane here), to Marcus Chalfen’s genetic experiment of FutureMouse, White Teeth doles out second chances and ambiguity with relish.
Lines of division – of customs, of languages, of generations, etc., etc. – create this ambiguity, and Smith gerrymanders them with the result that the map is more complicated because it’s more involved, because its lines don’t make any sense, because it’s every man for himself but with the wish to appear a little more democratic. It’s a cultural assimilation-that-isn’t because it allows a zig-zag around all the tough parts.
Samad Iqbal’s reverence for his great grandfather, Mangal Pande, a history that’s distorted to suit his filial pride and/or warped the other way to pass down the word “pandy” to our modern lexicon is the undercurrent that sends the tide: what we hold most dear is for others a big fat nothing. Mangal Pande, what a pandy! What serve as the guiding lights for each of us are, to others, mere lamps on the dim switch.
This is true also of our cultural histories: guarded traditions that have shaped us no matter how much we may claim to be independent operatives in this world.
Because, you see, we all come from somewhere, we all have roots.
White Teeth, as Smith plays at in the titles of three let’s-go-waaaaay-back chapters, performs the root canals of Samad, Archie, Mangal Pande and Irie’s grandmother, Hortense Bowden. WWII, British imperialism (of the Indian and Jamaican flavors), personal histories that reach into the mid-19th century – it’s all spat onto a tray. Numbness gives way to an ache gives way to a healthy feeling.
Because it’s for the best, after all, that we understand where we’re coming from and what those roots allowed to grow.
Even as White Teeth slouches through Willesby in the figure of teenaged rebel Millat Iqbal and ruptures the calm with a sudden shift in focus from cultural pathos to scientific responsibility when Magid returns to Britain to work alongside the loved and hated pioneer in genetics, Marcus Chalfen, that history of Samad and Archie is a constant.
But those Chalfens! They lend an incisive bite to the story.
Zadie Smith has a discernment few possess. At 25 years old (White Teeth was originally published in 2000), she was neither jaded nor resentful, complacent nor writing with an axe to grind. She writes with equal mockery of colored folks, Jamaican spiritualism, English imperialism, white smiles of insincerity given to their colored neighbors (lying through their teeth they are, but oh so sweet!), religious zealotry, scientific immorality, scientific necessity, the varied prejudices of every last one of us regardless of our backgrounds…she lambasts and upholds the immigrant’s right to continue tradition while writing also that no, certain things done “back home” just don’t fly here in Britain and rightly so.
And with the Chalfens she gives us a peek at something onerous that has been fermenting year after year: presumption.
The new liberalism is no different from the original White Man’s Burden. Much of the humor in White Teeth is built upon the microaggressions and the self-effacement that come with this curious need to promote diversity as an activists’ cause rather than as a fact of life. The Chalfens – who in their microcosm of the British middle class (sub class: white), have verbified and codified their name: Chalfinist, Chalfen-ing, Chalfenism, Chalfenizing – are exactly this: white people telling brown people what’s good for them.
Early in White Teeth, Irie, Millat and Magid deliver a charitable bag of food to a man as part of a school service project, but the man first turns them away in suspicion and on relenting, chews them out. Heads or tails? The old man who shuts the door on three brown faces or the Chalfens, who want to cultivate these same brown faces? There are two sides to this imperial coin: one assumes, the other presumes.
In trying to correct assumptions – and so also, prejudices – we’ve come to make presumptions. Such mental flossing has left behind a few gricky orts indeed. White Teeth leaves them glistening on the tray.
White Teeth · Zadie Smith
Random House, 2000 · 448 pages, paperback