Wednesday, 21 February 2007

'White Teeth' by Zadie Smith

Okay, so I know I am a little bit late, as White Teeth was published a few years ago. I only got around to reading it at Christmas time, however. I was very disappointed, as the book had been hyped so much. It had been hyped so much that I had gone through the 'It can never live up to this degree of expectation', beyond churlish 'I'm going to dislike this book on purpose because everyone else likes it so much' and reached a state of eqilibrium where I was quite willing to like the book if it was good. Which is, I suppose, the natural condition of people who aren't bitter, cantankerous and befuddled by too much reading of critical theory. People not like me, in other words.

I go as far as to say I really wanted a good book. I was marooned in Oamaru, a very small town in New Zealand, without many books to choose from. I'd finished the book I'd travelled with. I'd bought a second hand copy of Marx's Capital from a local book store (which claimed to specialise in New Zealand authors - I had been unaware of Marx's Kiwi roots until now) and my father-in-law could offer a couple of thrillers involving airplanes and very long books about Japan by James Clavell. Like Clara near the start of White Teeth, I didn't have many options. But inspite of my palpable need to like the book, I didn't. This is my attempt to explain why.

First of all, let me explain I'm not having a go at Zadie Smith and White Teeth as such, though it will come across like that. She was in her 20s when she wrote it and gets credit for giving it a go. And at least she's tried to be ambitious - she could have written a novella about how difficult it is to be Zadie Smith. And she's pretty dismissive now about White Teeth, herself. What rankles is the praise heaped upon the novel. The cover of my edition boasts that it won the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Guardian First Book Award and the James Tait Memorial Prize for Fiction. It is "The outstanding debut of the new millenium", "Extremely funny", "Relentlessly funny", and so on, even unto the inside cover. I know the purpose of blurbs is hype the book to the point that you part with money for it, but what possessed the reviewers to use use adverbs like "Extremely", "Relentlessly", and "astonishingly"?

You might have experienced an uneasy feeling when reading a book, when the writer selects an option that you feel is the wrong one. It is a horrible sensation, as you suddenly realise that THINGS ARE NOT GOING TO PLAN. You don't know where the novel is going, but the gut reaction is often right. It suggests a two-fold flaw, both in plotting (the perceived failure to select the most interesting option) and in writing (the failure on the writer's part to present the information in a manner that convinces the reader that it is a good choice). In White Teeth, I got that feeling early, on page 26 in fact, when Clara meets Archie, and Smith immediately announces "Six weeks later, they were married." Uh-oh. Wrong turn. Bad choice, poorly presented. Sinking feeling.

Up until then, I had been experiencing positive, glowy feelings. The opening pages were good. Archie's botched suicide, his rescue and subsequent invasion of the squat were all done and amusing enough. I was willing to overlook the rather clumsy use of "muggins" on page 10. It didn't sound authentic, but maybe this social worker did talk like that. And the clever-clogs description of Archie's near-death flash back as "obligatory." And the rather Fawlty Towers-esque presentation of the family of Archie's Italian ex, the futility of Archie's ruminations on "whether 'Hoover' had become a brand name for vacuum cleaners or wheter it was, as others have argued, just a brand name" on page 11, and the crass, obvious description of the vacuum cleaner's tube as "a great flaccid cock". All these things struck me as bum notes, but I was still comfortable with where we were going and most of what I was reading. Some of it was very good - the berserk, pigeon hating Mo, though he's only in the book a couple of times, and the hilarious epistlatory interventions of Horst Ibelgaufts (who doesn't even appear in the book). And the quiet, resigned coin flipping by which Archie decides to live or die - I didn't realise that Smith was going to carry on flogging the ground, vigorously, after that particular dead horse had long been reduced to atoms.

So Archie, fresh from aborted suicide, crashes a hungover squat on New Year's Day, gets boozy with bohemians and topless Chinese chicks. I over look the fact one of the bohemians is called Petronia, because I get distracted visualising "every puckered goosepimple around Wan-Si's nipples." Yup, that works for me. Fine writing. If the whole book is another 500 pages on Wan-Si's anatomy, I'll be happy. Alas no. More clever clogsyness: "Now, as Archie understood it, in movies and the like it is common for someone to be so striking that when they walk down the stairs the crowd goes silent." Has anyone ever seen a film where this happened? But, still, things seem to be going okay, the Clara chick seems interesting, maybe we'll get a description of HER nipples ... "Six weeks later, they were married." Oh. A turn which held less promise than the other options I could envisage. And I felt that the novel was going to be a disappoinment, dragged down by some terrible literary form of gravity.

What happens after that is ... soap opera. Archie's suicidal tendencies and his surrender of control over his destiny, his discovery of scuzzy pseudo-bohemianism and Wan-Si's nipples all had potential. Smith decides to put away these interesting things and instead plays with sloughed off plots from East Enders and Coronation Street, and populates her book, not with topless Asian chicks, but a bland allsortment of caricatures, none of whom engage our interest for long and who dare not convincing. This may be controversial, as Smith has been praised for her characters. The Economist assures us, "The comedy fizzes up through the characters". They do not work for me. They are hollow, lifeless cut outs that Smith pokes about, to suit her need for constant drama and event. No sooner has Clara ambled sensuously down the stairs of the squat, all toothless gorgeousity, than she immediately settles down into a lifestyle of domestic mediocrity and hardly figures in the stor after that. The character's sole purpose seems to be to marry Archie and give birth to Irie. Once Irie is on stage, however, Smith can't find anything much for her to do either, so she introduces more characters, in the hope that if she shoves enough people together, interesting things will happen.

So we get the Chalfens, a grotesque, ill-handled caricature of the chatterring classes. If the Chalfens were to work, they would have needed a far more sympathetic rendering than Smith gives them. We would have to believe in 'Chalfenism' (ugh!), that it really was a valid option, but Smith can barely resist heaping scorn on them. She doesn't understand these people, what makes them like they are, and she is not able to make them real. But, it is okay. If you don't like them, here's a collection of animal rights anarchists on collision course. But the contempt for anything Smith doesn't agree with manifests itself again. She even goes as far as to call their leader Crispin, which should tell you all you need to know about her treatment of them. Similarly, the Black Power-esque K.E.V.I.N. is portrayed as laughable and silly. Smith isn't able to get inside the heads of people who might want to belong to these organisation, so she assumes that they are useful only for broad (and botched) comedy. Her treatment of the headmaster at the local comp is equally poor - if Richard Littlejohn were to write a novel, I'd imagine it would be polluted with caricatures of PC-ism like the headmaster. That Smith has indulged herself like this shows her naivety. In the real world, principals work so hard they don't have time to to arse around in the (largely fictitious) outer-reaches of PC lunacy. Still, the plot called for a mechanism to crowbar Irie, Millat and the Chalfens together, so one is engineered, crudely.

That said, there isn't a plot as such, just lots of stuff happening for no good reason. The book is described as "epic", with audacious "scope and vision", it is "sprawling", "big, splashy, populous" and even "reminiscent of books by Dickens" and more beside. For plot, though, all we really have is a lot of stuff happening, to various people at various times between 1857 and 1999, between Bangladesh, the Carribean and England, but with no real connection between them, in spite of Smith's attempts to pretend otherwise. Stuff happens, but there are only relationships between these different time frames and locations because Smith says so. Mangal Pande's ill-fated preface to the Indian Mutiny doesn't really have anything much to do with what befalls Samad in London, nor, tellingly, do the events of one part of the novel impact on any other part. The novel starts with Archie's suicide attempt which should be a life-changing event, successfuk or not, but it isn't. Rescued by the likeable Mo, Archie reverts to background mediocrity almost immediately. His failed suicide, put plainly, has made no change in him. He goes on as before, inspite of Smith's assurances that, as he emerges from his fume choked car, "Archie ... wanted life." Things that happen in White Teeth don't have consequences. Samad has an affair with the wholly unconvincing Poppy, but once it is over, it is over, and nothing happens as a result. He packs a son off to Bangladesh, without telling his wife this is happening, but nothing much happens as a result, though her decision to stop answering questions directly was one of the more amusing ideas in the book. Finally, devastatingly, the climax of the book leads to ... no consequence. Even the homicidally inclined Millat doesn't face a consequence for his attempted murder.

Which brings us to Smith's art. This echoes what I wrote earlier about the feeling you experience when you detect an author making the wrong choices. It goes further, percolating down through levels of plot, theme, character, down to the voice of Smith's writing. I've already intimated that I found Smith's style overly-clever and laboured. Now, I appreciate cleverness and artifice in writing - I worship Anthony Burgess and William Faulkner, for goodness sake, but it is a risky strategy. It can lead to disaster, with the writer failing to create the desired tone, ofr tripping over themselves, or ending up sounding like they are simply too clever to be bothered with their book, and only wrote because they were so clever and wanted everyopne else to know it, too. Smith's style is arch and artificial and the results are 500 smug and over-written pages. Lets start with the title: White Teeth. It sounds dangerous and interesting, but ultimately it doesn't belong to the book. there are plenty of references to teeth - Clara has her front teeth knocked out, Irie plans to become a dentist, and there are chapters with titles like "The Root Canals of Mangal Pande." The point is ... elusive, or, more likely, there isn't one. It is a conceit to allow Smith to show that she is smart and can fill her book with references to teeth, but why she would want to do this remains obscure. More problematic is the narratorial voice which sounds smug and self-satisfied, as Smith strains for effect. How can passages such as this survived editing:

"And all these people are heading for the same room. The final space. A big room, one of many in the Perret Institute; a room seperate from the exhibition yet called an exhibition room.; a corporate place , a clean slate; white / chrome / purple / plain (this was the design brief) used for the meetings of people who want to meet somewhere neutral at the end of the twentieth century; a virtual place where their business (be that rebranding, lingerie or rebranding lingerie) can be done in an emptiness, an uncontaminated cavity; the logical endpoint of a thousand years of spaces too crowded and bloody. This one is pared down, sterilized, made new everyday by a Nigerian cleaning lady with an industrial hoover and guarded through the night by Mr. De Winter, a Polish nightwatchman (that's what he calls himself 0n his job title is Asset Security Coordinator); he can be seen protecting the space, walking the borders of the space with a Walkman playing Polish folk tunes; you can see him, you can see it through a huge glass front if you walk by - the acres of protected vacuity and a sign with the prices per square foot of these square feet of space of space longer than it is wide and ..."

And so on. The full version runs for about 40 lines and ends like this: "renamed, rebranded, the answer to every questionaire nothing nothing space please just space please just space nothing please nothing space". Note the lack of full stop. Thing is, I know what Smith is trying to do here, but she has done it badly and in the wrong place - page 518 is not the correct location for stylistic excesses and it does not heighten tension. One is not wondering, "What will happen in this remarkable space?" Instead, the reader is tempted to skip to the start of the next chapter, in the hope that something will happen. Point is, if you are trying to communicate an idea, in whatever medium, it should be done in the plainest terms. Sound and Fury wavers on the edge of incomprehension because it is told, in part, by a lunatic. Shakespeare mashed the English language into new forms because he had to to try to convey his character's interior broil. Smith forgets this rule, and lards her writing with too much cleverness for the sake of cleverness. She is showing off, letting us know she can do this fancy sort of writing, but only so we'll be impressed by her verbal facility, not because she feels this was the only way of conveying what she was trying to say. And the book is full of such unconvincing passages, thankfully usually brief moments rather than page long soliloquies on emptiness. These little things add up. The wrong word in a character's mouth, or a snooty aside. At one point, the narrator smirks at a character's "invalid syllogism." Again, this is Smith showing how clever she is, so much cleverer than the little people in her book, who wouldn't know what an inalid syllogism was, and perhaps smarter than you, dear reader, who may have to pause and try to remember what a syllogism, even more so what makes one invalid.

So,there you have it. White Teeth is an apprentice piece, not the blinding white hope (see what I did there?) of British literature. As such, it should not be judged too harshly (but,wait a minute, what have you been doing for the past thousand words ...? Eh?) (You think this is harsh? I didn't even point out that Smith, for or her invalid syllogisms, doesn't know the difference between jealousy and envy.)(But you just did!) (True, I'm a bastard.) But, interior dialogues aside, I think it is important to be honest in appraising a book. A lot of people have said White Teeth is very, very good. I did not find it so, and have tried to explain why here. I am not suggesting Smith should never write another book (There is some good in the book, for all my gripes), but that reviewers should be more circumspect in their comments. It isn't a great book and it shouldn't be described as such, because this will only leave people disillusioned, and is unfair on Smith, who needs time to develop as a writer, without the constant attention, and acclaim, and the slavering hope that she'll trip up spectacularly concealed barely beneath.

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