Monday, December 24, 2012

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

White Teeth impressed me above all for its marriage of the realistic and fantastic.

From early on, we get a heavy dose of the fantastic: Darcus Bowden's perfect recumbency, Samad and Alsana Iqbal's epic wrestling bouts, Horst Ibelgaufts' epistolary clairvoyance, the metronomic consistency of Archie Jones' cycling.

I am also inclined to look at the just so story of Archie and Samad's wartime service together in this light.

The realism comes especially in dialogue -- notably Situations With People Saying Awkward Things, which Smith really sinks her teeth into.  Among these, the scenes with Poppy Burt-Jones and the Chalfens particularly stood out.

Smith has a sense for telling and memorable metaphor, whether homely or erudite.  Archie's first encounter with Clara is a true display of metaphoric virtuosity

And not only was she the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, she was also the most comforting woman he had ever met.  Her beauty was not a sharp, cold commodity. She smelled musty, womanly, like a bundle of your favorite clothes.  Though she was disorganized physically -- legs and arms speaking a slightly different dialect from her central nervous system -- even her gangly demeanor seemed to Archie exceptionally elegant.  She wore her sexuality with an older woman's ease, and not (as with most of the girls Archie had run with in the past) like an awkward purse, never knowing how to hold it, where to hang it, or when to just put it down. (20)

Putting "exceptionally elegant" at the end of that penultimate sentence took me aback at first, but now I feel that it is just right -- it gives the the sentence a smooth and languid feel that "seemed exceptionally elegant to Archie" would not.

This metaphor, describing how Irie dug into the documentary fragments of her family history, also struck home for me.
She laid claim to the past -- her version of the past --  aggressively, as if retrieving misdirected mail. (331)

Another thing that stands out is Smith's cleverness and creativity with language -- I'm thinking of Niece of Shame, or gently mocking acronyms like KEVIN and FATE -- and the sense of joy in invention that I get while reading her.

Even though the novel starts out with Archie and Clara, and devotes much attention to their story, Samad and Irie are its real emotional center. The exemplify the spirit of frustrated striving, which is subdued in Clara (who rather gets lost in the plot) and absent altogether in Archie.

Magid and Millat Iqbal's diverging paths are a clever, implied riposte to Marcus Chalfen's deterministic project, as is Archie's willed randomness -- and yet ... Archie isn't comfortable allowing a flip of the coin to be decisive when it really counts, and there is a kind of common ground in the opposed ideological fervor of Magid and Millat (though Magid really sees people, their individual wants and problems and feelings, in a way that Millat doesn't)

Although at the most obvious level the novel is about immigrants struggling to find a place in England -- or about blowing up the whole idea of a sense of place that keeps them from fitting in -- the way that women are an afterthought to the plans of men, and fight to assert themselves, is just as important a theme.  It is shared even by as unlikely a figure as Hortense Bowden, who aspires to a bigger role with the Jehovah's Witnesses.

While we were discussing this novel, LTG made this acute observation : Zadie Smith's novels are about encounters between people, about connections, most of which are missed connections

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