It’s been a while since my last post, yes, that is true. I’ve been having a busy (and not particularly pleasant) summer, but this is not going to be about the stresses of my own life, but about the enjoyable occasional breaks I’ve taken from it over the last fortnight as I slowly read Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.
I hadn’t read any of Smith’s fiction before (save a short story in Granta I didn’t find that engaging), but I have read and enjoyed several of her essays. She’s a fan of my favourite comedian, Edward Aczel*, she likened Karl Ove Knausgaard to crack and she likes David Foster Wallace (JUST LIKE ME), so really I should have looked at her acclaimed fiction earlier.
Particularly as White Teeth, published in 2000, is bloody great. It is witty, it is involving, it is insightful and it is sharp. I don’t think I’ve ever, for example, ever been as wowed by a closing twist as I was in the final pages of this book, a brilliant and unexpected denouement that tied the novel into a beautiful bow and rendered entertainingly pointless the plots of the previous two chapters. Because this is where the book shows its strengths – a lot happens to lots of people and it is funny and (mostly) believable, but what is essential is that the plot doesn’t really matter. There is a section in the Second World War, but it’s more about young, confused men and could have been set anywhere at any time… There’s a section about genetic experimentation in the 90s, which is more an excuse to discuss religious fundamentalism and draw attention to the dehumanisation that happens within the conversation of scientists/doctors etc. There’s a lot about immigrant communities in North West London, about mixed race marriage, about religion (about all kinds of religions), about sex and sexuality, about drugs and alcohol, about traditionalism and aging, about fear and about regret and about people’s shared and entrenched experiences. Nature vs nurture; science vs faith; hope vs realism; immediate gratification vs the possibility of later and better gratification. All the big themes of literature are in here**, and they are all dealt with well and entertainingly.
White Teeth, and I suppose this is my main point, is brilliantly entertaining. It is pacey, it has a wide cast of characters sketched out with quite some detail. It is, broadly, social satire – no one is ever praised or seen to be 100% right about anything – Jehovah’s witnesses waiting for the end of the world, fundamentalist Muslims self-identifying as Hollywood-type gangsters, lapsed Catholics, lapsed Muslims, lapsed Baptists, lapsed Hindus… There are all sorts of people and types of people mocked and picked apart in here, and there are so many characters that my only real criticism of the book would be that a few too many seem to disappear or (at least) float into the background by the end, but I think that is only really an apparent fault because I read the book so slowly.
I really enjoyed this, to conclude, that’s my ultimate point. It made me laugh a lot, it made me feel a bit sad at several points (though I didn’t go full catharsis) and I think this must be the first book set in London that I’ve enjoyed for bloody ages. In fact, Mrs Dalloway is probably the last London-book I loved and I think I read that about nine months ago…
I would recommend White Teeth and will, one day, read a bit more Zadie Smith. Excellent.
** Most of them, to be more honest. Death, not really, not so much.