We don’t usually look to Black women’s lit for jokes, bioethics, or for those narrative schools known as the picaresque, the postmodern, or the encyclopedic. It’s not like these absences arise from a lack of mordant wit or from an inability to unspool a shambolic story about the meaning of existence (think of Scheherazade, think J, think of Gayl Jones and Lauryn Hill). Actually, it’s only because we’ve been waiting for Zadie Smith, now 24, who has composed as gut-busting and auspicious a debut novel as Pynchon’s V. that is two guffaws ahead of the zeitgeist and saturated with all manner of postcolonial subjectivities—Jamaican, Bengali, Arabic, Italian, neo-Nazi eugenicist. Deconstructing race for the 21st century is Smith’s bailiwick, her coal-mine canary, Rosetta stone, and tolling bell. Beware it tolls not for thee.
Big, multigenerational, and very British in the way of scathing social satire, White Teeth is partially about what it feels like to be an assimilated brown-skinned Bengali subject of the Queen, and partially about the pervasive fear of a mongrel planet. As befits a book here to inform Ishmael Reed, David Foster Wallace, William Gibson, Paul Gilroy, and Gayatri Spivak that There’s a New Sheriff in Town, White Teeth wears its brains and brainy bons mots on its sleeve: “But it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears—dissolution, disappearance.”
The novel is full of lovely dagger-turning sentences like those. Imagine Charlie Parker with a typewriter, Coltrane with a laptop. Cheeky like ain’t nobody’s business if she do, Smith spares few in her all-out assault on the nuclear family, racial purity, paternalism, bad hair, eugenics, any hint of hypocrisy committed in the name of Allah, and the frightful brotherhood of impotent, disenfranchised men.
Playing the role of perpetual patriarchal asswipe in this black comedy of postcolonial manners is Samad Iqbal—Bengali Muslim immigrant; undistinguished war veteran; disgruntled one-handed headwaiter; husband to the wise, feisty Alsana; father to twin sons, roughneck Millat and effete Magid; and best friend of Archie Jones. Archie, head of the book’s second significant household, is husband to Jamaican lapsed Jehovah’s Witness and denture-wearing bombshell Clara, and father to Irie. The child, who belies her feel-good name with excruciating struggles with book-learning, buckteeth, bad hair, worse weave jobs, big bones, and a broken heart, is the book’s most heartwarming character. Rounding out the portrait of put-upon patriarchy is Marcus Chalfen, scion of a long-running intellectual aristocracy, husband to Joyce, hippie botanist and a designer of genetic monstrosities.
These portrayals would register as so much clever juvenilia were White Teeth not so insightfully character driven, exquisitely plotted, and secretly fueled by that rage Baldwin identified as a constant companion of the Black and conscious—never mind Black and female—mind. Every so often Smith peels back the sarcastic surface to reveal a character’s demiurge, as with butcher Mo—why it’s not too good to turn the other cheek in a white man’s country too long.
. . . general fascists, specific neo-Nazis, the local snooker team, the darts team, the football team, and huge posses of mouthy, white-skirted secretaries in deadly heels. These various people had various objections to him: he was a Paki. . . . They were all white. And this simple fact had done more to politicize Mo over the years than all the party broadcasts, rallies, and petitions the world could offer.
Reviewers keep praising White Teeth for not being your typical autobiographical first novel. White Teeth is atypically diverse as first novels go, but so is Willesden, the North London neighborhood where Smith grew up. The social journeys one can imagine a savagely observant overachiever and self-described stoner might take growing up there, especially one from a Jamaican-British union as Smith is, seem consistent with White Teeth. I’m betting the cultural complexities she wrings out of waiting tables at an Indian restaurant and the mathematical theorems of the Jehovah’s Witnesses are likely as familiar to her as discussing the intricacies of pathogenic mutagens.
White Teeth is virtuosic and prodigious beyond belief in its command of epic and epoch-raiding Pynchonesque novelistic technique. That said, one can only wish for Smith’s work to grow as emotionally resonant as her symphonic command of the form. For as wicked and chocked with memorable incidents as White Teeth is, it doesn’t leave gaping wounds. It can hurt your sides from laughing, but it doesn’t haunt you.
In attempting to cauterize the invisibility blues of colored British folk with vicious sarcasm, Smith takes a nail-paring authorial voice so above the fray that her characters’ internal wranglings don’t seem fraught with much mortal consequence. In a lesser talent this failure wouldn’t matter, but Smith is extravagantly gifted enough to be held accountable for how movingly she renders the complexity of human vulnerability.
Ralph Ellison’s great critique of Richard Wright—that Wright couldn’t imagine a Black person as evolved as himself living in his fictions—may be applicable to Smith, though it’s much too early to tell. White Teeth is a grand and masterful performance and a phenomenally fast read, but it wears a tongue-in-cheek mask, walks on comedic crutches, and keeps the author’s own cards so close to her chest they read like embroidery and not the stuff deferred dreams are made of. The novel also seems, for all its heft and multiple cultural perspectives, remarkably slight, if not evasive, on the matter of how people of African and Afro-Caribbean descent interact with one another on British soil. You could say that’s another book and you’d be right. But as someone who knows hella-alienated negroes in the U.K. and something of their crabby barrels, I’m just puzzled—why do I get the feeling she’d rather write about any mess but that one? Though on the other hand, who can fault Smith, who’s avoided the Black Public Intellectual soapbox so far, for keeping a few secrets and subject positions to herself? If nothing else, that reticence points to her knowing how the world conspires to set agendas and steal young, gifted, and successful Black artists from their work desks. Incredibly enough, Smith just might be even smarter than her smackdown writing declares her to be.