Sunday, December 26, 2010

White Teeth (2000)

Ho-hum, another day, another prodigy. Published when Zadie Smith was just 24, this ambitious, juicy, sweeping novel takes on globalism and post-racialism at its most mundane (and therefore its most profound) levels, the levels at which we live with it every day. A comedy acting occasionally as if it thinks it's a tragedy, it tells the story of the friendship between two middle-aged World War II buddies living in London as the 20th century nears its end—Archie Jones, a British national whose first wife is Italian and second wife a Jamaican Jehovah's Witness decades younger than him (and it's real love this time) and Samad Iqbal, a stubbornly proud Bangladeshi who clings to the traditions he knows, for the sake of his twin sons and their heritage and his own sense of identity, even as he watches those traditions rapidly disappearing in a grotesque world. Along the way these two families become enmeshed with another family of British nationals, the Chalfens. Marcus Chalfen is a brilliant Jewish scientist specializing in genetics (he is working with the DNA of mice on a "FutureMouse," to which various fundamentalists inhabiting this story have grave objections) and his wife Joyce is a lapsed Catholic hippie chick. Even as the various stereotypes embraced by this vastly multi-hued cast stand up and represent, the tangled interconnections and alliances and surprising commonalities between the various figures not only continually bleed the lines separating them but enable them—and here's the real miracle of the thing—to do so as fully formed, individual, and unique human beings, with back stories and private griefs and joys and engaging quirks that distinguish them and make them practically, as the usual cliché for this moment would have it, step off the page. After all the bluster and howling we see reported every day by 24-hour news outlets, there's a firm sense here that this is what immigration actually looks like. Laid across the scope of this novel are Bible-thumpers, apocalyptic rumblings, gangsters, rap music, marijuana, and a whole lot more, even Nazis. Is it a little bit busy? Yes, as hell. Does it work? Not always. At points it feels labored, even mechanical. Watch closely and you'll see that even a kitchen sink is involved in the action. Is it nevertheless brash and thrilling? Yes, entirely, an auspicious kickoff to the 21st century that I suspect people will still be reading even as it turns into the 22nd century (if indeed, obligatory sour note, we actually manage to make it there).

In case it's not at the library.

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