Who’s English Now?
Check out a map of London: The city seems to sprawl endlessly, its high streets spoking this way and that amid a dizzying patchwork of interlocking hamlets and maddeningly meandering lanes. Insatiable curiosity and the desire to make sense of it draws the eye back again and again, retracing routes, discovering patterns, seeing new colors.
In Zadie Smith’s dazzling intergenerational first novel, “White Teeth,” the 24-year-old Cambridge graduate offers a similarly hypnotic and multicolored experience, transforming London’s outlines into an infinitely complex mandala whose true shape is, in the end, unfixed and unknowable. Against this beguiling backdrop, with its shades of Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Hanif Kureishi and even Charles Dickens, Smith’s multicultural Londoners attend to pressing questions of family and fate as they navigate a treacherous maze of history, identity and, most inescapably, race. All the while, their stubborn ties to the outposts of the former Empire--the subcontinent and the West Indies--are stretched perilously taut, like rubber bands pulled to the snapping point.
It’s typical of Smith’s masterly flair for suggestive ironies that the sole character in “White Teeth” who’s not particularly beset by issues of hue--the thoroughly working-class, comically Caucasian Archie Jones--should find himself, as the book opens, at an apparent dead end. With the dawning of New Year’s Day 1975, Archie--47, recently divorced from his crazy Italian wife and living above a deserted chip shop--parks his car in a London byway and, in accordance with a New Year’s resolution (determined, like all of Archie’s major decisions, by coin toss), attempts suicide by carbon monoxide asphyxiation. But whatever it is “that Makes Shit Happen had decided it was second-chance time for Archie,” so he miraculously survives and, by close of day, goes on to meet his soon-to-be second wife, a lithe, miniskirted 19-year-old Jamaican ex-Jehovah’s Witness, Clara Bowden, who, curiously, is missing her top row of teeth. Smith teasingly drops oblique dental metaphors like red herrings throughout the book.
With Archie, Smith focuses our attention on the kind of guy you might otherwise overlook in a crowded pub scene from “East Enders,” a man whose greatest pleasures are English breakfasts and puttering around the home. And yet it’s precisely Archie’s monochromatic blandness, uncritical common sense and overall cluelessness that somehow render him--and, by extension, his young black wife--colorblind.
This luxury is denied Archie’s best friend, Samad Iqbal, a history-obsessed Bengali who likes to remind everyone within earshot that Mangal Pande--Indian revolutionary or drunken fool, depending on whom you believe--was his great-grandfather. Despite his pretensions to pedigree, flair for philosophizing and good looks, Samad slaves away as a long-suffering curry slinger in a low-rent Indian restaurant.
Archie and Samad’s friendship is the dynamic engine that powers Smith’s tale. In an extended flashback, we discover that their lifelong bond is rooted in World War II, which the two of them muddled through in a tank squad known, owing to its ineptitude, as the “Buggered Battalion.” Archie has always been Sancho Panza to Samad’s glory-seeking Don Quixote, and so it continues through the decades, as this cross-cultural odd couple meets day after day for greasy fry-ups at O’Connors (a former Irish establishment now owned by Muslims) to mull over the inescapable past and the latest baffling developments of the waning 20th century.
But past, present and future play themselves out in divergent ways for Smith’s rather feckless patriarchs and their families. While Archie, Clara and their daughter, Irie, cruise along on autopilot, despite being a biracial family in easily offended Old England, the willful Samad, his intractably pragmatic wife Alsana and their twins, Magid and Millat, “can’t help but reenact the dash they once made from one land to another, from one faith to another, from one brown mother country into the pale, freckled arms of an imperial sovereign.”
It’s as if the immigrant Iqbals are caught in an endless loop, forced to hash out the same melting-pot issues--of losing their language, integrity and faith in a godless England--again and again. In a desperate bid to preserve Iqbal tradition, Samad--who finds himself drawn into a guilt-laden affair with a red-haired schoolteacher--decides to send one of the twins back to the homeland to be spared the sins of the West. (He can afford to send only one twin home.) After prolonged agonizing, Samad chooses Magid, flying the unsuspecting 10-year-old back to what is by now, in 1984, Bangladesh, where Magid will remain for the next eight years.
At this point, the human geography of “White Teeth” pops into stunning 3-D, as Smith turns to the Jones and Iqbal offspring, whose multicultural legacies are now coming to radically diverse, teenage fruition. Magid, in a series of flowery postcards and letters from the mother country, reveals himself as an effeminate intellectual dandy with more interest in science and law than in the Koran.
Millat, meanwhile, grows into a kind of subcontinental homeboy, a swaggering, sarcastic, homophobic “Raggastani” given to spliffs, sex and putting “the Invincible back in Indian, the Bad-aaaass back in Bengali, the P-Funk back in Pakistani.” Millat’s rampant Bengal pride (he takes a hard line against “The Satanic Verses”) is the mirror image of Magid’s Bangladeshi denial; he’s eventually sucked into a fringe Muslim fundamentalist movement, which he views in terms of gangster flicks, tailoring Ray Liotta’s gritty voice-over in “GoodFellas” to fit his own cultural identity needs: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a Muslim.”
Irie, for her part, has become obsessed with her ungainly figure; only gradually does she become aware of the cultural weight she lugs around as a half-English, half-Jamaican teenager. (Even this is complicated by the fact that her mother, Clara, has English blood, too.) When Irie strikes up a friendship with the Chalfens, a clever, middle-class white family, her desire to assimilate and aspire begin to shape her into an inquiring, if self-conscious, young woman.
Smith has an anthropologist’s unsparing eye when it comes to examining habits and habitats, and she’s at her most damning in reporting her findings on the Chalfens: Ultra-bourgeois, eggheaded, self-obsessed, condescending and perfect, the Chalfens are an imposing clan who wear their open-mindedness like blue ribbons at a school fair.
As Irie ponders whether her destiny is trying to pass among the Chalfens of the world or emigrating to Jamaica, Smith orchestrates a momentum-filled endgame in which all the various players in this tragicomic saga--including the sanguine Archie and Clara; the increasingly religious Samad; the Westernized, recently returned Magid; the militantly anti-Western Millat; Irie’s Armageddon-obsessed Jehovah’s Witness grandmother; and Irie herself--inevitably collide in rather cosmic surreal fashion.
With so much story to deliver, Smith keeps “White Teeth” humming, not bothering to dally amid the book’s panoramic cast, Gordian tangle of symbolism, intricately contrived plot and big issues: the immigrant’s fear of dissolution, the nationalist’s fear of miscegenation, the notion that “homeland is one of the magical fantasy words like unicorn and soul and infinity” and the idea that though you can’t outrun history, you can do some pretty far-out things with the gene pool.
Halfway into her 20s, Smith is already a wonderfully inventive synthesizer of ideas and a master of style whose prose is playful yet unaffected, mongrel yet cohesive, profound yet funny, vernacular yet lyrical.
It would be no great dishonor to see “White Teeth” turn into a pop event; it deserves the luxury of an expanded audience, and the multicolored London it describes is the stuff of Cornershop records, Mike Leigh films and Chris Ofili canvases. And it’s boldly democratic in its desire to put flashes of profundity in the mouths of the unlikeliest characters, including Alsana, Samad’s no-nonsense wife, who at one point blurts out: "[Y]ou go back and back and back and it’s still easier to find the correct Hoover bag than to find one pure person, one pure faith, on the globe. Do you think anybody is English? Really English? It’s a fairy tale!”
In Smith’s London, racial demarcation lines are as jumbled as the city’s crooked streets, and race itself becomes as hazily immaterial--and as impossible to ignore--as a stubborn English fog.