Context: Me and Mrs Arkiyomi read this together a chapter at a time while we toured Europe inlcuding tea on this Aegean ferry.
My first Zadie Smith and it seems it was hers too. For a first novel, I’m willing to relax the usual full blast of critical comment. That said, I’ll still not be letting it off lightly.
Like Never Let Me Go or any Murakami book you pick up, Teeth I found a cowardly attempt to deal with some of, particularly Britain’s, contemporary issues. And, boy doesn’t she raise a lot of issues ladies and gentlemen.
There’s imperialism, race, immigration, sexuality, genetics, teenage angst, religion and pretty much everything else including the meaning of life. In fact, I got to thinking that perhaps Smith thought that this might be her one and only shot at getting herself heard in the world and so she just bunged in everything that concerned her.
While Smith does allow the characters more room than many contemporary novels to suggest and attempt various solutions to the issues of life that she includes, there’s little evaluation here of better or worse. Rather, she sets out to show how people blunder through life from one philosophy to the next, from religion to secularism and back again, from rejecting their elders to obeying them blindly, from trusting themselves, to trusting science, etc.
This is a post-modernist novel par excellence as it deals not only with characters on the post-modern stage but covers enough of a time span to give some historical perspective on how we’ve moved into this era in our sad histories. But the novel is, I feel, too trapped within this view to be in any way objective about that.
Smith has, like many of the contemporaries she must have no doubt even subconsciously emulated, created a world where tolerance of anything, even the potentially damaging views of some for society, must be maintained, described and carefully protected from any evaluation that would make one seem in any way better than another.
And here the novel lets down the reader as Smith builds to a climax that never happens. And how could it really? Extremism and its fallout are neutralised not because they are intrinsically evil in any way, but simply because of the moral agnosticism of key characters. Terrorism is prevented not because it is unacceptable but because we haven’t decided yet whether people have the right to express it.
This is, of course, an extreme example of cultural differences but even when the differences are slight, the characters still battle to reach mutual understanding with no seeming basis on which to do so. This very accurately, I feel, reflects the moral marsh in the UK at the moment with the result that it is becoming increasingly difficult to actually say what you personally believe any more.
White Teeth is an important novel then, because it captures the mindset of the generation and, although I didn’t enjoy reading it, it did give me insight into the shifting tides of moral confusion that most of my contemporaries are subject too.
Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway.
Go on my son! thought Archie.
terrible > poor > mediocre > okay > good > very good > excellent > superb