From the Publisher: On New Year's morning, 1975, Archie Jones sits in his car on a London road and waits for the exhaust fumes to fill his Cavalier Musketeer station wagon. Archie-working-class, ordinary, a failed marriage under his belt-is calling it quits, the deciding factor being the flip of a 20-pence coin. When the owner of a nearby halal butcher shop (annoyed that Archie's car is blocking his delivery area) comes out and bangs on the window, he gives Archie another chance at life and sets in motion this richly imagined, uproariously funny novel. Epic and intimate, hilarious and poignant, White Teeth is the story of two North London families-one headed by Archie, the other by Archie's best friend, a Muslim Bengali named Samad Iqbal. Pals since they served together in World War II, Archie and Samad are a decidedly unlikely pair. Plodding Archie is typical in every way until he marries Clara, a beautiful, toothless Jamaican woman half his age, and the couple have a daughter named Irie (the Jamaican word for "no problem"). Samad-devoutly Muslim, hopelessly "foreign"-weds the feisty and always suspicious Alsana in a prearranged union. They have twin sons named Millat and Magid, one a pot-smoking punk-cum-militant Muslim and the other an insufferable science nerd. The riotous and tortured histories of the Joneses and the Iqbals are fundamentally intertwined, capturing an empire's worth of cultural identity, history, and hope. Zadie Smith's dazzling first novel plays out its bounding, vibrant course in a Jamaican hair salon in North London, an Indian restaurant in Leicester Square, an Irish poolroom turned immigrant cafe, a liberal public school, a sleek science institute. A winning debut in every respect, White Teeth marks the arrival of a wondrously talented writer who takes on the big themes-faith, race, gender, history, and culture-and triumphs.
The book opens in 1975 as Archie Jones is sitting in his car, trying to asphyxiate himself with a vacuum cleaner hose that’s attached to the car’s exhaust system. His wife has divorced him and life doesn’t seem worth living. He’s saved because he parked his car (inconveniently) next to the Halal butcher who was waiting for a load of bovine and this just will not do. Archie is thankful to be saved and goes on to marry Clara Bowden, whose black roots go back to Jamaica and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Archie, friends with Samad Iqbal sine the war, whose roots, along with those of his wife Alsana go back to Bangladesh. For the most part, the book is about these two families and the problems faced by immigrants across the world and through the generations. Later in the story, another purely British family, liberal intellectuals, is introduced and, paradoxically, the pot really begins to boil. Their interference in the lives of the Jones and Iqbal children, at the expense of their own children, provides another interesting look at the diversity of modern society.
”This has been the century of strangers, brown, yellow and white. This has been the century of the great immigrant experience. It is only this late in the day that you can walk into a playground and find Isaac Leung by the fish pond, Danny Rahman in the football cage, Quang O’Rourke bouncing a basketball and Irie Jones humming a tune. Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checkups. It is only this late in the day, and only in Willesden, that you can find best friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because Sita is white (her mother liked the name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best---less trouble). Yet despite all the mixing up, despite the fact that we have finally slipped into each other’s lives with reasonable comfort (like a man returning to his lover’s bed after a midnight walk), despite all this, it is still hard to admit that there is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English. There are still young white men who are angry about that; who will roll out at closing time into the poorly lit streets with a kitchen knife wrapped in a tight fist.” (Page 272)
Smith’s forte is characterization and, I must say, she is wizard-like as she develops these characters and, through them, explores the issues of race, sex and class facing, not only the UK, but countries all over the world. Delving into multiculturalism through multiple points of view allows the reader a unique perspective. The white teeth of the title expound on this theme.
I found White Teeth to be wildly funny and yet terribly thought provoking and prescient (this was, after all published before 9/11). Highly recommended.
I loved this book, as much for Smith’s underlying premise that as humans we are all monumentally fucked up in some way, as for the depths of character without which the book simply would not work and which she manages so adroitly.
What follows in its 450 pages covers events in multiple familial time lines dating back to 1857 (well, the religious stuff goes a bit further but isn’t the most prominently featured) and touches heavily upon a debate that very clearly dominated the television show Lost: Religion (faith) vs. Science. The debate doesn’t particularly get going until the third act when multiple plot threads meet up in 1992 but by the time you get there you have a firm grasp on the factors motivating the Jones’, Bowden’s, Iqbal’s, and Chalfen’s on their respective paths.
The sticking point of the novel revolves around Archibald Jones and Samad Iqbal, two men who were stationed in the same squad of misfits during WWII, a friendship that develops for decades to come, adding wives and children to the mix who don’t necessarily share similar world views, despite their native customs. The book begins in 1974 where Archibald, having recently been divorced by his wife, decides not to kill himself, leading to a chance meeting with Clara Bowden, mixed from Jamaican descent, at a new year’s party. Despite a thirty year age gap the two marry several weeks later and soon have a girl, Irie Jones.
Through that emerging marriage we’re introduced to the Iqbal’s, Samad and Alsana. Of Bangladesh descent, the Iqbal’s traditional arranged marriage (with also several decades separating ages of man and wife) is rife with domestic fights and disagreements about how to raise their kids, twins Magid and Millat. Their most consistent debate is how to instill traditional religious values without becoming corrupt to the Western ways living in London that directly conflict with the teachings of Islam and devotion to Allah. Wanting to thwart the influence of Western culture and fortify his sons’ faith in religion Samad singlehandedly (and after much oscillation) decides to drain his resources to send a ten-year old Magid back to Bangladesh in hopes of sparing him from what he sees as a ‘Kaffir existence’.
The crucial turning point occurs at Glenard Oak Academy when a school-wide sweep of the campus, in a vain attempt to thwart the perceived smoking threat of cannabis and tobacco, ensnares Irie, Millat, and walking doormat Joshua Chalfen. His parents, the Chalfens’, who are intellectual and scientific powerhouses (and perhaps the most naivest bubble family on the planet), take on the task of educating the trio as punishment and invariably drive the Iqbal’s and Jones’ on a collision course nine years later when a genetic engineering experiment known as FutureMouse! threatens the foundations of several religious outfits.
Smith’s book is entirely about the agonizing over cultural customs that have long defined a particular group and how best to deal with them while living in a place that doesn’t necessarily recognize your full human rights. How to deal when your children choose a path separate from the one you originally envisioned. How best to hang on to your heritage when your lineage isn’t terribly well-defined or respected. How it sometimes feel like every pair of eyes are on you because you look different, and all of the accompanying self-doubt and despair (Irie’s mixed race heritage figures prominently into this in the earlier chapters). Samad, and to a certain extent Irie, feel this conflict as often as they breathe. It’s in their face everyday. Samad, continually at odds with his own familiar legacy, makes great pains to protect that legacy and inadvertently does the exact opposite, much to the dismay of Alsana.
At the forefront seems to be a lot of mental repression (especially in the case of Samad/Alsana).
Through the narrative characters glorify their own past so their own might not be such a let down and remain steadfast in their principles and I guess this is what happens when it finally comes to a head. I can’t remember another story that’s brought together Atheists, Islamic fundamentalists, and Jehovah Witnesses in such a direct way before.
So does it show similarity to something resembling DFW? To me, not all. And that’s not an insult, because I think Smith has written something worthy of her own brand. Smith, unlike other authors, doesn’t pepper the language with fanciful tricks to try and enhance what is already there. She’s good and letting the subtle differences of her characters (i.e. Clara and Irie’s ever-present Jamaican vernacular) transform our understanding of their respective conflicts.
It is hilarious at parts but I can’t give it more than 3 stars because this is one case where the whole adds up to less than the sum of the parts; many pages were entertaining, but the whole story didn’t wow me.
I do like how it’s funny in sad parts, including the suicide attempt at the beginning! loved that. However, when the narrator wasn’t amusing me, they were annoying me.
The story is very busy, sprawling, lots characters, lots going on, too weird structure for me and writing I found distancing, and it seemed very ambitious but for me it didn’t succeed and it ultimately felt like kind of a mess. I often do like big epic novels, but this one didn’t come together for me.
I think it tried to be profound (immigration, race, cultural, identity, etc. ) but I don’t think it succeeded. I was interested in Irie for a time, but then not, and I don’t think any of the characters will stick with me. I didn’t get that invested in any of them.
I didn’t like most of the deviations from the regular font text, but the family tree (on page 281 of my edition) was a hoot. I have some interest in genealogy and I’d love to see more detailed, honest family trees such as this one.
There are also lots of quotable quotes. I liked many including, “Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.” This quote does get repeated.
I’m not sure how to sum up my feelings/thoughts about the book except to reiterate how read certain pages was a pleasure but reading the book in its entirety was not. And, the whole wasn’t as good as some of its parts; the whole didn’t come together for me.
White Teeth is a story that brings together three very different families; the Jones', very English; the Jones' wartime family friends the Iqbal's; and finally, the archetypal middle-class academic family meant to bring the Iqbal and Jones children into academic fruition, the Chalfen's.
The two main protagonist of the story, wartime buddies Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal meet everyday to discuss the war and argue over the glory of lack thereof of Samad's great-great-grandfather. Their stories remain in the past, as does their lives. They rarely spend time with their families and when they do, often leave them in dispute.
Their wives lead very different lives, being the typical wives of the 1970s and 1980s they stay at home to raise the kids. That is until Samad decides the fate of one of their (Samad and his wife, Alsana's) twins without her permission. Alsana refuses to speak directly to him for the rest of their miserable marriage because of this fateful decision. Clara on the other hand tries to better herself through education, running away from her Jamaican highly-religious upbringing, towards a more academic English lifestyle. Ironically, so does her daughter, yet neither appear to relish this fact in the other.
You can read this novel from a starch feminist view by commenting on the many sexist comments made towards the main women of the novel, the roles they play in their husbands and boyfriends lives, as well as their futil attempts at bettering themselves through education. For Marcus Chalfen, a scientist, remarks upon Irie's intelligence and aspirations by stating that he "doesn't "hold out much hope for her aspriations in the field of "hard science"" (Smith 305). Even Irie's grandmother remarks upon her mother's education as having been a euphism for sexual advances by white men during the time when Jamaica was being colonized by Europeans and Americans. The futility of women's education is made abundantly clear throughout the novel, and is ironically both appropriate for the time it was written, for the time the story was written, and for today. It is as if the issue over women's rights is timeless.
You can also read this story through a commentory over time itself. The two old men of the story, Archie and Samad are stuck in the past. Samad pushes so hard to raise good Muslim men out of his two twins who, thanks in part to his great pushing, shoot out in opposite but similar directions. Magid becomes a lawyer working for men's rights; Millat becomes a terrorist working for what he believes to be as Islamic rights in England. Neither upholding the Muslim beliefs as Samad had pictured it. Archie simply lives in the past because his present and future hold nothing of value. For whatever reason, he refuses to really acknowledge his wife or child. It is as if he feels that he has completed his life's work as far as making a family nad working goes, and has settled with the knowledge that this is so. The contrast between the children's present and future forward-thinking lifestyle with their fathers' living in the past makes for a wonderful commentary throughout the novel.
Finally, but definitely not lastly since there are plenty of different ways one could read through this novel, there is the reading of this novel as a love story. As love's labor's lost, if you will. You see relationships come together, and relationships come apart. Mostly failed marriages with the one happy marriage between Marcus and Joyce Chalfen even having it's faults. This last reading of the novel could be a fatalistic view of marriage as there being no happy marriage; there being no real glorifying of monogamy. Or, you could read this is as settling in marriage being the proverbial kryptonite of true love and happiness. I also find it quite interesting that the one truly happy, playful couple in the story besides the Chalfen's is the homosexual Maxine and Niece-of-Shame.
Overall, I think reading the story without a lens lends the reader a very clear picture of immigrant life from the 1970s and 80s, which interestingly enough, hasn't changed all that much. I think much of the commentary of the story can be reflective of the lifestyles of immigrants in England today. Immigrants then and now still take on the dead end jobs that no one else wants so that they can raise their families in hopes of giving them better lives and a better education. With everyone in the world being descendant's of immigrants at some point in time or another, this begs the question, what does it mean to truly be English? To truly have a homeland?
Bottom line here, there is a lot going on in this novel in mutltiple layers. So many stories, interceding, intermingling, interplaying throughout the whole of the novel. Many themes including but not limited to finding one's identity as an adolescent; finding one's identity as an adult; finding one's identity as a twin; retaining one's culture as an immigrant; assimiliating to a new culture as an immigrant; finding a balance between retaining one's culture and assimilating to a new culture as an immigrant; finding a women's role in a feminist/post-feminist world; finding religious sensibility in the 20th century; what it means to be living in a global-thinking multicultural society; how to relate in a global-thinking multicultural society; what is beautiful in women; what it means to be a man in the 20th century; do our careers make us, or is it our personalities that predestine our careers; how much of our destiny is pre-ordained; should the past be prologue; and the list goes on, ad finitum. These are discussions I would love to have on the book, and possible teachable topics in college, or high school even! I would love to lead a class through this novel and it would certainly be a challenge to do so with high schoolers, but it would definitely be a worthwhile climb!
At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad and their families become agents of England’s irrevocable transformation. A second marriage to Clara Bowden, a beautiful, albeit tooth-challenged, Jamaican half his age, quite literally gives Archie a second lease on life, and produces Irie, a knowing child whose personality doesn’t quite match her name (Jamaican for “no problem”). Samad’s late-in-life arranged marriage (he had to wait for his bride to be born), produces twin sons whose separate paths confound Iqbal’s every effort to direct them, and a renewed, if selective, submission to his Islamic faith. Set against London’s racial and cultural tapestry, venturing across the former empire and into the past as it barrels toward the future, White Teeth revels in the ecstatic hodgepodge of modern life, flirting with disaster, confounding expectations, and embracing the comedy of daily existence.
I've learned books are no different. We have our distinct tastes and just because we don't like a particular flavor of book doesn't mean it's not a great book. The problem again lies in the fact that everyone else (well, just about everyone) will tell you that you're wrong. Case in point: White Teeth. White Teeth is the “greatest work of fiction,” “the perfect novel,” “a tour de force by such a young author.” And here's the thing: if you think Dickens, Rushdie, and Franzen are great, yes, Zadie Smith has perhaps written the best book ever; she even did it at the age of 21. I acknowledge that White Teeth is a wonderfully written Dickensian novel. Here is a huge cast of characters, unique but largely unrealistic, focusing on ludicrous moments in life. Like Dickens, Smith's work contains autobiographical elements and critiques society in a satirical fashion. Yes, Smith has possibly out Dickensed Dickens.
Regardless of all indicators otherwise, not everyone likes this style. What's that you say? Sacrilege? Sure novels such as David Copperfield and Midnight's Children are often on lists of greatest works ever. Sure, there are many compliments you can give Rushdie, Irving, and company. I mean, even I like their stories—when they're adapted to film. And putting my finger on what I don't like about the style is difficult. I can say it's the sprawling narrative, but I enjoy Mitchell. I can blame the omniscient and distant narrator, but I love Tolstoy. I can say it's the overly convenient plot points, but I'm a fan of Eugenides. In the end, I think it's largely about tone. There's a smugness in these novels, an air of deprecating superiority. The narrators of these novels do not hide their disapproval of the hypocritical buffoons that people their story. Hey, let's stick this character in a situation that makes him look like a total ass. And this one too. And this one. Personally, I don't see the point. I guess it is one way for some to release their frustrations at the hypocrisy of people, to make fun of the overly symbolic characters, the ones who embody all of a particular religion or politic or or philosophy or whatever. And sure, maybe there are a few such caricatures in the real world. But there are so many more real people; when an author cannot, or simply refuses to, see that—well, that's when the author comes off as kind of an egotistical ass (in my humble opinion).
For years now, I've read these novels knowing I was supposed to love them. In all honesty, I've rated some of these novels higher than I otherwise would have because I don't want to be that idiot who clearly doesn't “get it.” And, I do recognize the talent involved and really don't want my personal tastes to get in the way. That's what blows about ratings. It's all so freaking subjective. Personally, I thought White Teeth was so much better written than Midnight's Children and more entertaining than David Copperfield. So if that's your idea of a sexy read, then hell yeah, White Teeth is mind blowing. But if you're in the minority, one of those readers who thinks some authors are just too clever for their own good, then White Teeth is just another manufactured model with a glossy cover.
Smith reminds me a bit of Henry Fielding. She's not afraid of her authorial voice. She's opinionated & forceful and sets out of imaginative flights that you don't often find in straight fiction. Full of energy & comedy & wisdom.
No white knight, then, this Archibald Jones. No aims, no hopes, no ambitions. A man whose greatest pleasures were English breakfasts and DIY. A dull man.
Unfortunately, I think that's pretty accurate--about all the characters: Dull. Which isn't entirely true of Smith's voice. There is a sense of humor evident--but not a warm one, or even an angry, biting one. More that of someone who enjoys taking people down several pegs, undermining her own characters. I just couldn't connect to any of them--they seemed to range from "dull" to repellent.
A turning point for me was the chapter of flashback about Archie and his friend Samad Iqbal during World War II about 100 pages in. Both are involved in something heinous for trite reasons. I limped on dozens of pages beyond that point, but stopped when I realized I just couldn't care why they did it or anything else. I just wanted out. I didn't want to spend time with these people.
After a good start, I was really disappointed.
It was strange to read a book by an insider to a non-white culture that laughs at those of her culture, and of others from subordinated cultures. Smith laughs at everyone (whites included), and makes her reader laugh at them, too. This took me some time to get used to! But the laughter, while often pointed, is always humane; Smith wants us to care for her characters, even while we laugh at their personal idiosyncrasies and their struggles to adapt to English culture while holding on to their own.
Amazing writer of dialogue!