Wednesday, January 1, 2020

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

I think that what I liked the most about White Teeth is the sense that Smith understands that the world keeps going despite our ideologies. Twice during the course of the story, one of the characters, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, fully expects the world to end with Christ’s return, and it doesn’t. This functions as a metaphor for the rest of the ideologies at play in the book.

The book spans most of the 20th Century climaxing as the century flips over and ideologies collide. It is in part a multigenerational dysfunctional family drama/comedy. This is a pretty standard genre, but Smith handles it well. White Teeth is certainly much better than the couple of Franzen novels I’ve read that cover similar ground. Every family member’s perspective is given time and, even as she  mocks them, mostly gently, they seem like fully realized characters. It is also in large part about the immigrant experience in England. I’m ill-positioned to say how accurately this aspect is, but it feels genuine and has a believable complexity. Both of these narrative strands play into the book’s statement on ideology.

Two WWII veterans married much younger women in the 1970s. Salmad Iqbal, from Bangladesh, a Muslim who believes yet is conflicted about his faith and is inconsistently strict in his adherence to it, marries Alsana Begum, also Bangladeshi. They have a turmoil laden, and often physically violent relationship. Their twin sons, Millat and Magid, take drastically different paths  The former stays in England and vacillates between rebellious street tough and radicalized Muslim. The latter, though he returns to Bangladesh for most of his youth, takes on a very British colonialist/capitalist attitude. Both drive their father to frustration. The other WWII vet, Archie Jones, a very middle of the road, indecisive Brit, marries Clara Jones, the young daughter of a devout Jehovah’s witness who is trying to escape that miliu. Their daughter Irie grows up to be an atheist.  Rounding out the main cast are the Chalfins, Marcus and Joyce who are upper middle class scientists, and their son Josh, a nerdy kid who rebels against them by joining a militant animal rights group. These characters represent various ideologies, but aren’t just that, they seem fully formed.

The book has a lot of fun as the various characters react to each other and build their ideologies in opposition to others. There are Muslims who believe and are conflicted. There are convinced Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are middle of the road lower middle class don’t rock the boat types. There are radicalized Muslims. There are radicalized animal rights activists. For a good chunk of the book it seems as if Smith is pitting all of these against a scientific rationalism, but she really undercuts that worldview as much as the others. All of them are utopian on some level, and therefore, Smith intimates, on some level false. Each character is pulled in different directions by various familial, cultural and ideological forces. A couple are entirely convinced of their positions, but most waver. And yet the world moves on.

If none of these ideologies, and, presumably by extension, no ideology that lays claim to total explanatory truth, is right, how then should the characters live? Smith’s answer is an existentialist, specifically Sartrean, one. They have to choose and live with the consequences. Of course, existentialism is also an ideology, but I respect Smith’s rejection of utopianism and her understanding that ideologies, when they become all-important, are dangerous. There is an ever present temptation to posit ourselves as the end point of history with the final say, the ultimate perspective when we’re essentially another step along the way. This isn’t to say that ideologies can’t give insight, nor that some are closer to reality than others (often much closer), but ultimately we’re left with the choices we make and the consequences thereof. It’s a bleak point of view that Smith is putting forth, but, at least for me, it’s a hard one to argue against. It’s even a little comforting after some wrestling with it.

But the book carries that thematic weight lightly for the most part. It is often funny. It is well written and well constructed.

Highly recommended.

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