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R&R 095 | White Teeth

Zadie Smith
White Teeth
First published in: 2000
This edition: Penguin Books 2001
ISBN: 0-140-27633-5
Genre: fiction
Pages: 542
Cover illustration by Ali Campbell

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Having finished my second Zadie Smith novel, there are two things I am sure about: (1) Zadie Smith is a young, talented author, but (2) her books definitely are not for me. I'm just not a fan and I doubt reading a third book is going to change my mind.

That's not to say Smith can't write well or that her books aren't recommendable. I recognize Smith's strengths and do understand what other readers mean when they say why they admire her books. But for me, something is always missing when it comes to Zadie Smith. This is partially to blame on the hype Zadie Smith has become, and expectations that I have developed as a result.

WHITE TEETH, published when Smith was only 23 years of age, is a story of different generations and diverse cultures, spanning across decades and continents, beginning with a friendship between two men in England. Archibald "Archie" Jones and Samad Iqbal met during the war in 1945, and have reconnected years later, finding each other again in the UK in the seventies. They have been best friends ever since.

The first 100 or so pages made a serious impression on me. I could not put this book down at first. (For a moment, I believed the hype.) And I was surprised, because ON BEAUTY fell flat for me. WHITE TEETH seemed to be the redemption I'd been looking for, for Smith: "Okay Smith. I'm listening. What else you got?"
I can answer my own question two-fold. Smith's WHITE TEETH has got a) too much and b) not enough. Simultaneously.

There are too many characters with too many problems; their storylines, however, tend to end abruptly to make room for even more characters with many, many more problems.

Samad and Archie both marry younger women and start families. Samad finds his wife in feisty Alsana, who then gives birth to their twin sons Magid and Millat. Archie marries Jamaican Clara. Their daughter Irie is born around the same time as the Iqbal twins. WHITE TEETH documents the lives of these Iqbals and Jones's, and all the messes they get themselves into. And there's a lot of messes.
From Jehovah's witnesses, to infidelity and masturbation, to the separation of twin boys, to world war two, to an obscure ancestor, to…

These are just a few examples of the turbulent lives of the Jones's and the Iqbals. The reader really has their hands full with these two families, yet Smith felt the need to introduce, midway through the book, the Chalfen family. Obnoxious intellectuals and yet another socio-economical family to add to Zadie Smith's growing collection. The inclusion of the Chalfens was almost gratuitous ("I have a mixed-race family, I have Asians who are also muslims, I have Jehovah's witnesses and Jamaicans… but I don't have a Jewish family yet. What to do, what to do?").

And like the rest of WHITE TEETH's characters, the Chalfens aren't even remotely likable. Why introduce even more unsympathetic people to the already unsympathetic fold? For humor's sake? Satire/humor or not: I still like to sympathize with someone when I read a book that's at least 500 pages. Anyone.
And if I cannot sympathize with anyone, at least make me understand them. At least make me get to know them. Go deeper. I don't care if the book in question is a drama or a comedy or both – give me something to work with. I was just getting to know Archie and Clara, only to have them shoved into the background. Sorry, it's Chalfen time now. Let's talk animal rights' activism! Religious fundamentalism! It's not just the people who fade away, it's their issues too.

Nabokov and Forster are Smith's examples when it comes to empathizing with her characters, but I think she's given too much credit when her skills are placed in the same category as theirs. That hype again.

Nabokov's Lolita is a brilliant example of empathic writing. I believed Nabokov's Humbert Humbert. He terrified me, I pitied him. I felt I understood the character and was horrified by him. He was very well developed, and very convincing. I believed he could be real. He was so very creepily human.1
Smith's characters never convinced me in such a manner. Describing how a 50 year-old muslim male jerks himself off ad nauseam because he has the hots for his kids' teacher isn't empathy as much as it is mockery of a very flawed person. Including as many diverse socio-economic groups as possible in one book doesn't make you emphatic either, rather it felt like Smith was showing off her "knowledge" of a wide array of cultures. (Muslim characters named Abdul-Mickey or Abdul-Colin? Really?)

Smith can write, and she's got a great way of putting things, but character-wise she falls short in many ways because can't connect with them deeply enough. And this is where I feel she's out of (at least) Nabokov's league. (I can't say anything about Forster because I've never read him.)

I will aknowledge that I set the bar pretty high when it comes to character development, empathy and the understanding of human emotions / actions – and getting it across to readers successfully. Then again, WHITE TEETH was praised all the way to Jupiter; of course I had high expectations.

Those expectations were not met. It seems to be Smith's style to cover too many different subjects, but never go deep enough. Her focus is shifted too often. The book seems dissociated because of it; characters that had the potential to be great and funny at the same time get lost in clever writing. None of it is really believable anymore by the time the conclusion (tied with a red bow, neatly wrapped up in shiny paper) is reached, or it's a little too convenient.

For a character-driven book such as this one, you'd have to say that it's important for the reader to care about those characters. Not caring about them ultimately make this book, in my own personal opinion, fall entirely flat on its ass.

To me, WHITE TEETH is supposed to be about humans just being human, but eventually it sooner came across as a cold and distant book. I don't believe the Zadie Smith hype, and after two books I can say I most likely never will.

This book was hard to review because I'm aware of being one of the few people that didn't like it; how to review this one without being accused of not getting it or not having any taste? I really had to think about this one, but in the end feel my review reflects perfectly how I feel. 

October 2015 Addendum – Some time ago, someone implied that my feelings towards this book stem from an underlying racist nature. Their "logic": book reviewer doesn't like these characters that happen to be immigrants, therefore book reviewer doesn't like immigrants. People who know me know that I abhor racism and discrimination. I don't see color when interacting with other people. I see words, actions and personalities.
Upon rereading this old review, I do understand that this person may have been thrown off by my sarcastic tone, which isn't for everyone. The characters were annoying to me, yes, but not because they are immigrants. They're unsympathetic assholes. Yes, I was annoyed by the abundance of different socio-economic groups in this book, but not because I'm a racist. Lemme explain.
Instead of fleshing out her characters, Zadie focuses too much stating that her characters are diversified. Yes, we know. Now write them. I felt irritated that this book rides on the coattails of as many socio-economic groups as possible, i.e. the variety of cultures make this book interesting enough, but that to me is false. A white guy walking a dog or a black guy walking a dog – whatever. It's a guy walking a dog. What else have you got?
I was frustrated with the Too Much Is Going On Here Dammit! theme of the book, and then she adds even more overwhelming content in the form of more diversity, and when she turned them into assholes, too, I felt like this book was just a waste of my time. Another example is the muslim masturbator: I thought this attempt to add shock value was a bit obnoxious. I wasn't outraged because [insert ghost like sounds] there was A MUSLIM IN THIS BOOK THE HORROR. I thought it was a pity she didn't go deeper. I was tired of how hard this book tried, both in Trying To Be Interesting and Trying To Be Witty. Both fell flat for me.
I don't like being manipulated into liking an average story that's made more interesting because look, so many cultures! I welcome diversity in my books and love reading about different cultures and human experiences, but this just didn't feel organic to me. Ironically, being questioned whether I'm a racist as a result of my critical no-bullshit review further proves my point. Why do we like this book? Because if we don't, it must be because we don't like immigrants and/or reading about them. I just wish she'd fleshed her characters out… without turning them into unsympathetic, unfunny caricatures.
Finally, I was just annoyed by the hype which in my (deep down always humble, despite my tone) opinion wasn't deserved. A few years later, I can tell you this book is utterly forgettable.

1. I plan to reread Lolita at some point, so I'll end up reviewing it one day.

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R&R series © Karin E. Lips 2008-2010 (and beyond)

Bloopers:
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R&R 054 | On Beauty

Zadie Smith
On Beauty
First published in: 2005
This edition: Penguin Books, 2006
ISBN: 9780141026664
Cover design information N/A
Additional info: I have not yet read, but own the book White Teeth by Zadie Smith as well.

R&R 054 | On Beauty

A reincarnation of E.M. Forster's Howard's End (which I have not read), On Beauty is a story about different people and clashing opinions, mainly: the feud between the Belseys and the Kippses and how that rivalry affects members of both families.

Howard Belsey is a Caucasian British liberal professor married to an African-American nurse, Kiki. They live near Boston with their three children. There's Jerome, raised an atheist but finding his way to religion. Then comes Zora, a clever feminist who takes herself far too seriously. And the youngest would be Levi, who likes to pretend he's an African-American kid from the 'hood instead of an African-American kid who lives in a neighbourhood of wealth and academia. As if taking care of those three isn't challenging enough, Howard and Kiki's marriage is on edge ever since Howard's affair, leaving Kiki feeling insecure about her physical appearance.

As Kiki and Howard continue to drift apart, someone else is suddenly too close for comfort: Howard's rival, the conservative professor Monty Kipps, is asked to teach at Wellington, where Howard teaches as well, and thus Kipps moves himself and his family to the same town. Well, uh oh. In comes a lot more trouble.

Zadie Smith made sure she had plenty of themes to with; from politics to marital problems to identity crises… On Beauty has enough food for thought.

…maybe too much. In such a way that she never quite managed to go deep enough into one subject, but remained floating on the surface of a lot of different themes.

A lot was going on with some characters; Howard's affair, Levi's struggle with his class, Zora and her poetry class, etc. At one point, Smith includes a few pages with the PoV of a new character entirely, only to have her leave the book as quickly as she appeared. Other characters just seemed forgotten. Jerome, a prominent character in the beginning, leaves for most of the book, only to meagerly return in the end. I would have liked to read more about Kiki, the only character I sympathized with. (The rest was rather unlikeable, especially Zora. And Vee. Ugh.) I also hoped to read more from the Kippses point of view, but most of it was from the Belseys.

The characters Smith has developed in her story, she has developed well. Zadie Smith is quite skilled at creating these different, clashing personalities – and making it all work together. Nonetheless, it would have been interesting to see more of these clashing personalities in dialogue together. There was plenty of dialogue, don't get me wrong, but not enough between the most interesting people. (Not between Howard the atheist & Jerome the Christian. Barely between Howard & Monty, though I can see that the rivalry is implied enough. And Howard & Kiki… there wasn't enough.) It made the dialogue that did exist seem a bit tedious at times because it's repetitive, lingering on what had been said and done already. The story moves slowly as a result, and the characters that have been well developed were underutilized.

Despite feeling that it could have consisted of more, On Beauty was far from boring. I really enjoyed reading it; there was something very real about this book. I maintained interested in these people. Humor and drama are quite balanced; the book is forgiving and doesn't weigh heavily on your heart.

But I think I wanted the book to have a heaviness to it. Its themes could have shook me up, but didn't. On Beauty was entertaining as I actually sat down to read it, but the book itself left me feeling dissatisfied.

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R&R series (and its photos, reviews) © Karin Elizabeth 2008-2009

From now on I'm posting the photos directly from my flickr stream.