First published in: 2000
This edition: Penguin Books 2001
Cover illustration by Ali Campbell
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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