House, June 2000
by Anne Hellman
moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different
histories." One of the many things Zadie Smith does well in this
first novel is shrink some of the culmination of the book's 448 pages
into one short sentence, and then plunge that sentence back into the
big tub of the plot so that it fills like a sponge, large with meaning.
In this way, this twenty-four-year-old author does nothing less than
reconstruct our universe so that we might see it better, and provides
us with the metaphors with which to better comprehend it. Smith chooses
these metaphors well, taking up the dialectics of chance versus destiny,
science versus faith, history versus memory, and gives them a bold
new push. The voice is fresh, brilliantly sharp and bitingly funny,
and the story is both whimsical and real, full of witticisms but also
serious about imparting a serious message.
The notion of second chances is central to White Teeth, a book
in which coincidence and fate play an equal role in the life of each
character. The first chapter opens with the attempted suicide of one
of the novel's many unheroic heroes, Archibald Jones. An ineffectual
and down-on-his-luck forty-seven-year-old, Archie Jones, for some
reason or another (or for no reason at all), earns a second chance
to live. The suicide is averted by coincidental pigeon droppings on
the roof of a nearby butcher, who, while battering the pigeons from
his roof, notices Archie's car blocking his loading zone and marches
down to yell him out of the way. Archie is forced to roll the window
down, cracking the seam of glass and rubber that holds the deadly
exhaust in, and saving his life.
The events that unfold are similarly determined by fate on the one
hand (Archie, for example, meets Clara Bowden, his wife-to-be, that
very same morning) and a coin toss on the other, depending on how
you look at them. Smith blithely interweaves these opposing forces
throughout the book, requesting their presence in every instance.
The result is a marvelously interconnected world that closely matches
our own as well as metaphorically mimics it, so that the important
stuff shines through. Stuff like the Malleability of Faith and the
Hard Steeliness of Scientific Fact, both of which-Fact and Faith-swap
places so many times by the end of the novel they become interchangeable.
At the eye of this book is something that tests both reason and faith
(like God)-the phenomenon of identical twins. Magid and Millat are
the dashing sons of Bangladeshi immigrants living in London. Genetically
identical, they are the notion of second chances incarnate. Their
father desperately wants at least one son to follow in the footsteps
of family tradition, and so Magid is sent back to Bangladesh to study
the teachings of Allah. Fate, however, is just as difficult to control
as coincidence, and Magid, who is sent home to find God, finds instead
the truths of Science and the beauty of the English language, while
Millat discovers a passion for a militant, London-based Islam-offshoot
group and the cause of avenging his family's subjugated history.
Not only does Magid return home after eight years in Bangladesh more
English than English-blooded Archie Jones, but his conversion is extreme.
He has become closely involved with a very English, very famous geneticist
named Marcus Chalfen, who is on the brink of completing a study that
will enable the world to predict and determine the course of the human
genome, thereby providing Science with the ability to eliminate physical
(and should we not assume racial?) defects resulting from leaving
things up to chance. Likewise, Millat, who is left behind on the streets
of London, is pulled into the grips of a highly-charged religious
group that turns out to be just as, if not more demanding than his
With its skillful play on the implications of Darwinism ("Chalfenism"
is Marcus Chalfen's term for his superior scientific work and English-style
family life) Smith sends an unrepressable message about the ways we
try to assimilate in a post-millennium world. She sends out a warning
(and we have been warned time and time before) that along with the
survival of the fittest comes the death of the unfit and the sacrifice
of so many sacred "objects": one's personal memories, one's
own system of beliefs, one's old ways of doing things. As one Mr.
Hamilton (an English-colonial war veteran young Magid, Millat, and
Irie visit on a school program) puts it: "One sometimes forgets
the significance of one's teeth. We're not like the lower animals-teeth
replaced regularly and all that-we're of the mammals, you see. And
mammals only get two chances, with teeth. More sugar?" His offer
to dirty the children's teeth is just as much a symbolic gesture as
it is funny, for throughout the book we are reminded of the price
each of the nonwhite characters have to pay in order to assimilate.
The whiteness of their teeth represents the health of their faiths,
the faithfulness of their marriages, their ties to their roots and
mother "gums," which are all threatened by a dominant culture
that is not their parents' and is only beginning to become their own.
The most important thing Mr. Hamilton does is to explain the paradox
of owning a set of nice white teeth (in other words your original
identity, your heritage untouched). He says: "Clean white teeth
are not always wise, now are they? Par exemplum: when I was in the
Congo, the only way I could identify the nigger was by the whiteness
of his teeth . . . Horrid business. Dark as buggery it was. And they
died because of it, you see? Poor bastards. Or rather I survived,
to look at it another way."
White Teeth is a book as youthfully inspired as it is wise. Told from
a generation that is teetering ("teething" rather) between
the roots of its ancestors and its own baby roots in new soil, the
book is poised at a crux that is both particular and universal. It
reminds us that Darwinism is only a hundred and fifty years old and
Allah is ageless, that while some of us adapt and change to meet our
environment, others of us hold on to a thread, however thin, that
keeps us tied at the root to a path that is carved into our genes,
The fact is, both occur simultaneously, destiny parallels circumstance,
each and every moment happens twice. Perhaps the character of Irie
conveys the message best. With a calling for dentistry, she may be
destined to at least correct damaged teeth (which is all you can do
once the second tooth moves in). At the same time, her child is born
fatherless, the daughter of one identical set of genes or the other,
and so is pastless, geneless in a certain way, starting out empty-handed
on an undetermined path. As we all are somedays, aimless, without
destiny, while on others we could swear there is a reason for anything
that comes our way.
Free Williamsburg | 93 Berry Street | Brooklyn, NY 11211
| October 2000 | Volume 8