White Teeth by Zadie Smith: the best novel ever written by someone who is younger than I am

White Teeth

  • Author:  Zadie Smith  (b. 1975)
  • Rank:  #52
  • Published:  2000
  • Publisher:  Hamish Hamilton (U.K.) / Random House (U.S.)
  • Pages:  448
  • First Lines:  “Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway.  At 0627 hours on January 1, 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate facedown on the steering wheel, hoping the judgment would not be too heavy upon him.”
  • Last Lines:  “He watched it dash along the table, and through the hands of those who wished to pin it down.  He watched it leap off the end and disappear through an air vent.  Go on my son! thought Archie.”
  • Acclaim:  All-TIME Top 100, Jaimes Tait Black Memorial Prize, Whitbread Book Award
  • Film Version:  2002 BBC mini-series
  • First Read:  January, 2003

The Novel: That she is younger than me is a cause to be depressed.  That her novel deserves all of the praise that has been heaped upon it, that it falls into all of these categories: one of the best ever debut novels, one of the best ever novels written by someone under the age of 30, that it is one of the best novels of this young century is cause for celebration.  That it can be both so extremely funny and such a sociologically observant novel at the same time in both its dialogue (” ‘Where I come from,’ said Archie, ‘a bloke likes to get to know a girl before he marries her.’  ‘Where you come from it is customary to boil vegetables until they fall apart.’ “) and its prose (“As Merlin was later to reflect when describing the incident, at any time of the day corduroy is a highly stressful fabric.  Rent collectors wear it.  Tax collectors, too.  History teachers add leather elbow patches.  To be confronted with a mass of it, at nine in the A.M., on the first day of a New Year, is an apparition lethal in its sheer quantity of negative vibes.”) is more than any reader could possibly ask for.

The novel begins with the suicide attempt of Archie Jones, a worthy successor to Arthur Dent as the tragic comic British straight man incapable of either enjoying or even understanding life.  But unlike the distinct blend of British humor and science fiction of Douglas Adams, instead what we get is a small-scale human socio-literary view of British society through the everyman that also happens to be distinctly funny: “For, though he did not know it, and despite the Hoover tube that lay on the passenger seat pumping from the exhaust pipe into his lungs, luck was with him that morning.”  Indeed, luck is with him and luck is with us, for in spite of his life being distinctly unworthy of a great novel (“Once the car started to fill with carbon monoxide, he had experienced the obligatory flashback of his life to date.  It turned out to be a short, unedifying viewing experience, low on entertainment value, the metaphysical equivalent of the Queen’s Speech.”), the book never lets up.

The novel isn’t just about Archie in 1975.  It takes the story back to the foundation of the friendship between Archie, a typical Brit, and Samad, a Bengali who fights beside Archie in the waning days of the second World War.  They both make decisions that shape the course of their lives and far more, because, as Samad says “There is a great evil we have failed to fight and now it is too late.”  But in 1975, life takes a different path and they both find themselves married to much younger women and entering fatherhood at advanced ages.  Through the next two ensuing decades they will deal with infidelity (“Desire didn’t even bother casing the joint, checking whether the neighbors were in – desire just kicked down the door and made himself at home.”), marriage problems (“But Samad was the kind of person too stubborn to kill himself if it meant giving someone else satisfaction.”) and the failure of fatherhood.

What comes next is something that neither one of them could expect.  Thanks to Archie’s military solution to smoking on campus and Samad’s inability to deal with either of his twin sons (he sends one off to live with relatives in Bangladesh and the other sticks around to arouse Samad’s anger  — Archie and Samad, two such different people linked only by a common experience end up as far closer brothers throughout their lives than the twins who share every gene and even identical broken noses), their children end up involved with a family that seems to epitomize everything that Archie and Samad have tried to push away in their endless nights in the pub.  We enter the world of the Chalfens, of Josh, who lusts for Archie’s daughter (who lusts for Samad’s son), of Joyce, who seems to lust after providing a perfect cocoon world for Samad’s son and Marcus, whose devotion to science ends up with him as a father figure mentor to Samad’s distant son.  While Samad struggles with the kind of devout faith that one son has and the lack of faith that the other, brighter one, has, he looses one to the Islamist group KEVIN (“They are aware that they have an acronym problem.”) and the other to Marcus’ beloved science: “Science had taught him that the past was where we did things through a glass, darkly, whereas the future was always brighter, a place where we did things right or at least right-er.”

Where all of this leads is to an epic confrontation, but one that moves in directions that no one could possibly have predicted, not the readers, not the critics, and certainly, least of all, those involved in the story itself.  But it all flows with natural precision; the sly humor of Smith’s prose does not bely the narrative progress.  It is a Rushdie style of humor in a very British world and what you find in the final page seems only to fit it perfectly: “But surely to tell these tall tales and others like them would be to speed the myth, the wicked lie, that the past is always tense and the future, perfect.  And as Archie knows, it’s not like that.  It’s never been like that.”

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