Now I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I’ve never really heard the policy on judging one by a randomly selected page, so for the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s an improvement.
One of many neurotic tendencies I have when it comes to books—other examples: always buying the second or third book back on the shelf, never lending books I haven’t read yet, dog-earing the tops of pages to mark my place and the bottom to mark favorite quotes—is reading a random page from a book I’m considering buying, and basing my decision almost entirely on that page.
Now I realize this isn’t entirely fair; every author is entitled to a decent amount of exposition, and certainly to a fair shake at having their words consumed in the context of…all the other words. But given my extreme inability to not buy at least three books a month, cuts have to be made somewhere, and I’ve found that one can tell a lot about a book by picking it up in the middle, if only for a few paragraphs.
Which brings me to my point. In developing this bizarre little habit, I’ve found that some of the best books—certainly not all, but some—are good on every single page. Some books are so beautifully written that even though it’s obviously advisable to start from the beginning and end with the end, any glimpse, however brief, into the title’s center, offers a preview of the greatness. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, well, it’s that kind of book.
(Sidebar: Not to make it seem as though Smith is more of a writer than a creator, it’s worth noting that some of the best books are also very “book”ish, which is to say that even as you appreciate the depth of their characters and sincerity of their scenes, you’re hard-pressed to envision a movie or other visual adaptation that would even hold a candle to the hundreds of pages of text. White Teeth is that kind of book as well. …It’s a really fucking good book).
So let’s back up. I first read Zadie Smith in college, in a class called Media Theory or Media & Culture or something else it’s equally ludicrous to have paid $40,000 a year to study. A few weeks of this particular class were spent on the subject of race—in media, in our minds, that kind of meta stuff. And in this class (which I’m scoffing at now only to spite the sadness I feel for not still having the liberty to study such things) we read On Beauty, Smith’s sophomore novel (Is that only for music?) I remember loving On Beauty and vowing to come back around to White Teeth (her first novel). It just took me oh, five years.
I could go into the plot of White Teeth, but it’s not really a “plot” novel. Suffice it to say that the story follows a few generations of two different families, that of Archie Jones, a sort of plain old English guy who I picture as like…a British and non-funny (at least not intentionally) Louis C.K.; and Samad Iqbal, Archie’s longtime best friend. We follow the men over the course of a few decades, from their youth fighting in World War II (well, “fighting”) to their marriages and the interesting relationship between their children. In the course of all this, White Teeth touches on many topics: religion, socio-economic status, tradition, education and definitely race. Despite its somewhat leisurely pace, the book never drags, and its dialogue is as strong as its narrative.
Which brings me to the important part: Smith is a beautiful writer. Beautiful. If novels were like artistic movements—some abstract, others surreal, others minimalist—Smith would be an oil painter, and White Teeth would be something like Jean-Léon Gérôme’s A Roman Slave Market. Detail, depth, beauty, but also compelling, suggestive of a bigger story. Smith creates people, and scenes, that are so rich you can’t wait to get from one to the next. At the same time, any such scene could stand on its own. (She’s also, separating here from my Roman Slave Market analogy, surprisingly funny).
Which brings me to this, a scene from about a quarter of the way into White Teeth. It would be unfair to say this particular exchange “hooked me,” since I was already pretty enamored by this point, but it felt like Smith at her finest. After all, many books are well-written, but far fewer can pick you up and take you somewhere else.
(Background: The scene is in a dive bar, O’Connell’s, at which Archie and Samad are regulars. Archie has just gone up to the bar to get their food orders from the bartender/owner Mickey. It’s worth noting that the whole book isn’t written this…English-y).
“How is he?” asked Mickey under his breath, as he pushed the plate toward Archie.
Archie frowned. “Dunno. He’s on about tradition again. He’s worried about his sons, you see. Easy for children to go off the rails in this day and age, you know. I don’t really know what to say to him.”
“Don’t have to tell me, mate,” said Mickey, shaking his head. “I wrote the fucking book, didn’t I? Look at my littlest, Abdul-Jimmy. Up in juvenile court next week for swiping fucking VW medallions. I says to ‘im, you fucking stupid or sommink? What the fuck is the point of that? At least steal the fucking car, if that’s the way you feel about it. I mean, why? ‘E says it’s sommink to do wiv some fucking Beetie Boys or some such bollocks. Well, I says to him, that lot are dead as shit if I get hold of ’em, and I can tell you that for fucking nothing. No sense of tradition, no fucking morality, is the problem.”
Archie nodded and picked up a wad of napkins with which to handle the hot dishes.
“If you want my advice–and you do, ‘cos that’s part of the special relationships between caff owner and caff customer–you tell Samad he has two options. He can either send them back to the old country, back to India–“
“Bangladesh,” corrected Archie, nicking a chip from Samad’s meal.
“Whereverthefuckitis. He can send ’em back there and have ’em brought up proper, by their granddads and grandmums, have ’em learn about their fucking culture, have ’em grow up with some fucking principles. Or–one minute–CHIPS, BEANS, PATTI, AND MUSHROOMS! FOR TWO!”
Denzel and Clarence ever so slowly sidled up to the hot plates.
” ‘Dat pattie look strange,” said Clarence.
” ‘Im try to poison us,” said Denzel.
” ‘Dem mushrooms look peculiar,” said Clarence.
” ‘Im try to infiltrate a good man with de devil’s food,” said Denzel.
Mickey slapped his spatula down on Denzel’s fingers. “Oi. Tweedledum and fucking Dee. Get a new fucking routine, all right?”
“Or what?” persisted Archie.
” ‘Im tryin’ to kill an ol’ man,” muttered Denzel, as the two of them shuffled back to their seats.
“Fucking ‘ell, those two. They’re only alive ‘cos they’re too stingy to pay for the fucking cremation.”
“What’s the second option?”
“Oh, yeah. Well, second option’s obvious, innit?”
“Accept it. He’ll have to accept it, won’t he? We’re all English now, mate. Like it or lump it, as the rhubarb said to the custard. And that’ll be two fifty, Archibald, my good man. The golden age of Luncheon Vouchers is over.”
The golden age of Luncheon Vouchers ended ten years ago. For ten years, Mickey had been saying: “The golden age of Luncheon Vouchers is over.” And that’s what Archie loved about O’Connell’s. Everything was remembered, nothing was lost. History was never revised or reinterpreted, adapted or whitewashed. It was as solid and as simple as the encrusted egg on the clock.
Even though it took me longer than a week (thereby delaying my highly anticipated perusal of Tina Fey’s Bossypants), White Teeth is the kind of book I wish I could start over and read for the first time. Many of the cultural issues Smith touches on are particular to England (which isn’t to say race or racism is, just that the relationship between English and Indian is a unique dynamic I couldn’t begin to understand) but those specificities have no real bearing on the book’s quality. Which is to say even dumb old Americans like me can enjoy it.
If you haven’t read any Zadie Smith, start with White Teeth, if only because it’s mildly awe-inspiring to think that it was her first book. This is the kind of novel that reminds you why reading is awesome.
TITLE: White Teeth
AUTHOR: Zadie Smith
PAGES: 448 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: On Beauty, The Autograph Man
SORTA LIKE: On Beauty meets The Believers
FIRST LINE: “Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 0627 hours in January 1, 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate facedown on the steering wheel, hoping the judgment would not be too heavy upon him.”