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May 17, 2010

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

Zadie Smith finished her first book, White Teeth, while she was an undergraduate. It's much more than a prodigy's tour de force; I think it's a fine and lasting novel.

It is elaborately plotted. The events span the period 1857-1999 and create a complex and deliberate pattern, full of symmetries and recurrent patterns. The whole structure encompasses three extended families (Bangladeshi Muslim, West Indian/British, and Anglo-Jewish) plus numerous well-developed hangers-on. As an example of what geometers would call a "reflection symmetry," the two Bangladeshi twin brothers grow up in the East and the West, each embracing the other's hemisphere, and they both make love to the same woman on the same day, whose child could therefore be either one's. As an example of a "rotational symmetry": at one point, disgruntled teenagers from each family are living with the next. Guns are fired in parallel situations in 1857, 1945, and 1992.

This whole structure could be considered artificial and mannered--especially when everything comes together neatly in the denouement. Smith is interested in no less a matter than Fate, the sense that life is pre-plotted. This seems especially salient in the lives of immigrants from the former colonies. Their lives are symmetrical, recurrent. Fate is also an explicit topic in at least three cultures that Smith explores and counterposes: Islam, Christian fundamentalism, and molecular biology.

I am not as interested in Fate, but I love the elaborate structure for a different reason. As many have noted, Smith is a genuine genius at mimicking and sympathetically portraying diverse people. Who am I to say whether she can see the world like an 85-year-old Jamaican Jehovah's Witness? But I can vouch for her precise evocation of a secular Jewish teenage boy with academic parents living in North London in the 1980s. I was there, and she's got that demographic spot on. All the other characters--who range magnificently across continents, religions, generations, races, and classes--seem entirely plausible.

What happens when you create an artificial structure of events and portray it from myriad perspectives, sympathetically and without the imposition of your own voice? That is a liberal political achievement, because it respects individuality and difference and refuses to boss people around, even in the imagination. It is also an artistic achievement. "For me," Nabokov wrote, "a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm." Nabokov's recipe is: curiosity, which makes you describe all kinds of people and objects; tenderness, which makes you love them all; plus aesthetic pleasure, which arises when the first two are achieved harmoniously and elegantly. Smith is an artist in the true Nabokovian sense.

May 17, 2010 9:49 AM | category: fine arts | Comments



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