The Short Version: It’s New Year’s Day, 1975, and Archibald Jones is trying to kill himself. But life clings on and this is the story of that life – and the lives of his wife, best friend, his wife, and their respective children – over the waning decades of the last millenium.
The Review: As I was typing the title of the book for the top of the review, I accidentally typed “Shite Teeth” and paused for a moment. That it was funny goes without saying – but, unfortunately, it’s also just quite not accurate enough to be worth using and running with. Because this book is not shite. It’s just not – at all – the second coming of literature that it has rather been built up to be.
The funny thing is, I loved NW, Ms. Smith’s latest novel. I thought it was funny, smart, experimental… and I wrote that I loved the sound of it. Going into White Teeth, I suppose I was expecting more of the same – but it’s been 12 years between the two novels. 12 years and several novels, essays, etc. I haven’t dusted off this old trope in quite a while but if ever there was a time for it, it’s now: this is so clearly, painfully the work of a debut author. The melodious rhythms of language feel jarring, forced here – even as the varied languages and cultures are represented phonetically. The plot, bouncing around in time (to some extent), feels altogether too disjoint and plodding. There’s plenty of raw material here but only in hindsight do I see how this book could’ve been tapped as such a lauded debut.
My real issue comes from the fact that I did not care about any of these characters except Irie. On page 401 – nearly 3/4 of the way through the book – I wrote a note in my Field Notes that says “I just… don’t care.” and that basically sums up how I felt about everything in this novel until the last 50 or so pages (which are, I should also add, all sound and fury and conveniently placed revelation). When I finally was made to care, because it seemed as though everything was converging on a particular moment, I realized that I was only being made to care. I did not organically give a damn what happened to any of these characters – indeed, it was the supporting figures who interested me more. Abdul-Mickey, for example: the barman/shopowner philosopher. He’s a great, Dickensian sort of character – the sort of guy that London is full of. But Archie and Samad were just annoying, Clara began interesting but was quickly subverted to second or even third fiddle after a strong, starring-role start, and the boys/Chalfens/Alsana just felt fake. None of them felt realistic – in a book that seemed to be dealing with the real. (When Dickens is your analogy, unless there’s a qualifier, one expects the real world.)
The thing is, there’s quite a bit of interesting philosophy packed into this book. Questions of life and death, of how we make decisions, of how our decisions affect not only ourselves but the world around us – there’s a line early on that references the butterfly effect and when the novel claps to its conclusion, you suddenly realize that that was the point of the whole damn thing. This was alllllll just an extended butterfly effect story. And, if anything, that feels even less satisfying – because now it just feels like an experiment, like the sort of thing the Chalfen/Magid/Perret cabal was doing to the mouse. The potential diversions, like the varied Greenpeace-esque elements who all show up at the end to disrupt the presentation or the whole cult/Jehovah’s Witness thing, just sort of putter out. They’re there for color, not to provide any further weight to what is a not-insubstantial novel.
So what makes up these 540-some pages? Good God, a whole lot of life, I guess. There’s so much artifice happening on the page that it was hard to tell if we were supposed to see this as oooh, glorious daily life or if there was a subtle meaning underneath that I missed. But either way, it just felt tedious. It felt irritating. And when I finally powered through the end today, I just felt a sense of exhausted relief.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. When a friend mentioned that he’d read White Teeth when he was younger and harbored a residual loathing for it, I had just started the novel and encouraged him to pick it up again. I quickly changed my mind and said “no no – read NW.” Because Zadie Smith is a talented author – but this book is not what it’s cracked up to be. It’s the work of a promising young author – but it is full of flaws, messy in every way, and leaves the reader without really any sense of satisfaction.