I first read this seventeen years ago back in the day, as they say, when everybody was going crazy over White Teeth and a shining new novelist called Zadie Smith. It was the ultimate millennium novel. And I, like everybody I knew, just loved every page of it. It brought us bang up to date on the theme of the day: the search for identity and meaning. It was philosophy and politics and sociology and any other ology you might care to name but above all it was damn funny. Blisteringly funny but not of a slap-stick verity. No sir. This was political humour that was both subversive and personal.
After the excitement had died down I just locked the glorious memories of White Teeth in the classic novel section of my cluttered brain, along with Midnight’s Children and God of Small Things and got on with my life. Seventeen years later, looking for some good old-fashioned holiday reading, I dug it out of the shelves, dusted it off and started to enjoy all over again. But I had reservations. Serious reservations. Would it be dated? Would it still be funny? And would it live up to my ideal of an all-time classic novel? I’m happy to announce that on all three fronts I can answer in the affirmative.
Ok, any red hot contemporary work of fiction will look a little tired after seventeen years of break-neck, roller-coaster global action. White teeth predated 9/11 but only just. It predated the war on terror and all the bloody ramifications of that little US wheeze. ISIS was still at that stage just a Bob Dylan song (and magazine) and had no other meaningful Islamic connotations. Trump was a virtual unknown in the political sense and the idea of a Black US president was a futuristic fantasy. But the central theme of seeking a sense of belonging is as old as history itself and in that respect, this theme can never really date. In fact, you might argue that the entire history of the West over the ensuing seventeen years has been nothing but a struggle for identity in a world that was rapidly unravelling economically, politically and above all, socially. Rereading White Teeth brought this simple and obvious truth right back to the forefront of my thinking.
Of course, identity is a movable feast. We are rarely if ever just one thing. Today we might define ourselves in terms of our sporting allegiance. Tomorrow our sense of national belonging might come to the fore. The day after our treasured faith might take centre stage. And in reality, all the things we like to identify with, will compete for top billing all in the very same day and even at the very same moment. Zadie Smith’s characters perfectly reflect this dynamic. Gender, race, religion and local affiliations; they make a heady mix and it is this intoxicating mix that is at the very heart of White Teeth.
For me, one of the signs of a great book, fiction or non-fiction, is how many times I underline and scribble in the margins. The more I frantically scribble the more engaged I am. No scribbling is not a good sign. So, it was no surprise to me that my old copy of White Teeth was ablaze with exclamation marks and heavy black underlining. There was no mistaking it this turn of the millennium novel had most definitely caught my attention. And as I reread those highlighted passages I realised this novel was as contemporary as anything around today. One of my favourites comes from the wise but long-suffering Alsana;
Oi, mister! Indo-Aryansit looks like I’m a Westerner after all. Maybe I should listen to Tina Turner, wear the itsy-bitsy leather skirts. Pah. It just goes to show, said Alsana, revealing her English tongue, you go back and back and back and it’s still easier to find the correct Hoover bag than to find one pure person, one pure faith, on the globe. Do you think anybody is English? Really English? It’s a fairytale! P236
Then there is this wonderful few lines from Zadie as she explodes the myths we like to tell ourselves about our homeland. Homeland is one of the magical fantasy words like unicorn and soul and infinity that have now passed into the language. And the particular magic of homeland, its particular spell over Irie, was that it sounded like a beginning. The beginningest of beginnings. Like the first morning of Eden and the day after apocalypse. A blank page. P402
Every time I hear Trump drivel on about making America great again or listen to the Brexiteers fantasize about Britain standing alone against the world, or cringe when forced to suffer the rest of the nationalist bilge that is currently sweeping the planet, I marvel at just how prophetic Zadie Smith’s words were words that perhaps resonate even louder today than when first penned seventeen years ago.
I think I’ve read most if not all of Smith’s work and to be honest, nothing she has subsequently written has generated quite the power of this first novel. That is not to say that her other work is not worthy. It is. In fact, I particularly enjoyed Swing Time her latest offering. But there was something ground-breaking about White Teeth and like all magnificent first novels, Smith might have to spend the rest of her writing career living in its shadow. For me, White Teeth is most definitely a classic and I’m proud to have it as part of my rambling and eclectic blog.