Surely, on occasion, you too have stumbled across one of those writers whose work you can’t seem to escape. At some point, you simply can’t ignore this writer and you add their work to your list; you need to find out what all the fuss is about for yourself. Zadie Smith was one such writer whose name I could not escape, so I decided to pick up her debut novel, White Teeth. Unfortunately, looking back, I wish I hadn’t.
I suspect, like many others, that I have bias towards reviewing books in a positive light. Many people, I think, are scared to write a critical book review for fear of upsetting the author and to protect their own reputation as a positive person, albeit this bias usually does a disservice to the larger reading community. Writing a critical review of a book, in my opinion, has become somewhat of a lost art. It is, however, important to remember that critical reviews are a critique of an author’s work, not of the author’s person.
With that in mind, I think it’s fair to say that White Teeth was flat out awful. After reading about Ms. Smith’s background and seeing a beautiful picture of her, I quickly realized that she was simply a literary adman’s dream come true. Political Correctness be damned, I suspect that Ms. Smith’s work would never have gained such popularity had she been a plain looking British woman who was not a minority.
Over the years, I’ve heard many laudatory words used to describe Ms. Smith’s work and, to be fair, this book is my only exposure to her writing, but, personally, I wouldn’t dare say such absurd things.
First of all, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that this book even has a plot. It follows, at least for a while, the lives of three poor North London families over several decades of the late 20th Century. These families are the Chalfens, Joneses, and the Iqbals. Shockingly, there is no coherent thread that relates these people of Indian, Jamaican, and Turkish backgrounds other than the fact that they are minorities. The only redeeming quality of this mishmash of a story is that Ms. Smith is able to incorporate some jokes about multiculturalism in London.
The two protagonists in the novel are Archie Jones, a well-known liar, and Samad Iqbal, a career waiter. They are friends from World War Two. Archie marries a beautiful, but buck-toothed Jamaican woman, named Clara, who hates her Jehovah’s Witness mother. They have a daughter, named Irie. Samad, on the other hand, marries a girl named Alsana and has twin boys, Magid and Millat. Both men are seemingly frustrated and disappointed with life.
Ms. Smith’s prose is often pretentious. Furthermore, she writes with a unique brand of over-descriptive drivel that is, by and large, utterly pointless. How about an example? Here’s one: “It was a fine, crisp autumn day, the place was full; Irie had to walk through the popular tonsil-tennis/groping championships, step over Joshua Chalfen’s Goblins and Gorgons game (“Hey, watch your feet! Mind the Cavern of the Dead!”), and furrow through a tight phalanx of fag smokers before she reached Millat at the epicenter of it all, pulling laconically on a cone-shaped joint, listening to a tall guy with a mighty beard.”
I struggled through 10 chapters of this book, which was nine too many, before I laid the book to rest. It’s worth noting that I rarely, to the chagrin of some economists, put a book down once I’ve started reading it. My inner economist, however, ultimately drove me to put this book down for good.
Recently, I read a truism written by the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer: “There are above all two kinds of writers: those who write for the sake of what they have to say and those who write for the sake of writing.” Ms. Smith clearly wrote this novel for the sake of writing. As such, I don’t understand the hype over this novel or, for that matter, Ms. Smith’s writing.