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The International Writers Magazine

White Teeth by Zadie Smith
ISBN-10: 0140276335
ISBN-13: 978-0140276336
Dan Schneider

I get really tired of the bland sort of reviews that pass for negative criticism. You know what I mean. In it, a reviewer who is scared shitless of making an enemy of a writer, or a publishing house, writes a few mild rebukes of the writer, but comes around in the end to praise the writer as being terrific, as a writer and person, and that it was just this book, or a portion of it, that failed.

The most brown-nosing example of this occurred a few years back when bad boy critic (and bad fiction writer) Dale Peck performed a disservice to his readers in the New Republic, by starting off a review of Moody's novel The Black Veil, in this manner: 'Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.' It was play off typical fellatric blurbery, but the piece ended with an assent of the PoMo fraud's excellence as a writer- that he had real talent. Yet, if one claims that all of a writer's books are bad, wherein the talent? If one cannot construct good, compelling, nor even original images, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, nor chapters, how is the writer talented?

A similar feeling struck me while reading Zadie Smith's first novel White Teeth. It is a horrendously bad book, far worse than the banal PC spice listings of a Jhumpa Lahiri or the daringly premised, but atrociously conceived Life Of Pi, by Yann Martel. Yet, constantly, blurbs describe her as immensely talented, astonishing, witty, poised, etc., when they are not raving about her physical attractiveness.

From what I've seen in photos online and on her book, she's merely average looking. Would that I could call her book average. It's not. It's atrocious, and I will brink no excuse making of the sort that she was only twenty-four when she wrote it (she's thirty now). It's still an atrocious book, and should never have seen print. Or, if she later turns out to write something of depth and consequence, a work like this can be brought out to milk her name for profit. But, even then, one has to call a spade a spade- and that's no racial slur against the Jamaican-British author. How any reviewer could praise the book, or her writing, shows the depths to which Political Correctness has taken ahold, even across the pond.

In an online article in Slate magazine, dated 9/13/05, a critic named Stephen Metcalf asks in a titular article, Is Zadie Smith really ready to receive your esteemed prize to the Man Booker Award Commission in the U.K., which holds the same position as the Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award does here. Her third novel, On Beauty, was shortlisted for the prize- she did not win. I have not read Ms. Smith's second or third books, but even assuming that each book slightly better than its direct predecessor, given the depths of White Teeth, the real question should be will anyone actually want to print her work when she slips past forty and her exotic appeal is replaced by a younger, hipper, sexier literary diva? Her first book is that bad, yet Metcalf's tongue-lashing (or bathing?) starts off in this manner:
  The still confoundingly young novelist Zadie Smith is talented, famous, and—if the publicity stills are any indication—very beautiful. As a 30-year-old with nothing much left to prove, Smith has permitted herself a final luxury, of being ambivalent about her own good fortune. She has complained to interviewers about all the attention that accompanied White Teeth, her first novel and a raging succès fou, and in 2003 went one extraordinary step further and indicated that all the hoopla had been, by the standards of genuine literary distinction, undeserved. 'I don't have the physical and mental will to be a great [novelist], which is a shame.'
  Now, you know Metcalf is not really gonna raise a ruckus, especially since Smith, either in a rare moment of artistic honesty, or a media ploy designed to show humility, actually admits the truth- she is a no-talent. Metcalf then constructs his plea for the Committee to deny her a win based upon her humility and, well- read on:
 I recommend this not because Smith isn't richly, almost absurdly, talented—which she is—and not because On Beauty isn't a good book, because it is. I offer my recommendation because Smith, being so young, is too content to write well only in auroral bursts; too ready to concede a character to stereotype; and, in the presence of serious ideas, too quick to be woolly-headed and imprecise. Fair enough, these are hallmarks of the not-great.
Notice how the specifics of her bad writing are noted, while her 'talents' are described in puffery, meaning Metcalf is aware she sucks, but doing his best to have his cake and eat it, too. Wanna bet he has a novel making the publishing rounds? He then goes on in detail to tell us why the book is not good- not merely just good, with some faults, but genuinely not good, and given what I've read of her first book it would seem that all he says means she has not grown in the least. He ends his plea-cum-tongue bath thus:

  It is written by an exquisite writer, who has mistaken her admirable pooh-poohing of a lot of foolish publicity for a free pass to get by as an overcelebrated mediocrity. Therefore, Dear Committee, I plead with you to assist in removing the cameras and quote-mongers from Zadie Smith's life and help prevent her from blowing up into an even larger global literary darling, prone to even more gratuitous Hamlet-like maunderings, and let the woman who could write the following develop into her appointed greatness.

Boy, ain't he a monster? Well, if Smith is an exquisite writer then I'm a latter day Oscar Wilde. Of course, Smith's critique really is monstrous compared to New York Times hack Michiko Kakutani, who has never seemed to read a book by a minority that she couldn't misconstrue with overhype: 'A preternaturally gifted new writer [with] a voice that's street-smart and learned, sassy and philosophical all at the same time.'

  Now, before I go into detail on how Smith's book and writing are appallingly bad, let me give a brief outline of the plot- and it's a stretch to say this book even really has a plot. It follows, for a while, the lives of three poor North London families over several decades of the late 20th Century- the Chalfens, Joneses, and the Iqbals, except that it does not really follow them. There is no coherent thread, just a lot of scenes designed to show us how weird, funny, grotesque, or dull these people of Indian, Jamaican, and Turkish backgrounds are. A few negative reviews have pointed out that Smith, despite her background, has no real grasp of slang- especially that of the Jamaican immigrants the Joneses represent, as she supposedly mixes Jamaican and Rastafarian terms with ease. I have no idea whether this is true or not, but the characters are all stereotypes, and speak in atrocious dialogues, whether or not the patois is correct. To nitpick over the patois when the writing is atrocious is like complaining the rabid dog that bit you also looked flea-bitten.

  Conversation is best when it gives the illusion of colloquialism while focusing on the most poetic moments of speech to arrive at illuminating points that a reader can relate to. Conversation, when well used, can be a shortcut o establishing a character's traits and habits, far more easily and quickly than omniscient narration can. Smith has no idea that this is what it can be used for. Instead, she sees it as a way to show hipsterism is alive and well, and she's an initiate of it. The two ostensible leads are Archie Jones- an inveterate liar and Samad Iqbal, a career waiter. They are buddies from World War Two, and the patriarchs of their clans. Archie marries beautiful, but buck-toothed Clara, who hates her Jehovah's Witness mother, thus slipping into an unsavory lifestyle in rebellion. They have a daughter, named Irie. Samad marries a girl named Alsana and has twin boys, Magid and Millat- the former a Fundy Islamist, and the latter a wannabe street thug. Both men are disappointed in life, and an inordinate portion of the book takes place in a dentist's office- hence the title, which also is slang to mean the ideal of a handsome English boy or girl the social climbing foreigners see as ideal mates.

Of course, the children cannot assimilate, and Irie fixates on Millat. Then, nothing much more happens, as the older generations' struggles give way to the younger, including Moslem cultists, genetic experiments on mice, the protests against Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (a cheap way to wrangle a blurb from him- which worked!, as his is the first on the book's blurb page) the Chalfen family, and then the book just ends- as if Smith grew bored with the whole damnable enterprise, and thought she'd just pull the plug. Of course, this end comes only after a hundred and fifty or so pages of a book that seems to want to veer into science fiction before dropping back to failed social satire, and after many other narratives and themes are dropped without reason- admittedly, none were that interesting to begin with, but why start a bad thread if you will not even end it? The book is full of such technical failings, and cannot even qualify as a slice of life tale, in the mold of a lesser A Tree Grows In Brooklyn or the Bridge novels of Evan S. Connell, for it seemingly wants to go somewhere, only to pull back, and just wither.

  Where in the world was an editor? It amazes me how many manifestly bad books, especially those that have a nugget of something, make print, and then when you send in excellent writing it's rejected without being glanced at. This book, as said, lacks even a nugget. It's a 450 page book that might have the makings of a solid thirty page short story if the extraneous dialogue, and needlessly complex overthatching of useless and pointless characters were trimmed, and - most of all- if there was a point in telling us about these people. In all the pages I kept wondering, why does the author think it's important to tell this story about these people? Aside from their ethnicity, I could not divine a reason. The characters are all blatant stereotypes, and the dialogue only worsened as Smith tries to capture the 'hipness' of her own generation, with the men being all hollow losers, and the women a passel of self-loathing masochists. Even if I could, Smith would just lard on extraneous detail and modifiers that serve no purpose. Look at this description of an old friend of Archie's:
  He had not met Horst since the race, but he remembered him affectionately, as an enormous man with strawberry-blond hair, orange freckles, and misaligned nostrils, who dressed like an international playboy and seemed too large for his bike.

  Now, Horst is a brief mention in the book, and his looks have nothing to do with his appearance, so why mention it, save to show off some presumed skill with modifiers. Ok, dazzle me. No? That's right, all we get are banal modifiers, and redundancies- 'orange freckles'; as if I expected them to be fuchsia? And what do his misaligned nostrils- whatever that means- have to do with his mention? Nothing. The details are extraneous, and not even well-wrought. Bad writers, young or old, never seem to understand that any information imparted- be it descriptive or conversational- should be justifiable, not merely an exercise in preening. In short, Smith is incapable of writing about something in fifteen to twenty words if a hundred can do- this the unmistakable hallmark of a bad writer. Witness this paragraph from early in the book:
  Overhead, a gang of the local flying vermin took off from some unseen perch, swooped, and seemed to be zeroing in on Archie's car roof - only to perform, at the last moment, an impressive U-turn, moving as one with the elegance of a curve ball and landing on the Hussein-Ishmael, a celebrated halal butchers. Archie was too far gone to make a big noise about it, but he watched them with a warm internal smile as they deposited their load, streaking white walls purple.

Soon after this paragraph, Smith launches into a dialogue where shit is all the characters mention. Why? To use as a metaphor for their life. Real original, eh? This sort of paragraph should never have made it out of her writing workshop, much less into print. Nor should the phrasings of the omniscient narrator, who in describing Archie, uses sentences like this: 'He kind of felt people should just live together, you know, in peace and harmony or something.'

  Coming from a narrator who is limited, and a character in a tale, this is fine, as are the use of colloquial clichés. But, from an omniscient, it reeks. And the narrator does little but ramble, often telling us what is happening, and why, instead of allowing the reader to discover what the character's motivations are. Now, if one is a good enough writer to tell, then this is no problem, but a quick reread of the above trite paragraph quoted manifests Smith cannot accomplish such. Her lack of understanding of this leads to the schism between what the book is trying to tell (not much) and how it tells it (not well).

  But, what more can be expected from an archetypal example of style over substance (although there is little style, as well)? She, herself, even recapitulates that error, as she even changed her name from Sadie to Zadie to sound more ethnically chic. White Teeth reads sort of like one of those randy British films that went abysmally wrong- think The Full Monty gone Southern Gothic grotesque. Too many scenes read like wan sketches or ideas that are on a to do list that is never picked up on again, and there are far too many actual lists within the book, such as a list of Millat's and Alsana's possessions, which serves no purpose in the tale, save to show 'cultural awareness'. Many other scenes stand nakedly embarrassing in their content and detail, as Smith cannot even string a single full narrative paragraph together. It's as if she had ADD, or was a filmmaker with a shaky hand held camera. In the end, this disjointed, unreadable mess is merely a wannabe underground baedeker to London, yet it has no index page, for Smith was too lazy to even include that gratuity. White Teeth is a bad, bad novel, with little redeeming about it, and Smith will have a long way to go if she is even going to approach middle brow mediocrity as a writer. Anything to the contrary is merely critical fellatio. Blurb that!
© Dan Schneider April 2007
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