Read from March 26th to April 15th 2015
“Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.”
In a famous short story, Henry James suggests that any work of art has a secret meaning, waiting to be discovered. He calls it “the figure in the carpet”. I’ve always thought, taking this metaphor to the extreme, that there are many kinds of carpets, and that sometimes you can figure the figure, so to speak, simply by contemplating the visible part of it, but in most cases you have to turn it upside down to study the number of knots, the direction and the overlapping of the threads – that is, the episodic characters and the eventual red herrings, the narrative layers, the time frame, etc. Obviously, a complicated inside out does not necessarily mean a beautifully elaborated figure and vice versa, a deceivingly complicated pattern is sometimes realized with few pinpricks. But it also happens that the result be an intricate design both on front and back.
This is the case of Zadie Smith’s novel, White Teeth, and this why the author was so often compared to Salman Rushdie, even though their styles are entirely different: the worlds they create are crowded and deafening, with colours so vivid that hurt, with situations so absurd that forever stagger between tragic and comic, giving the reader, at the end of the story, the feeling that he just escaped, bewildered and disoriented, from a boisterous oriental fair. And this feeling is not caused by the world created (at least not entirely) but by an all-round narrative that exploits indiscriminately and often hilariously a jumble of information in a way that can be funny, true, but sometimes it becomes tiring:
Whilst he slipped in and out of consciousness, the position of the planets, the music of the spheres, the flap of a tiger-moth’s diaphanous wings in Central Africa, and a whole bunch of other stuff that Makes Shit Happen had decided it was second-chance time for Archie. Somewhere, somehow, by somebody, it had been decided that he would live.
This ambiguity of the tone is what I appreciated most and loved least, and no, it is not a contradiction, let me explain. The ability of the author to offer simultaneously the two sides of the story is truly amazing and it is masterfully created using many narrative tools that would deserve an extensive analysis of their own, like the free indirect style of the multiple narrators, the flashback and flash-forward in time frame, the permanent mixture of aesthetic, psychological, social and political, the exceptional use of various ranges of language, from scientific jargon to street and school slang (I think this is one of the most valuable traits of Zadie Smith’s prose), and so on, and so forth. All this to build a world that escapes categorization, not only because it is free of the usual stereotypes – the immigrant tragic condition, or the middle-class mediocrity, or the religion fanaticism, or the righteousness of animal-rights fighters, but also because it denies life either its tragedy or comedy, defining it only as frenzy.
What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll — then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greetings cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.
However, the recognition of all these qualities was an intellectual one. Yes, the author is good, the more so as she is very young, even though, like all the young writers she cannot help a little showing of her literary knowledge. The result is still impressive, a book with a complicated structure, but never sloppy or confused, for she firmly holds the reins of the narrative. Even the end, considered by many a critic forced and scrappy (Anthony Quinn, in his New York Times review considers it an “overeager braiding of plot lines”, with a focus that “becomes fuzzy”) does not contradict de whole. All these qualities do not conceal a certain heaviness of the reading: the novel is tiring to follow, and (at east for me) it was like watching a show from a backstage where there is an activity as interesting and intense as the performance on the stage. That is, I liked better the back of the carpet than the front. Or, to use the author’s own words I began my review with, the history inside made me forget, more than once, the history outside. And this is not only because of too much detail (it is this, too) but also because of too much comment: the multiple narrators are never truly alone, their voice being too often amended by a mocking and overwhelming auctorial voice that trims mercilessly thoughts, actions, consequences:
Despite opting for a life of dentistry, she had not yet lost all of the poetry in her soul, that is, she could still have the odd Proustian moment, note layers upon layers, though she often experienced them in periodontal terms.
Overall, an interesting debut that promises an inciting literary career. I know she wrote a second novel, but I won’t read it for now. However, in some ten-year time, it will be interesting to see her evolution.