A Black Comedy of the Unremarkable

{A little more than halfway through White Teeth}

Tim: Ok, I’ve gushed about this some already, but I can’t stop because the last fifty or sixty pages I’ve read had me audibly laughing several times. I love the writing of this book, the way Zadie Smith makes compelling the largely unremarkable and mundane through clever words and zippy turns of phrase. And still, this book is about nothing in particular! It’s about normal people living normal lives and I can’t put it down. It is a black comedy of the unremarkable. About the closest thing you get to a major event is the hurricane where they all take refuge at Archie and Clara’s house and the tree comes through the wall. And that’s a scary thing, but Smith talks about it in turns of phrase like, “Then Archie, visibly shaken by this blow to his DIY supremacy…”

Debby: I’d like to use the expression lol here because I really did just giggle a little. It’s so Archie to be concerned with something like that. I feel like the hurricane also served as a great transition: it shook things up and gave the audience a fresh point of view on the children (now “young adults”). I was particularly amused to see how Archie responded to the fight with the kids: “‘But you can’t beat experience, can you? I mean, you two, you’re young women still, in a way. Whereas we, I mean, we are, like, wells of experience…” I almost died.

Tim: Oh, it’s fantastic, the book’s filled with stuff like that. There’s a bit, I don’t think you’ve quite got here, but here’s Alsana, talking about a lesbian cousin and her partner: “But why do they always have to be laughing and making a song-and-dance about everything? I cannot believe homosexuality is that much fun. Heterosexuality certainly is not.” In the context of everything we’ve read so far, I think White Teeth might be my favorite so far. The only real competition, I think, is from A Visit from the Goon Squad, which pulls out similar black humor, but does so more often from the plot and the setup. Smith is doing it through narration and really quite normal character moments, the humor in which we’re pointed towards.

Debby: I agree. I love that the humor really shapes our perception of the characters. Archie is lovable for his blunderings, whereas Alsana is endearing for her sourness. On a slightly different note, I think we’re finally entering into territory where the distinct cultural backgrounds of our protagonists will be drawn out. Already we see Irie having to deal with her mother’s genetic predispositions. I’m glad that Smith is finally making use of the diversity within her narrative. It will be interesting to see how the children deal with the “issues” that their parents have set them up with (Irie physically and the twins socially).

Tim: The inevitable reunion of the twins will be telling, without a doubt. We’ve already gotten some of this with Samad and his…difficult…relationship with English culture. Irie’s certainly diving right in, and I think we’re seeing it more with the children because they’re in school and forcibly thrust into the cultural milieu, whereas their immigrant parents could stay more separated by choice.

Debby: Do you ever wonder how a writer comes up with this stuff? Like how could you even begin to write an outline for this book? It’s almost like Zadie Smith is creating a social experiment: what happens when you put a silly white man, a beautiful black woman, and two Bangladeshi in a room? I might have mentioned this before, but I was profoundly inspired by Stephen King’s writing method, in which he creates characters that are so real they make their own decisions when faced with something terrifying. All he did was create characters and “drop” them into a unique scenario. He developed characters so real that there was only one way they could react when faced with a dramatic situation. I feel like Smith’s kind of giving us that here.

Tim: Yes, to a point, but I feel it’s really the narration that sets this book apart. The narrator is never quite so present as to appear a character him/herself, but there’s the constant philosophizing, the constant explaining of the characters instead of just describing. The narrator may not be a character, but he/she is active in telling the story to us. So you get things like the equation describing the appeal of O’Connell’s bar at the beginning of chapter ten, and the observations about Millat’s Raggastani crew and his command of the Quran on page 194. The characters are interesting, but I think the way they’re portrayed to us by the narrator is a huge part of what makes them so compelling within White Teeth.

Debby: Hmm. It’s a good point. I guess I feel that the narrator is so involved in explaining each character to us that he/she is a part of the characters themselves, if that makes sense? Like the entirety of “Irie’s” chapter is told via the narrator, but without him/her we wouldn’t have any of the feel for what she’s going through. So yes, the narrator is not a standalone character, but in a sense neither are any of them. There is an inseparable bond between the narrator’s voice and our attachment to these characters.

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