A Regard for the Hippies

{About halfway through Chapter 12 of White Teeth}

Debby: I absolutely love this new family that we are introduced to in Chapter 12. The Chalfens have quite literally made me laugh aloud on a number of occasions (I have also taken to reading the funniest quotes out loud to anyone in my vicinity– not sure they appreciate it as much as I do). I realized quickly, though, that the most entertaining parts involved witnesses. Irie’s internal commentary on the Chalfen’s is absolutely dead-on. “These were not any species of parent she recognized” (p. 264). It is the stark contrast between her parents and Joyce and Marcus that is so amusing/engrossing to both Irie and the reader. The contrast also brought into sharp light my own, personal error: I had assumed that the Iqbal’s and Jones’ were more “middle class”. They owned houses, had food on the table, could afford going to the pub every night… I just hadn’t placed them into more than a marginally lower income bracket. When Irie steps into the Chalfen home and experiences the “middle class” lifestyle, she is awed. Her apparent shock made me step back and reconsider the picture that I had mentally painted of her family and their home.

Tim: Yeah, I think The Joneses and the Iqbals are probably ok, but with very little disposable income. The Chalfens, on the other hand, live under the roof of an established geneticist and an author who we’re told has sold her share of books. And yes, Irie’s comparisons are spot on, although I’m really looking forward to getting into the exchange a little deeper (I’m just at the beginning of the first tutoring session Irie and Millat attend) and seeing what Millat makes of them. From p. 268:

While Irie had been lost in her reveries assessing the Chalfens like a romantic anthropologist, Millat had been out in the garden, looking through the windows, casing the joint. Where Irie saw culture, refinement, class, intellect, Millat saw money, lazy money, money that was just hanging around this family not doing anything in particular, money in need of a good cause that might as well be him.

And just because this was my favorite little Chalfenism that the narrator throws out:

…but Marcus had been brought up with a strong respect for therapy (in his family therapy had long supplanted Judaism)…

Debby: I specifically underlined that first quote. I love the irony of this very intelligent family getting so duped by these two, underprivileged kids. Obviously, we are shown Joyce’s propensity to fix broken things and Marcus clearly has a thing for curvy women, so their blindness should come as no surprise. But while Irie wants to be “fixed” by the Chalfen family and therefore plays into their games and house rules knowingly, Millat takes it all a step further by playing on their sympathies and knowledge. Both Joyce and Marcus want to “perfect” things– and Millat is the ultimate challenge. I cannot wait to see how this plays out.

Tim: The other reason I’m particularly interested in Millat – and this is something we knew was probably festering if we thought about it – was from Joyce Chalfen’s assessment of him: “there was a deeper sadness, a terrible loss, a gaping wound.” She goes on to prescribe love as the remedy, and while it’s true that Samad’s not a very loving father, I have trouble not seeing this “gaping wound” as Magid. I know they were different in temperament even when younger, but I can’t help but imagine how psychologically heavy Magid’s familial deportation must have been on Millat.

Debby: I absolutely agree with you there. Joyce is very quick to spot daddy-issues, but slow to recognize the impact Magid’s departure had in his life. My first question is: does she even know about Magid? I wonder how much he is brought into conversation. Obviously, Millat wants to play on her sympathies, but if he can play the daddy card, why should he bother bringing a long-lost brother into the mix? I doubt Joshua knows he exists and Irie doesn’t have any reason to make Joyce feel more sorry for Millat than she already does. Now, as for if Millat really is struggling with a deep burden, I would presume so– but that might be the white therapist inside of me speaking. I would think that losing a sibling like that (under cover of darkness, too) would be traumatizing. But, he has adapted rather well to his surroundings. Would he have been “king” with his brother by his side? Or would he have an entirely different identity as a twin rather than as a solo leader?

Tim: Well those are two different questions entirely. More highly fictionalized that Millat and Magid though they may be, I’d say Fred and George Weasley were fairly regal within their circle at Hogwarts. I could see Millat and Magid ruling the school together. Or I could see them becoming rivals. Either way, I think its possible Millat’s identity would have been meaningfully different without, necessarily, drastic changes in his overall trajectory.

Debby: I suppose I am being rather hypothetical tonight. I love that we can talk about “what ifs” with these characters though because they are so real. I guess my thoughts on Millat were more along the lines of “How much did Magid leaving actually affect his psyche?” Like he probably would have been a troublemaker anyways. So did Magid’s departure really leave a gaping hole in his heart, which he then decided to fill with mindless self-destruction? Or is there a deeper hurt– something rooted in his relationship with his mother and father?

Tim: Mmhmm, I like it. And I hope we get to find out. (I think we will.)

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