Moments of Change

{About halfway through Chapter 12 of White Teeth}

Tim: Last week we got to talking about the cleverness of the writing, and you said something about yes, the book was very good, but there was little to drive you forward reading more. Like, moment to moment it’s great, and if you start reading you’ll probably read more for a while, but there’s very little plot incentive driving you forward through the narrative. I feel that way, too, and I got to thinking about it this week, especially as I got to the introduction of the Chalfen family. Early in the book we spoke a lot more about this, but White Teeth is always shifting, even if just a little. We start with Archie’s attempted suicide, but then go into how he meets Clara. And pretty soon Samad and Alsana come in, and we get war stories with Archie and Samad. Then there’s Samad’s affair. Then Alsana. Then the book jumps forward in time and there’s Irie. Now there’s the Chalfens. It still feels as though not a lot is happening plot-wise, but there’s always a slightly new situation for Zadie Smith to explore, to expose a new facet of these characters.

Debby: This book is certainly unique in the way it propels its narrative. I feel a certain “speeding up” now though, maybe due to the increased humor– or my relative association with the Chalfen family. While my dad’s side of the family is Greek, my parents are both distinctly white, American, middle-class folks. Take away all of the Chalfen hippy-ness and you get a functional, blunt family focused on education and relationships. While there are a number of extremes in this case, I do find the family more easy to relate to. I feel like Irie when she describes the middle class as “the kind of embarrassment that is actually intrigue, fascination” (p. 267). I’m slightly appalled to call myself a part of this group of people, yet underneath the surface of it, I can totally understand the Chalfen family’s motives and worldview.

Tim: And also there’s Irie’s observation that the Chalfen “parents were rare creatures, a happily married couple.” That I found immediately relatable (which is perhaps the exception rather than the rule, but relatable nonetheless). You and I, we come from the same socioeconomic and (to a degree) intellectual sphere of the Chalfens. Which perhaps speaks to the quality of the writing, that we find ourselves laughing at the satire rather than chafing under it.

Debby: Very true. While I am slightly embarrassed to be a part of their collective sphere, I don’t find the Chalfens in any way insulting to middle class, white people as a whole (they are British, of course, so there is that). Our affinity for therapy and science and gardening– always looking for ways to shape things into perfect copies of increasingly perfect ideals. We are a culture attracted to the damaged individuals for the sole purpose of fixing them. Our celebrities are models of perfection– until they take a misstep, for which rehab and therapy are the only solution. It’s a little extreme, but our society is increasingly extreme.

Tim: And increasingly in search of perfection, and increasingly trying to blow that perfection up. Which I don’t feel has been a major idea of this book so far. Laced in there, with Samad’s self-flagellation (both euphemistic and figurative) and Irie’s hair and such, but not a major idea, exactly. I wonder if it’ll be taking more center stage through the final third of the book?

Debby: Hmm… interesting to tie the Chalfens’ desires for perfection back to Millat and Irie’s families. I suppose up to this point the Chalfens are the most successful at achieving the kind of perfection they desire? So much so that their family has become the epitome of boredom? It’s like this constant thing: strive until you reach perfection, then find something broken so you can make it perfect, too. I just wonder if part of the process will break down. Will the Chalfens lose their minds if Millat does not change his awful ways? What will they do if they “fail”?

Tim: I think it’s very different to say, “Will the Chalfens?” compared to, “Will Joyce?” Devotee to Chalfenism though she is, she seems to be the one (at least where I am) who craves change the most. I’m not sure what it could point to yet, but it’s also interesting that she’s the only female Chalfen, and she’s the one with the most inherent problems with Chalfenism? It’s also, and perhaps more easily, explained by the fact that she’s married in rather than genetically Chalfen, but giving characters four sons doesn’t seem like an accident.

Debby: This is where I disagree with you– I think Marcus desires change just as much as Joyce does. His life’s work is dependent on change, based upon trial and error. Joyce is constantly surprised by her own success (“The popularity of The New Flower Power surprised no one more than Joyce”, p. 258). She seems the most consistent in both fixing things and then maintaining their perfection. However, she deems her husband as actually “creating beings”— the ultimate way to achieve perfection in nature.

Tim: The difference I see there is that Marcus is happy to continue with his work on mice. It evolves, but it’s the same sort of thing. Whereas Joyce, we’re told, craves respite from the Chalfen silence. There’s also a craft to her work that, well I won’t say it’s absent from the work of her husband and the interests of her boys, but it’s less present, especially in the way it’s been described so far. Joyce’s gardening is something learned only through experience, learned through apprenticeship and practice. There is a very real limit to what book learning will get her. And I’m not sure where I’m going with this in response to your point, but it’s something I noticed, and it may circle back around before we’re through with the Chalfen clan.

Debby: Yeah… I don’t really know if we’re connecting on this concept. How about we dig into this a little more next time, when we have more information to back up our ponderings?

1 Comment

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One response to “Moments of Change

  1. Betty Bouzeos

    In my 62 years (about 58 of those reading books on my own) I’ve never thought as much on all the books I’ve read as you 2 have thought about this book!!! I think you’ve written more analysis than the author wrote original pages 🙂 So, the big question: Do you still “enjoy” reading this book or are you reading so that you have something to analyze? Only a mom could ask that question, right?

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