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Blog Break: The Valley of the Dolls

(Note: We haven’t given up on this blog! We promise. Tim is just extremely busy with awards season– check out his live tweets of the Oscars @mxdwnmovies on Twitter. He’ll get back to the books after the South by Southwest film festival in March.)


“The Valley of the Dolls” by Jacqueline Susann has been lingering on my bookshelf for some time. I picked up the faded pink novel at a used bookstore out of amusement. The cover featured three, big-eyed, poofy-haired models, lounging behind cutouts of giant pills. It was cheesy and irresistible.

I was heading out of town for the weekend and needed a book to read. I wanted something casual; a book that was engaging in that mindless, lose-yourself-in-someone-else’s-problems type of way. I cracked open the spine of “Valley of the Dolls” ready for an experience.

What I received was so much more. This book, while sprinkled with words like “Geez” and “C’mon”, is so incredibly relevant. The plot follows the lives of three young women, aspiring for greatness in a world ruled by men. The narrative begins in the mid-1940s in New York City. Anne moves there to get away from her boring little hometown of Lawrenceville. Neely is an aspiring actress with loads of talent, but is rather rough around the edges. Jen is stunning and banks on everyone else recognizing that fact. While each of the characters is unique, there is also something immediate and distinctly recognizable about all the girls. If I were to rewrite the book today, Anne would be recast as Heidi Klum– a beautiful model, who is respected for both her body and her smarts (even her seemingly perfect previous relationship to Seal is eerily similar to Anne’s love life). Neely would, no doubt, be renamed Lindsey Lohan: the young cinema darling turned nasty during her later years. Neely’s downward spiral into drugs and despair mirror Lohan’s own troubles. And lastly, we have Jennifer, the buxom brunette who overcomes her lack of talent with, well, her boobs. I can think of a dozen Hollywood actresses that fit the bill, but Kate Upton comes most readily to mind.

Okay so this is a fun game, but the reality of the situation is this: things have not changed all that much for ambitious women. We still live in a man’s world in which we play by their rules. I was reminded of this during last night’s Oscar ceremony when  Patricia Arquette made a stirring call for wage equality and Meryl Streep responded like this:


While the “Valley of the Dolls” is known for its main theme of drug addiction, I found that topic to be a sideline to its discussion of love, relationships, and self-worth. From the first chapter of the book, it is assumed that all a woman really wants in life is to find a rich husband and make babies. No matter her personal desires or ambitions, it is understood that a woman’s value comes from her marriage and the offspring she produces. While each of the main characters interact with men differently (Anne wants love, Jen wants money, Neely was attention), they all end up making huge sacrifices for men. Anne wants love so much that she is willing to turn a blind eye to all the things that are desperately wrong with the man she is with. Jen literally gives everything she has to avoid tarnishing her beauty in the eyes of her fiance. And Neely is forced to put a healthy, trusting relationship on the pyre as others shove her up the celebrity ladder. It is devastating to see where these girls end up. Nobody escapes from the power and vices of money and fame.

The meaning of the word “dolls” is twofold. Dolls are literally pills that give the women power over sleep and weight. The uppers and downers allow each of them to feel more in control of their messy lives. At the same time, the dolls push them to be more out-of-control than ever before. The alternative meaning implies that these women are dolls: toys to be played with and discarded as necessary.

I feel rather dismal after writing this brief essay. To be honest, I found the book riveting rather than burdening. There is life and vibrancy in the work and art that each of the women contribute to society. The parties and friendships, the smart banter and descriptions of life back then are all captivating in their own way. I felt transported back to a time that felt like a foggy version of my own world. I would highly recommend this novel to anyone and everyone– both as a beach read and as a thoughtful piece of literature. You will feel something, and you can choose whether or not to think about that something on a deeper, more meaningful level. This final passage from the book sums it up nicely:

“She brushed her hair and freshened her makeup. She looked fine. She had Lyon, the beautiful apartment, the beautiful child, the nice career of her own, New York– everything she had ever wanted. And from now on, she could never be hurt badly. She could always keep busy during the day, and at night– the lonely ones– there were always the beautiful dolls for company. She’d take two of them tonight. Why not? After all, it was New Year’s Eve!

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The Ending

{Finished with White Teeth}

Debby: So clearly, we need to talk about the conclusion to the book.

Tim: That and the last hundred pages or so. Or maybe that’s another topic altogether. But yes, it merits some discussion.

Debby: Well, I feel like the last hundred pages felt like an escalation to this “grand climax”. I mean, they started talking about the New Years Eve event a number of chapters before it finally occurred. As I was reading, I thought it was weird that there was so much build-up, yet so few pages left! I couldn’t help but wonder when it would all happen. And it did happen- so there’s that. The end was quite dramatic, just not in the way I had foreseen. Did you find it satisfying?

Tim: So here’s why I brought up the last hundred pages. We’ve talked a lot about how the plot of White Teeth has seemed to amble along, progressing in no particular direction and luxuriating in its characters. And yet the book has still been immensely entertaining. Or it was, until about the last 70-100 pages of the book, which is when the tedium finally set in for me. And then paradoxically, with maybe 50 pages left is where the only really driving plot of the whole book sets in, and it’s interesting, but at that point I was kind of done. So I guess I like the ending ok, I think it fits with the rest of the book, particularly in a thematic sense (maybe even adding a nice little cap, thematically) but I just didn’t care that much about the events themselves, and that actively annoyed me because it was like being back in the worst parts of a literature class.

Debby: I can’t entirely disagree with you. I have no desire to go back and read this book again, like, ever. However, I did feel a sense of momentum in the last 100 pages that kept me going. I liked Irie’s personal growth through her separation from her family and her time with Hortense (and it all culminating in her sexual intercourse with both twins). I liked how we got to see Samad and Archie’s life-choices play out dramatically. And I even liked the fact that the mouse seemed to get some resolution. The only character I didn’t particularly care for was Joshua. I found his whole act unnecessary.

Tim: I’d happily go back and read the first 300 pages again, the writing is just that sharp (particularly in sections). And I did like portions of Irie’s story. But the long-running consequences of Samad and Archie’s forgotten actions, the use of Joshua as our animal-rights stand-in so we’ll care about that element of the protestors, all that is exactly what I’m talking about when I say the ending seems to fit perfectly from a thematic standpoint but I couldn’t care less from a narrative perspective. To me White Teeth is a book about paradox. There’s a quote from another book I’m in the middle of that actually seems very appropriate: “Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?” White Teeth is all about this recursive argument between intention and randomness. Millat and Magid are genetically the same. Intention. Yet they are different in personality. Randomness. But that difference is the result of direct actions in their upbringing. Intention. Except it had, at best, the opposite of the intended effect. Randomness. It’s a paradox that cycles back on itself again and again throughout the story, and the more happenstantial elements of the narrative like the doctor Archie was supposed to kill turning up at the end, or the prophetic letters of Ibelgaufts, only serve to highlight this.

Debby: Wow. I really like that quote. And yes, I see that fitting perfectly. Especially with Irie’s saga too, trying to decide which twin she loves and then giving up herself to both of them. An intention leading to randomness (who’s baby?). But if that’s your argument, how can you not appreciate the last hundred pages? Everything fitting into the cycle so neatly, so theatrically? I did not expect the narrative to circle back to war-time events and I found it a little much, but when put in the paradox/cycle vortex, it does fit.

Tim: Because everything stops being character, plot, etc. with its own persuasions and becomes wholly enslaved to the theme. It’s hard to explain, but the last 90 pages or so were a departure, stylistically, from what came before, and felt very much like the author saying, “And now I will give my thesis on the subject.” It felt too didactic, perhaps, especially when the welcome had already been worn out. And it’s a little weird, because (for example) Les Miserables is one of my favorite books. It’s a famously long and dramatic story, and at the end its characters start talking about the thematic ideals of the story as a whole in sort of a similar way. But to me it was earned in that case, maybe because it all stems more directly from a plot that drives the whole story. Which is not to say that the ending here was not the result of the book’s plot, such as it was, but that it seemed to be a more…authorially directed turn to the end because it comes out of a story that is so meandering for so long. So thematically, the ending is right for the thematic material of the book, but narratively and in terms of character, it feels a bit divorced from the rest of everything, artificially pulled together.

Debby: I think if this discussion continues, we’ll have worn out our welcome, too. I hear what you’re saying and I’m sorry it ruined the book for you. I found the slight change in momentum very welcoming. But… on to the next book?

Tim: I wouldn’t say it ruined the book for me. But I would’ve been happier with a shorter book. On to the next one!

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Magid and Millat: Master Manipulators

{Finished with White Teeth}

Debby: I have to say, one of my favorite scenes in the book was the grand meeting between Magid and Millat (not the least because the scene is set on my birthday, November 5th). Everyone had their hopes and fears set on this encounter. The Chalfens wanted the brothers to reunite and heal their psychological scars. Samad wanted them to reestablish their faith. Alsana just wanted her boys to be happy and come home and need her. But why did the brothers consent to finally interacting? Why did they not want to see each other? Was it because they knew each other so innately that they feared the discrepancies that had maturated over the years? Was it out of fear or out of a forced sense of cavalarity (cavalereness? cavaleré?)?

Tim: I wondered how they didn’t meet when Magid first arrived back in England, but I confess to barely even remembering this scene where they actually do meet existed. It’s interesting, I guess, but is of very little consequence to the eventual ending of the book. The scene itself is a mere byproduct of the prevailing plot, such as it is, and not a turning point of any sort.

Debby: But that’s a problem, isn’t it? How is it such a “sidenote” that Samad kidnapped his own son, shipped him off overseas to live for a decade, and upon his return, Millat refuses to even see his own twin? While I don’t want to go all Chalfenist here, I do think this scene is a mini climax in and of itself. While the author doesn’t give us every detail of their conversation, she does show us vividly how they use the space they are in to convey a specific message. They are finally able to interact at a physical level after all of these years– I think it’s a powerful scene.

Tim: This is around the time the book lost me as a whole. I was content to watch the clever turnings of the writer in a plot going not much of anywhere for 350, 370 pages. But then I got tired of it not going anywhere and so by the time this scene came around, to be honest, I just didn’t care all that much. So Magid comes back and they shout at each other without listening to one another. So what? The decision had been made, Millat refused to see Magid when he came home. The scene would have been remarkable to me if one of them had made some meaningful impression on the other, but neither did.

Debby: Are you sure? I think part of Millat’s over-doing the weed in the scene might have something to do with his desire not to bring injury or interruption to his brother’s big “thing”. Millat wants a revolution, he doesn’t care about a mouse. I don’t really know where I’m going with this but I don’t seem him acting “against” his brother necessarily.

Tim: Really? I thought the whole point of the weed was to psych himself up to do something big and dramatic that his KEVIN brothers wouldn’t. I didn’t see much of a direct connection to Magid at all.

Debby: Umm… There are plenty of other drugs to “rev” a person up. Weed is not exactly one of them. I think Millat wanted a spectacle. He clearly didn’t understand the religious elements he was dealing with (outside of the “rules” he was supposed to follow). I just think he wanted to do something important– similar to his brother. Only shooting Chalfen was “something important” to his KEVIN brothers. I know I don’t have a clear argument here, but think about Millat’s history. He gets away with all sorts of crap! Why was he more nervous this time? Why did he take so much weed to “psych himself up” as you said?

Tim: Of course he wanted a spectacle. Page 415: “ ‘And is this what we are here for’ Millat had yelled at all of them. ‘Is this what we joined KEVIN for? To Take no action? To sit around on our arses playing with words?’ “ And they wouldn’t do it. So when he found an eighth of weed, he smoked it all because it was available, because he was fed up, and I’m pretty sure the narrator says at one point, so he wouldn’t lose his nerve. I’ll buy that there may be some psychological motivating factor in not wanting to play second fiddle to his twin, but to your point, how much is Millat actually spoiling for a “revolution?”

Debby: Well, when we talked about this at one point, you said something to the effect of Millat being the social “glue” around his school and local scene. He was able to organize and control everyone, but the second he stepped away those groups disappeared. KEVIN was bigger than him– bigger than what he brought to the table. So now instead of creating a vehicle for his own use, a much larger vehicle was being presented to him. A vehicle with members and religious rites and power. He wanted that power and he wanted to use it. In the same way that Magid wanted to use his mind to heighten the levels of science. They both wanted to, in essence, play god. Maybe they recognized that nature in one another when they were in that room, debating the intricacies of the solar system and patent legislation.

Tim: Yeah, I still just don’t believe, based on what’s described to us about that scene, that any sort of real communication was going on. They’re talking at each other, and no one seems to be listening.

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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?

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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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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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The End of the Affair

Debby: I found the end of Samad’s affair with Poppy much more interesting than the time of their involvement. The way Samad is left without that sense of closure, the feeling of “growth” that he desires, seems very just. And speaking of justice, it seems that that theme is spreading throughout all our characters lives like wildfire. Alsana decides to provide her husband with only uncertainty after he sends Magid away as her own version of retribution. Millat becomes a teenage rebel in direct contradiction to Samad’s desire for a dutiful, faithful child. Justice is served hot amongst the Iqbal clan.

Tim: Well I haven’t gotten to that bit about Millat so THANKS FOR THE SPOILERS DEBBY. JEEZ. But ok, in all seriousness, I’m curious about the “growth” you mention and what you found so compelling about the breakup with Poppy. I thought the way he ended the affair and her response (and I quote, “Fuck you, you fucking fuck”) sounded just about right. What is it you don’t see Samad getting closure about? It seems like Poppy’s just another disposable, even more disposable, part of his life. Like when you get to the restaurant scene, he still serves her and her friend (sister? Can’t remember for sure) professionally even though she’s just trying to pick a fight at first.

Debby: Oops! Sorry for the spoilers. But back to Samad– I was referring to when he thinks: “her grief would have been an epiphany bringing him one step closer to his own redemption” (p. 168). In his mind, her sadness would have given him an extra ounce of worth in life. The fact that she cursed him out only further destroyed the exalted, idealistic impression he had of their affair. The affair that had caused his mind and soul so much misery was really and truly a worthless investment. Of course her response is accurate– and demeaning. He got his just deserts. He wants it to mean more so that he can give himself credit for something big and SIGNIFICANT.

Tim: I agree, that’s what Samad wants, but I wonder how much he actually thought he was going to get it from that affair. It seemed like another in the line of vices Samad employed to stave off boredom. He’s bored, so he masturbates. He’s bored, so he drinks. He’s bored, so he has an affair. And he emotionally and psychologically abuses himself over it because it gets him off on the illusion that he has agency to do significant things. I am curious to see how the Magid deportation plays out in that regard. As far as I can see at the moment, it’s no more positive than the rest of Samad’s ill-fated ventures, but it’ll certainly be significant.

Debby: I don’t think he does all those things because he is bored– does it say that anywhere? I was under the certain impression that Samad feels pressure to behave a certain way. He uses religion as an instrument by which to control both himself and others, yet he fails on all accounts. When he masturbates and cheats and drinks, he is only proving to himself that he is a failure. By “overcoming” each of these issues, he hopes to gain some greater sense of being– to take a step or two closer to god. Yet, he is surrounded by more failures in the raising of his children. So he takes drastic measures to ensure that he “does something right”… and ships his child off to the homeland.

Tim: Oh, I don’t think Samad necessarily thinks about it as boredom, but it seems a little implicit to me. Maybe boredom isn’t quite the right way of phrasing it, but Samad is looking to fill his life with something, and despite his religious fervor, it doesn’t seem he knows what to do with himself. Thus, the shenanigans. Overcoming each problem doesn’t seem to much help him. He quits masturbationg only to start drinking. Then he does both. He’s grasping at straws.

Debby: Absolutely! I certainly see him compensating for his internal emptiness with these vices. Like I said, I believe he uses religion as an excuse to hold himself and others to a certain standard. I don’t think he really, truly believes in anything except his own selfish occupations. He clearly doesn’t think much about the feelings or mindset of his wife and children. Instead, he is simply concerned with the image they reflect back on him. I’ll be interested to see how his life choices challenge and change him as a character.

Tim: Or if they do. I could see him as a tragic character who’s only success is the sideways push he might give his children to point them (unwittingly) in the right direction.

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Little Jokes

Tim: Ok, so I want to talk about a couple things that are not necessarily related, and at least one of which we’ve touched on already, but that have really stuck out to me about this book. I’m continuing to really enjoy this book, and these are the kind of things that have a lot to do with it. So first: I love just how clever Zadie Smith is with her little jokes and bits of observational humor. I think it does a ton to keep the book, well, just fun in the midst of a lot of heavy stuff. One example: chapter eight is called “Mitosis,” which is the name for the process of cell division, and it’s in this chapter that Samad hatches and carries out his plan to separate his twin sons from one another and send one of them back to Bangladesh.

Debby: It’s funny you mention that. I made the connection to “Mitosis” when Alsana spotted the connections between the twins’ lives. You might not have gotten there yet, but weird things happen to both brothers at the same time: they both faced death on the same day, both broke their noses, etc. There is an indisputable connection between the twins, both genetically and fatefully. But yes, I love how Smith weaves in things like that! One other little play that I found fun was the language Millat uses. It immediately reminded me of the slang used in “A Clockwork Orange”. When the hurricane hits and Millat saves his precious copy of that particular book, I gave myself a little pop-cultural pat on the back.

Tim: I haven’t quite made it to all that, but I loved the instance where Magid has his nose broken by a vase in Bangladesh and the narrator casts forward enough to tell us “and keep one eye on that vase, please, it is the same vase that will lead Magid by the nose to his vocation” (emphasis added). It’s so counter to the idea of a mother worrying for her child’s life, but it’s almost as though the humor-in-bad-taste of making such a joke is what keeps the whole book so lighthearted despite all the war and affairs and attempted suicide and such. And there seems to be a physical nexus for this, at least in this section of the book, which brings us to my second point: I love the invention of O’Connell’s Poolroom, the Irish pub run by Arabs. It is the most delightfully strange clash of culture and personalities.

Debby: Yes, that it quite a difficult bar to picture. I keep imagining it as a cross between a Denny’s diner and a 1920s speakeasy joint (not a very pretty picture is you ask me). But, I feel that’s kind of the icky feeling you’re supposed to get about these two men, too. They’re hanging out at this nasty place with obnoxious people to avoid the lives that they have constructed for themselves in the outside world. Samad has made a mess of his family/love life and Archie has never really achieved anything, so this is the only place they really “fit in”.

Tim: And that gets at something else. For the last long while, this has been Samad’s tale. I’m curious to get back to Archie sometime soon and see what he’s been up to.
Debby: I agree! I want to get back inside Clara’s head for a little while. It’s funny that at first we complained about all the switching and now we want it back…

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The Masturbation of Samad Iqbal

{Finished with Chapter 6 of White Teeth}

Debby: Ew

Tim: Oh, come on. Is that all you have to say?

Debby: That is simply my response to your title. I feel a little gross just starting this conversation.

Tim: Well, now’s the time to cut loose.

Debby: Okay, well I’d like to start at the end of the chapter and work back. Obviously, we’re referring to Chapter 6: The Temptation of Samad Iqbal. And I think that last line just speaks wonders: “At which point Samad kicked the stool from under him like a man hanging himself, and met the loquacious lips of Poppy Burt-Jones with his own feverish pair.” Zadie Smith did an impeccable job of making me feel incredibly uncomfortable and put off by this chapter. I felt like I was the one slowly getting hung by the awkwardness of the whole thing. I mean, talking about masturbation is one thing. Talking about an old man performing the act feverishly to take his mind of his twins’ hippie music teacher is another entirely.

Tim: I think it’s so funny that you’re so weirded out by this chapter. I mean, it is sort of Iqu-y (so to speak), but it’s really not that explicit. Most of the strangest bits to read come at the very front of the chapter, where Samad is making compromises with himself and his god. That’s also the most interesting part to me. The affair with the teacher just seems inevitable. Learning why Samad does it, and more importantly (to come, I’m sure) how much Alsana knows, that’s right in line with the rest of the book so far. Investigating human psychology. I was actually trying to tell someone what this book is about the other day, and it’s really tricky. The plot is so mundane, but the writing is so good! Somehow the lives of these people are so compelling.

Debby: You’re terribly pun-ny, Tim. And I completely agree that the writing is the essence of this book. I was explaining the “plot” to my friend Jaci over dinner tonight and after rambling on about races and affairs and World War II for ten minutes, I realized I’d lost her nine minutes previous. Somehow Zadie Smith turns four main character’s lives into a spiraling narrative that is compelling. But I really did have a problem with how uncomfortable this chapter made me. I didn’t want to read the last paragraph. I didn’t want them to kiss. I wanted Iqbal to turn around and go back home, to reprioritize his life and recommit to his faith. I didn’t want the teacher to really like him– I wanted her to be surprised that she led him on so far as to have him attempt a kiss. I wanted her to slap him and tell his wife and cause all sorts of drama. I didn’t want to see these two have an affair. I like caring about characters, but I hate having those characters disappoint me.

Tim: Sure, I guess I wanted him to do all that. But there’s no way he was going to do that. He was done as soon he showed up at the school. You went to the last line of the chapter, I go back to the first. I’m curious – I couldn’t remember exactly what drove him to this, but I think there we find our answer. “Children. Samad had caught children like a disease. Yes, he had sired two of them willingly – as willingly as a man can – but he had not bargained for this other thing. This thing that no one tells you about. This thing of knowing children.”

Debby: This makes zero sense to me. I feel like children and masturbating are about as far apart as birds and bees. Don’t people always complain about lower sex drives in their later, parenting years? Years where you work full-time jobs and then realize that children are full-time jobs, too? I thought the intro to the chapter was interesting– defining how a man who becomes a father is forced to turn into someone who cares about children and the environment that they are in. But I do not understand how this constitutes a rationale/reason for an affair.

Tim: Well, that’s kind of the point. Affairs rarely have a good reason. And we can’t argue Samad is behaving rationally through any of this. The chapter is about him trying and failing to rationalize his actions. But as we’ve seen him so far, Samad is self-reliant, proud, and not used to counting on anyone or having anyone rely on him. He tries to self-fulfil. When he’s faced with something he can’t deal with (children and a family) he retreats into himself and his work, where they can’t bother him. “As willingly as a man can.” That’s hardly a universal sentiment, that sounds like a reflection of Samad’s thought process. He’s doing his duty, and like the war, when it’s over his duty should be done with him.

Debby: I don’t think he feels like “his duty should be done with him,” if you’re referring to the fathering of his children. Iqbal clearly grows in his investment in his twins’ lives. The tediously long board-meeting scene emphasizes just how seriously he takes this duty and to what lengths he will go to ensure his children have an outstanding education environment. He has readily engaged in battle with the cultural challenges he and his family must face as noticeable outsiders. I think “knowing” his children only feeds this fire within him to defend and protect… not to masturbate! I just don’t get how that is connected. At all.

Tim: But you don’t actually believe any of that is really for the sake of his children, do you? It’s all for himself! He goes to work for hours and hours and hours and when he’s not there he goes and annoys his wife and others and maintains a friendship with Archie, it would seem, only because Archie is too stagnant to stop being friends with Samad.

Debby: I think Samad has genuinely convinced himself that it is for his children’s sake that he must preserve the statutes of their faith.

Tim: I’ll buy that, although I think just because he’s convinced himself it’s for one reason doesn’t mean it’s not actually for another.

Debby: Doesn’t that go for most things in life, though? We convince ourselves that our actions are pure and adulterated motions, but there’s usually another incentive or motivation just beneath the surface– isn’t there? I would even argue that religion is like that for a lot of people. Especially in Samad’s case, religion serves as more of a device, a cultural identity, rather than a sacred communication with the Creator.

Tim: And I think that takes us right back to a big part of why this book about not very much in particular has been so compelling to this point.

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Matchmaker Matchmaker

{Five Chapters into White Teeth}

Debby: “…Every time I learn something more about him, I like him less,” Alsana tells her audience emphatically. I found this entire dialogue in the park both utterly amusing and surprisingly thoughtful. The author has given us two sets of extremely unique individuals and paired them in both matrimony and parenthood. Yet, the men seem more of a “couple” than do Archie and Clara or Alsana and Iqbal. Both marriages are, in a sense, arranged: one by family, the other by fate. Neither couple understands their partner to any degree. I like where the author is going with this. Clara “chose” to marry Archie, but it was out of desperation– a desire to get away from her old life. Does that mean it really was her choice? And does that make her relationship mean any more or less than Alsana and Iqbal’s? These are extremely interesting questions to ask, given our modern perspective of marriage, romance, and free will in love.

Tim: Huh, this isn’t where I went with this scene at all, I think because I didn’t see Clara’s marriage to Archie in the same “arranged” light that you did (and yes, I know you’re being figurative). But I do see the parallels that could be said to come from a pair of hasty decisions. Their respective marriage situations ensure that each woman will pretty constantly be learning about their husband, with no guarantee that she will like what she finds. Which I suppose is true for anyone, but taken to a bit of an extreme here. Another bit related to this that’s pretty funny: I don’t think you’ve gotten to this part quite yet, but Archie and Iqbal’s friendship begins when they’re both part of the same tank crew in WWII. Archie is shocked when he discovers that Iqbal’s promised wife (from the arrangement between his parents and Alsana’s) hasn’t even been born yet.

Debby: Spoiler alert?? I’m sure I’ll get there soon. Iqbal is currently addressing Archie over his unfaltering stares. I don’t know if guys ever think about arranged marriages, but I’ve had many a discussion with my girlfriends about whether it would be easier to just say “Screw it, find me a husband family/friends” and go with whoever they pick. Relationships are so unnecessarily complicated. The more you learn about someone, the more you realize that you will never completely understand them. So in some sense, Alsana is brilliant: the less you know, the less you have to dislike. It keeps the peace and harmony, by forgoing intimacy.

Tim: Yeah, that sound pretty awful. And after you say, “Screw it,” you still have to find a way to live with that person. Anyways. I’m not sure I have more to say on the subject, but I have continued to enjoy the book. We had worried before it might turn too Goon Squad-y and it does seem to be avoiding the schizophrenic jump to a new person every chapter now. Actually, I read the synopsis on the back cover for the first time just a little while ago, and I’m all the more intrigued.

“Dealing with – among many other things – friendship, love, war, three cultures and three families over three generations, and the tricky way the past has of coming back and biting you on the ankle…”

Debby: Hmm. I don’t know when I last read the back of a book. Who writes those things? Clearly not the author, since the language never sounds the same as the book. Should be interesting to see where the story heads. I like that they’re going back into deal about WWII… always nice to have the historical details. OH! I have one more thing I wanted to ask you: What do you think of Clara’s dialect? I’ve been mentally comparing it to Janie Crawford’s speech in Zora Kneale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The trouble is, I have a tough time seeing it as a realistic way to talk. Like some of the phrases seem really overdone or unnecessarily quirky.

Tim: I really agree with that! I remember my English teacher in high school warning us about the “difficult to understand” phonetic writing in Their Eyes Were Watching God and having no trouble with it whatsoever. Clara’s much more difficult to decipher. It hasn’t quite been an impediment to me yet, but certainly an annoyance.

Debby: Glad I’m not alone in feeling that way. I think that about sums up all I had to say. Looking forward to really digging in this week and getting through a good chunk of the novel.

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