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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The Other Goon Squad

{Three Chapters into White Teeth}

Tim: You know which book this has reminded me of so far? Here’s a hint – it’s my favorite we’ve read yet.

Debby: By the title to this blog… I’m guessing Goon Squad.

Tim: What? No, The Deptford Trilogy.

Debby: ……..

Tim: Ok, fine, just kidding. Yes, it reminds me of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Not in that its chapters are in any way self-contained like so many of the Goon Squad chapters, but this one has the same sort of shifting narrator. In fact, what’s notable when comparing the two is that the chapters feel so very not self contained. We go from one character to the next, and I haven’t felt like I could walk away from any of them yet. I won’t be surprised if even Mo comes back before it’s all said and done.

Debby: I will agree with you there. The shifting narrator dynamic is certainly unique– I’ve read too many “Young Adult” novels lately with extremely singular points of view. It’s refreshing to keep moving on, entering the minds of those around the situation. I am slightly frustrated by the fact that we have not retraced any of the storylines (some continuity might be nice?).

Tim: Not quite sure what you mean. Is it that we don’t return to the same perspective again?

Debby: Sorry. I didn’t really say that correctly. You’re right– the perspective is what’s bothering me. The storyline is, for the most part, very linear. I can just feel it going down the rabbit hole. Like as soon as Alsana finishes her raging, we will suddenly leap onto the back of the next person she encounters, like a flea on a dog.

Tim: The mechanic is intriguing to me, but I’m with you insofar as I’m not sure how long the book can keep it up. If all the story becomes is one backstory after another, that’s going to be a problem. I think it’s been very interesting how the blend of backstory and a present scene (usually in the background) has moved the plot forward bit by bit, even leap by leap in some respects (to borrow both your metaphor and describe the speed at which events are occurring in the “present”), but that seems untenable over the course of an entire novel. Eventually we’ll have to dig into Archie and Clara’s relationship with more persistence, I would think.

Debby: The problem is, I don’t know if Archie and Clara are all that interesting? Archie has already been confirmed a “boring” person, and Clara is simply desperate for a new life. I don’t know what kind of future they will find in this new house that will be able to hold my interest for the entirety of the novel. I almost hope we are introduced to more community members before the perspective switches back for good.

Tim: Hmm, good point. I had held out some hope for Archie after the narrator’s declarations that he was a changed man, but it seems that the changes haven’t been that permanent. Here’s the one thing I’ll say in Archie’s defense – well let me start with, have you ever read The Shipping News?

Debby: Nope, never heard of it.

Tim: It’s a novel by Annie Proulx that I almost stopped reading early on because it abuses it’s main character so badly in the early runnings. The man’s name is Quoyle, and he’s like Archie times seven. He’s uncontrollably overweight, mercilessly unskilled, and really pretty useless, except when he’s being used by other people. But Quoyle ends up being a compelling lens for seeing the story. So like I had no hope for Quoyle, I can see no hope for Archie, yet I believe he could still prove interesting despite himself. Perhaps not unlike our dear Oscar Wao, either?

Debby: Oh, Oscar. I’m not sure I need another Oscar in my life, Tim.

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Book Defacers

{Three Chapters into White Teeth}

Tim: This has, admittedly, pretty well nothing to do with the book as a piece of fiction and everything to do with my particular copy of the object. But that shall not halt me from airing a pet peeve: I hate writing in books. I got a used copy of White Teeth, and while I’ve been pretty lucky with used books from Amazon so far, this one has writing all through the margins of what looks to be the first quarter of the book. Safe to say I’ve ignored the scribbles so far.

Debby: Well, looks like we differ yet again. I love margin scribbles. I feel like I’m experiencing the book with someone else! It’s nice to know that another human has read the same lines and been moved by the same passages. My one caveat is when the margin writing is in poor taste. If the writing is not constructive or noting particular themes, then it can be rather obnoxious.

[Note: I just flipped through Tim’s book and the first bit of handwriting I read said “Poor Jehovah’s Witnesses- such easy targets”]

Tim: I just think back to English teachers in high school who made me – yes, made me, as in I got graded on it – write notes in the margins of my books, and how much that contributed to ruining the experience of reading to me. I will clarify that it’s a pet peeve that’s mostly confined to fiction. I’ve been known to underline nonfiction books from time to time. But the “poor taste” caveat begins to get at the root of why it annoys me in the first place. I like having the opportunity to come at a book fresh, form my own opinions uncolored by another commenter. Even if I don’t read the notations, their physical position on a page affects the reading of whatever paragraph they’re near.

Debby: I remember those good ‘ol days! I was the queen of book-notations. I even remember using color codes for various themes or symbols. It made it so easy to write papers, because I could always find the texts I needed for quotes. Now, students can do “word searches” on their kindles or ipads. Back in the day, though, I needed old-school tools.

Tim: And as much as I enjoy actually sitting down and talking about a book like we do here, I HATED those papers, which seemed to be the only things book notes were useful for. I had my tab-strewn copy of The Sound and the Fury, but that didn’t help me enjoy the book.

Debby: Well, to be honest, I wrote a 12-page paper on a rather unique subject in The Sound and the Fury: golf. As in– what the first three pages of the book are about. I didn’t bother taking my amazing note-taking skills further than that.

Tim: Hey, I remember that paper! I read over it while you were working on it. You were talking about Benjy’s observation of people “hitting,” and what he was seeing was others playing golf. There was other stuff, too, but that’s about all I recall at the moment.

Debby: I honestly can’t remember anything else about the book, besides Benjy’s impressions of the sport of golf (or as Mark Twain likes to say, “A good walk spoiled”). So does that prove my margin writing works? Or that I have a very short-term memory?

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The Tales of Alvin Maker

Tim: About a month ago now, I left for a vacation (not that my vacation was a month long, just that it started a month ago) and instead of reading The Moviegoer, which I was not enjoying, I instead started a book series by Orson Scott Card called “The Tales of Alvin Maker.” It’s a curious and often wonderful little series of books, and I’ve had the pleasure of tearing through the first four (of six) in sequence. The first book, Seventh Son, introduces the alternate-history early America in which the books are set, as well as a quasi-magical element that permeates this version of history. Many, if not most, characters have one or another sort of “knack,” a special ability of sorts that’s more like a heightened sense than anything truly supernatural (with a few exceptions). The main characters are wholly fictional, but there’s also a delightful undercurrent of stuff pulled from actual history. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin are all mentioned by name (the third of whom is very briefly present), and my particular favorite example is William Blake, the poet, who wanders in and out of the story at various times as a bard in the classical sense – a wandering storyteller, a nomad. The story goes plenty of interesting spots from there, but the setting alone, and the not quite magical realist, not quite fantastic way that knacks are woven into the very fabric of the world, hooked me almost immediately. If you’re looking for an easy, but not mindless read, I highly recommend the series.

Debby: Sounds pretty interesting! Could you give me an example of a “knack”? Just for curiosity’s sake.

Tim: Sure. So the main character’s name is Alvin, and his father is a miller by trade. After they’ve moved out to a new town on the frontier, they need to cut a new millstone. So the father and Alvin’s brothers (he’s one of the youngest) go out to cut one, but instead of one of the older men, it’s little Alvin who’s entrusted with the cutting. As he explains it, he’s got a feel for the stone, knows where the natural fissures run, so he knows how to cut a perfect stone where it breaks free with almost no effort. There are also examples of more classical knacks, like dowsers (people who can sense water, and so know where to dig wells), but it’s usually more like if someone became a carpenter, it’s probably because they’ve a natural affinity (added to learned skill) for seeing how wood can fit together just so.

All this becomes especially interesting when the religious ingredient is added. In America, most people accept knacks as like any other skill. But in England, knacks are outlawed, viewed as witchcraft. And then, of course, there’s the idea of how these quasi-supernatural gifts fit in with Christianity, and religion at large.

Debby: Woah. Okay now my interest is piqued. For some reason, my mind jumped to Neil Gaimon’s “American Gods,” in which he also addresses religion in American society (in a completely different way, I’m sure, but the element of fantasy seems to tie these two authors together in my mind). Supernatural gifts and such are so downplayed in modern society. We have “talented” musicians and “world-class” athletes. We have “geniuses” and “moguls,” but we like to think of these things as accomplishments of nature and nurture: you’re either born a genius or you work hard to develop these talents. Having uncanny, supernatural abilities is beyond our rational thinking in this day and age.

Tim: Well, and that’s so funny, because the people in this book, and those who know the most about knacks especially, would consider them both a pure expression of unadulterated nature and (at their peak) an act of pure creativity.

Debby: Oh really? Well. That’s different than what I was picturing. But still fascinating in its own right. Pure creativity, though? How does one use pure “creativity” to cut a rock better?

Tim: Ah, and now we’re getting into mild spoiler-y territory. But I’ll forge ahead anyways. So for most people, they participate in the natural order. So for instance, one skill that Native Americans have that white folks don’t is the ability to run great distances through the forest because they are so in tune with the natural order that the earth makes space for them and gives them energy. Brush literally parts and then comes back as if no one had been there. But then the people who understand the world on an even deeper level – these people are few and far between, and they are able to re-make the natural order, build new creations, and not because they bend something to their will, but because they “teach” the thing the way that’s best for it to be. It’s a little hard to explain, but it’s basically two sides of the same coin. The rock is cut and even dressed as a millstone (i.e. the bottom is sharpened in a pattern for grinding well) when it comes free of the quarry because the cutter has shown the rock how it ought to be.

Debby: Hmm… I’m a little skeptical. But I’m still interested in this particular perspective. I’ll take those books on loan whenever you’re ready to part with them, Tim.

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On Travel Guides

Debby: For the last month, the driving source of inspiration (and motivation) in my life has been my upcoming trip to Costa Rica. I leave in two and a half weeks, so the mad rush to plan/shop/pack/talk-about-said-trip has kept me rather occupied. I got some time off of work, corralled my friend Jimi into coming along on my hare-brained adventure and found a killer airfare package. Then, I did something that any normal person would do: I purchased a travel guide. Unlike a normal, rational person, though, I read the travel guide cover to cover. I traced routes on the maps, added to their “suggested packing list,” and read through the reviews of every single hostel in the country. Since we are bringing only backpacks and maps (no technology for a whole week? GASP!), I felt this undeniable need to transfer all Costa Rican knowledge to my head. Now, I feel the need to tell the world about the greatness of Lonely Planet Travel guys.

Shameless Plug: Lonely Planet is written by travelers for travelers. You can feel the presence of those who have “gone before you” from the very first pages. They aren’t trying to sell you on the country: they know you already want to go there. The travel guide simple tells you all those practical, logistical, even comical answers to the questions you have floating around in your brain. From “Do I need to rent a car?” to “What should I wear during the rainy season?” to “Which hostels cater to surfers?” this book says it all. I am avoiding all Lonely Planet books for the next six months so I won’t be tempted to the point of madness to pursue further jaunts.

Tim: The thing I like most about your idea for this trip is the adventure of it all and (not the biggest point, but still) being disconnected from things technological for a little while. One of the most romantic notions in all of history/literature/etc. to me is the the idea of setting out to travel and not knowing what lies beyond. If you go back a thousand years (or less, often enough), you have societies which are wholly contained in their little corner of the world. There are rumors of what lies beyond, but no one’s been there, no one knows for sure. Which I guess is a somewhat contrary notion to buying a travel guide and studying up on exactly what’s there, but I think that, because that sense of adventure remains even when I hear you talk about this trip, it underscores what a nervous thing it must have been to cast aside your entire world and venture forth. As scary as that is, it’s still so romantic (speaking in a very classical sense of the word) to me.

Debby: Aww.. Tim. So your vacation to Texas wasn’t all that romantic? Sounds like you need another trip soon. Hang on! I’ll find you a book….

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