Zadie Smith published White Teeth at the age of 24, having received a £250,000 advance and the title of “the new Salman Rushdie” from her publisher. The book is 400+ pages of delightful prose, pushed by a kinetic energy that is sleek and modern and fluid. Its story is not a complicated one, nor are most of its dozens of characters. Smith’s brilliance lies in her ability to add dimensions to people who, for the most part, aren’t that interesting. The artistry of her language keeps the pages turning and keeps the reader on board.
In a now-famous essay about White Teeth, literary critic James Wood coined the term “hysterical realism” to define its genre. Used pejoratively, he intended the term to mean a writing style “typified by a strong contrast between elaborately absurd prose, plotting, or characterization, on the one hand, and careful, detailed investigations of real, specific social phenomena on the other”… He decried the genre as” an attempt to “turn fiction into social theory,” and an attempt to tell readers “how the world works rather than how somebody felt about something.”” In other words, he felt Smith’s modern writing style is too self-conscious in its canniness, focused too much on creating a singular artistic tone than actually telling a story worth telling.
In no way chuffed by that assessment, Smith deemed hysterical realism a “painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own.” But that’s her voice, and her style, classification be damned. Take it or leave it. What’s unarguable is the neatness of her dialogue, the authenticity of each of the novel’s multi-racial, multi-cultural characters, and her ability to build a world that feels identifiable and common yet worth reading about.
Does it get tedious at times? Sure. Are there more pages than necessary to plot this story? Absolutely. But if Smith’s writing style is your cup of tea, it’s going to resonate at a frequency that will be endlessly satisfying. Preferences aside, there is a lot of joy in simply observing the structure of Smith’s sentences and following the trails of her brain as she pulls the journey along. Ever-remembering it was a freshman novel written by a college student, the product is remarkable.
What is the story about? The lives and friendship of two old WWII comrades, hard-wired eugenicists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, snobby upper-crust white people, animal-rights activists, teenage angst, life in a racial melting pot, religion and atheism, the complexities of being sexual beings, and Muslim militants in a fundamentalist brotherhood called KEVIN. The story begins with someone giving up on their attempted suicide. Its climax is arrived at through a somewhat forced contrivance, but offers a profound affirmation of life to bookend the story.
If you’re not turned off by Smith’s prose, there are lessons to be learned – humans are all in this soup together. We don’t always get along, but we’re trying. As far as humanity is concerned, 20 years is worth about a second, so we’re no different today than we were in 2000.
In with the old? Yes. 20 years has nothing on this book.