White Teeth

Zadie Smith

PUBLISHED 06.12.2001

READ
12.13.2017 – 12.31.2017

GENRE Fiction

IF YOU LIKED
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

dispatches from the zeitgeist, for better or worse

The zeitgeist, but late

Not much I can say here that hasn’t been said in tons of reviews, on here and otherwise (this is the best Goodreads one I’ve seen so far). It’s zeitgeisty, very Eggersesque, for better and worse. It’s at once frustrating and refreshing, brave and predictable, witty and hamfisted.

Smith is very good at being funny, and at being biting (sometimes too good at the latter). She’s obviously a wonderful writer of dialogue, and she has an eye for detail that brings to crackling life characters across gender, ethnic, racial, and class lines. Her story meanders at times but never feels totally lost. All of this has been said. I haven’t seen as much talk about her experimentation with form – fluidly going from straight prose to lists to the occasional newspaper article to bold headings that take you out of the text – but that’s my shit and I love when authors feel comfortable enough with their readers to do that. It’s almost banal to talk about The Big Theme but she does the teeth metaphor extremely well; it’s not always subtle but it’s almost always effective. This is all good stuff.

I feel as though I’ve eaten a meal with lots of tasty items, but has left me with a slightly sour taste in my mouth and a less-than-full stomach: it almost hit the spot, but didn’t quite satisfy.

Of course, what people seem to talk about most is the smugness of her narrator, the disdain and distance she has for and from her characters. I think it’s a loving disdain, as it very much were, but it’s not compassion, and it makes the reading experience at times uncomfortable; it’s awkward to want to defend fictional characters from the very voice that is telling you their story. Of course, awkwardness isn’t a crime, and sometimes greatness has been mined from discomfort, but here it just made me figuratively squirm in my seat, without giving me anything back. If that makes sense.

What I come back to is that I came to this book 16.5 years late, and I honestly wonder how much my reading experience was impacted by the intervening years. I hesitate to judge a book on this curve except when a book is so clearly Of Its Time (again, Eggersesque – I feel like his work mostly doesn’t age too well either) you’re forced to wonder… would the smug narrator have felt so tired if I had read this in 2001 or 2002 (and had I not been 10 at that time)? Maybe. Maybe not. In the meantime, I feel as though I’ve eaten a meal with lots of tasty items, but has left me with a slightly sour taste in my mouth and a less-than-full stomach: it almost hit the spot, but didn’t quite satisfy.