I’m taking an Introduction to Improvisation class, which permeates my life such that I’m constantly (obnoxiously) looking at the world through an improviser lens. One thing the instructor keeps emphasizing: not every scene has to have conflict. We might respond confrontationally on impulse in an improv setting, but for the most part, it’s not enjoyable to watch, and it’s not accurately indicative of what happens in real life. Usually, when someone says, “Honey, I made you dinner”, you don’t respond with, “But I hate dinner, it’s the worst meal of the day!” just to keep the conversation moving.
This speech has a point, I swear. Zadie Smith’s seminal novel, White Teeth* is a great big melting pot of conflict. Everyone is arguing with each other for 450 pages. The novel provides insight into the difficulties of immigrant families; it explores the tension between desiring assimilation and retaining traditions and identities. There are numerous main characters, because Smith performs the ambitious exploration over multiple generations. Such complex issues inevitably involve struggle, but as a reader, I have a conflict boiling point. I want someone to make nice at least once, and I grow exhausted by never-ending argumentative dialogue.
You might be frustrated by the unceasing brawls, but at least you can find refuge in great characters, right? Wrong. Smith has so much ground to cover that she doesn’t spend enough time on one person, so no character gets fully developed. The second we get to know him/her, he/she eludes us. What you end up with are plenty of potentially interesting people who do nothing but quarrel.
Moreover, the teeth motif seems forced and not very useful. I get it to an extent—having white teeth is the common factor amongst so many diverse backgrounds, and the handy (toothy?) root metaphor is easily accessible, allowing comparisons to the homeland. But it’s a pretty lame motif if you ask me, and it’s not even employed consistently. Smith weaves intricate plot lines that convey her skill, but then she randomly throws in a quip about molars. Personally, I prefer pun memes, like this one:
Needless to say, I’m not a huge fan of this book. I wanted to like it, mainly because of its notoriety. At the time of publication, it won numerous awards and was received well by critics. It’s even listed on this amazing “100 Essential Novels” scratch off that I got for Christmas (I recommend to all book lovers—the scratching off process is very edifying).
Zadie Smith wrote White Teeth at age 25, a year that I spent re-watching Breaking Bad and learning how to expand my cooking beyond pasta. Obviously, she’s a talented young woman. Unfortunately, the book didn’t do it for me, and I can’t in good faith advise others to read it. White Teeth receives 2 out of 5 camel humps.
*Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. New York: Random House, 2000. Print.