Willesden Fast-Forward

Daniel Soar

  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith
    Hamish Hamilton, 462 pp, £12.99, January 2000, ISBN 0 241 13997 X

A woman at the counter of the newsagent I was in was charged £25. I looked over to see what she could have been buying. Twenty Benson and Hedges, a packet of crisps – and a clutch of lottery tickets. Not cheap. I picture her going into the same shop Saturday after Saturday, buying more and more tickets each time. At first it was just one: then it was two, four the week after, six the next – until it was twenty, and her chances of winning were multiplied twenty times. The trick with gambling is this: each time you lose, you raise the stake you put in so that when you win you cover all your losses. There’s a catch: to be sure of winning you need to have a limitless supply of money. And you need to have enough time. If you buy twenty lottery tickets a week from the age of 18 you will, on average, be 700,000 years old before you win the jackpot, and if Richard Branson succeeds in his bid for the People’s Lottery you’re more likely to be a million.

The newsagent in question is on Willesden High Road, where every shop that isn’t a newsagent is a takeaway. The streets of low-rise housing go on for ever and the main arteries are well supplied with buses. The people are from everywhere. At Willesden Green there’s a shopping centre and a library. Willesden belongs to a part of the city that doesn’t recognise a centre, where everything you need is in easy reach and you can move from suburb to suburb without ever seeing the London you read about in the guidebooks. There are estates and run-down stretches, but there are also trees, and it’s fashionable, too: it lies just beyond Kilburn, and in the all-important hierarchy of London postcodes it has the respectable-sounding label of NW2; there are houses that go for £800,000. It’s where White Teeth is set.

Zadie Smith won a kind of lottery: £250,000 in a two-book deal, and there’s a £5 million BBC adaptation on the way. She was one of the deserving – just a step away from the prize-winning bus-driver novelist – only 23, half-Jamaican, half-English, parents divorced, resident of Willesden. So she did go to Cambridge, but then there’s always a catch. Salman Rushdie called White Teeth ‘fizzing’ – and it’s been called many similar things since – which may sound a little misplaced with its hint of champagne, but it captures something of the boldness and variety of a novel that is 462 pages long and peopled with a generous selection of Londoners, immigrant and otherwise, who are followed over two or three generations as they mix and marry, argue and succeed. It’s been made to stand, particularly in America, for a multicultural Britain, one thing about this country that’s not to do with Heritage.

The book has at its centre Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshi living in Willesden, the great-grandson of Mangal Pande, who may or may not have been the catalyst for the Sepoy Rebellion, and whose nemesis, General Havelock, is commemorated by a statue in Trafalgar Square; and Archie Jones, resident of Willesden hailing from Brighton, twice married, who once came joint thirteenth in an Olympic cycling event. They are bosom pals, meeting regularly in O’Connell’s Pool House, where there are no pool-tables and the owner and sole employee, Abdul-Mickey (whose relatives are all called Abdul with an Irish or English name tagged on), refuses to serve pork (except on one notable occasion), and reads handbooks on how to look after the customers, of which there appear to be only four. Archie and Samad were brought together by the war, and their particular war involved driving a tank around defeated towns, until it broke down and they were left without support in a Bulgarian village. Samad is Archie’s teacher, his guru, his misguided conscience, and he lectures him on great-grandfathers and ‘the East’ and Englishness – his moment of greatest inspiration came in the Bulgarian village as they waited, unaware that the war was over, fuelled by morphine collected from abandoned medicine chests.

Archie, eternally the pupil, finds it hard to know what to think without help. He tosses a ten-pence coin to make all life’s more difficult decisions, and it’s the result of a coin-toss that has him, as the novel opens, sitting in his car on Cricklewood Broadway trying to gas himself. His hysterical Italian wife has left him, and the car’s right indicator is flashing, ‘signalling a right turn he never intended to make’. By chance, a local shopkeeper notices the car illegally parked, and rushes over to insist that the interloper kill himself somewhere else, because ‘it’s not halal.’ Archie feels he has been saved by fate: he turns right, and speeds off, racing round a roundabout six times in his elation. (He always seems to be going round and round: as a cyclist, he amazed his colleagues by managing to circle the track in exactly 62.8 seconds each time, never improving and never falling off. His current job is designing new ways to fold paper.) At this point, Archie’s new life begins. It’s New Year’s Eve (1975), and he gatecrashes a party in a squatters’ commune, feeling as young as can be. There he meets Clara Bowden, a beautiful Jamaican girl who has recently escaped from her Jehovah’s Witness mother. They marry.

Part of the mission of White Teeth is to look at what comes from roots. As the novel progresses, the children largely take over: there are Magid and Millat, the problem twins of Samad and his wife Alsana; and there’s Archie and Clara’s too-plump, often depressed daughter, Irie. Late in the book another family appears, the Chalfens, who are as distinct from the earlier characters as could possibly be: they are straight-talking middle-class liberal intellectuals, and the Chalfen children (for ideological reasons) go to the same comprehensive as Samad and Archie’s. When Joshua Chalfen, Millat and Irie are caught during a police raid of the drug haunts outside the school, their harried headmaster sends Irie and Millat on a course of improvement at Joshua’s house. To everyone’s surprise, the arrangement works well – initially at least. Joyce, the mother, quickly takes to Millat, the street gangster, and in more than a motherly way; and Irie, much in love with the easy life, helps Marcus, the father, with his filing. The Chalfens are an entertaining lot who have an incredible capacity for self-belief (their favourite word is ‘Chalfenism’), but you get the impression that more than entertainment is at stake. With their introduction, class differences are nicely bridged (racial differences were smoothed over in the opening chapters), and the neatness of this achievement is compounded by the uses to which they are put. Joyce is a gardening expert who regularly appears on Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time. Her surprise bestseller, The New Flower Power (1976), equated the sexual revolution with a horticultural one and praised the benefits of cross-pollination: ‘The fact is, cross-pollination produces more varied offspring that are better able to cope with a changed environment . . . If my one-year-old son is anything to go by (a cross-pollination between a lapsed-Catholic horticulturalist feminist and an intellectual Jew!), then I can certainly vouch for the truth of this.’ Marcus is a biologist, and he patents the technology that allows a mouse (FutureMouse©) to be genetically programmed to live its life according to a fixed calendar, with diseases occurring at preordained points, which clear themselves up exactly on cue. The mouse is the focus for the grand dénouement – with guns – in which the disillusioned Joshua (who has joined fate, an animal rights group), Millat (a member of kevin – Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation) and almost everyone else who has appeared at any point in the book attend the official press launch of the project on New Year’s Eve 1992, just behind the National Gallery: for the first time London has a centre. Something programmatic is going on here.

FutureMouse is an embodiment of the idea that is present everywhere in the book: that someone, however unlikely it may seem, is in control of what happens. When Archie is trying to make up his mind about whether or not to kill himself, we have: ‘He thought about the dent he might make on the world if he disappeared, and it seemed negligible, too small to calculate.’ When he is saved: ‘Somewhere, somehow, by somebody, it had been decided that he would live.’ The decision-maker, of course, is Zadie Smith, and this confidence, this writerly power and ambition, is what really marks the novel. It extends to coincidences of plot: Magid and Millat, five thousand miles apart at the time, break their noses in quick succession; and it extends to all aspects of the prolix, inventive language. Smith has a tendency to choose the would-be Austenian quotable: ‘This is what divorce is: taking things you no longer want from people you no longer love.’ Thanks to the assured rhythm of her sentences, which can be flamboyantly careless (and there’s a good smattering of unusual typefaces), she nearly gets away with it – and more words are always on their way, so none of her absolutes need carry emphatic weight. The snap judgment would be that a 23-year-old ought to be disqualified from too much assertiveness when it comes to speaking from the standpoint of the mid-life crisis, but it would be a judgment coloured by impatience with her bravura. The truth is that her assertions aren’t wrong so much as self-evident. The experience she could be accused of lacking would only help her describe things in unexpected (and perhaps more interesting) ways. As it is, there is much that is to be expected. At Archie and Clara’s wedding: ‘What other memories of that day could make it unique and lift it out of the other 355 that made up 1975?’ Never mind that there are usually 365 days in a year: remembered time doesn’t exist in neat packets, one for every day, but as a continuum out of which it’s hard to pick one event; there are markers, however, and a wedding day is one. Observation of a kind follows, though it’s a little routine: ‘Clara remembered a young black man stood atop an apple crate, sweating in a black suit, who began pleading to his brothers and sisters; an old bag-lady retrieving a carnation from a bin to put in her hair.’ There are always things to be noticed, things that stand out: Smith doesn’t invariably look for them.

Sometimes, though, the writing works beautifully. There’s a scene in which Alsana, Clara and Neena (who is ‘Niece-of-Shame’ to Alsana) sit on a park bench discussing arranged marriages and the proper relation between man and wife. Alsana, who has undeniable problems with Samad, nevertheless believes in a certain order:

It was exactly because Eve did not know Adam from Adam that they got on so A-OK. Let me explain. Yes, I was married to Samad Iqbal the same evening of the very day I met him. Yes, I didn’t know him from Adam. But I liked him well enough. We met in the breakfast room on a steaming Delhi day and he fanned me with the Times. I thought he had a good face, a sweet voice, and his backside was high and well formed for a man of his age. Very good. Now, every time I learn something more about him I like him less. So you see, we were better off the way we were.

Out of this assured handling of voices remarkable things come. Alsana has a knack for the perfect malapropism: ‘Getting anything out of my husband is like trying to squeeze water out when you’re stoned.’ Her best speech comes when her attention is brought to Samad and Archie’s supposed war heroism: ‘Shitty lies! If they are heroes, where are their hero things? Where are their hero bits and bobs?’ Great stuff, but then Alsana has to spoil the effect by repeating the same thoughts in various permutations.

Occasionally, Smith just can’t stop herself. Ryan Topps, Clara’s first boyfriend, makes friends with Clara’s mother, leaving Clara out of the equation; so far, so funny. But it’s an opportunity for another quotable: ‘Is there anything more likely to take the shine off an affair than when the lover strikes up a convivial relationship with the lovee’s mother?’ This time the soundbite is wrong as well as banal. Perhaps in the teenage world a little parental disapproval is fuel for passion, but if the assertion only extends this far, why ‘affair’, why ‘lover’, why reach into the grown-up world? There is a world out there, sad as it may be, where the approbation of a person’s family makes a relationship a relationship. And the shine may have gone, but it seems too much when Clara arrives to find Ryan and her mother talking intently at the kitchen table, whereupon ‘Ryan would make his excuses and leave.’ Sometimes it’s worth stopping when the going is good (a basic rule in poker: don’t be tempted to carry on betting because of the amount you’ve already put in); winners know how to rein themselves in, to create rules for themselves.

White Teeth has no rules: anything is possible. The moral of the story is that holding onto your past is impossible, that cultural cross-fertilisation is inevitable and necessary. (The epigraph reads: ‘What is past is prologue.’) Samad worries that his sons are being led into irreligious English ways, so he decides after much agonising to send Magid, the elder by two minutes, back to Bangladesh to learn some fear of God (he can only afford one airfare). He’s confounded to find that it’s Millat who, however perverse his motives, joins a fundamentalist group, while Magid returns as a cravat-wearing defender of all things British. Samad makes much of his faith, but it’s here that Smith most brazenly skews the odds in favour of her message. As a vigorous and upstanding member of the teacher/parent committee at his sons’ school, Samad parades his religion at meetings – with the joint motive of proving to himself that he is a good Muslim and embarrassing his wife. Alsana cringes, but he impresses the music teacher, Poppy Burt-Jones, with whom he begins a brief affair, causing himself much self-doubt which is nonetheless easily assuaged by a little deal-brokering with the Almighty. Samad is proof enough that belief and the past can’t be clung onto when there is pressure to assimilate, but if there’s counter-evidence we don’t hear it.

There’s a danger in novel-writing that women avoid. Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, as much of a cult in its time as Joyce Chalfen’s gardening manual, identified a kind of writing that blurs the boundary between fantasy and fictive imagination, with the result that you feel there is some abuse of power at work (though he didn’t put it quite like this). Wilson’s specimens all recognise their obsession because it’s the fact that they know they’re ill that interests him: his first is Barbusse, whose hero lives for the moment he sees a girl’s skirt lift in the wind. A writer like Milan Kundera (not one of Wilson’s outsiders) gets away (just) with making women walk naked up and down his pages because he writes about the fact of fantasy: he knows what he’s doing. Douglas Adams, on the other hand, in one of his later novels, has a pretty, charming, 2CV-driving female character undress, run a bath full of all the salts and soaps she can find, and climb in to soak after a long day fighting off vultures. You can almost see him looking through the keyhole. When you have invented people you can do what you like with them, but it tends to be men who take the chance. Zadie Smith has power and she does exactly what she likes with her characters, but they’re not projections of her desires: they’re projections of herself. Her novel works because it’s full of personality, the kind she’s been seen in the papers with (she doesn’t think much of men, who tend in her experience to have Arsenal toothbrushes, or worse): the characters are all sassy, voluble versions of each other and of her.

At times it can seem as if Smith short-circuits desire altogether. Her multicultural, teeming Willesden is its own kind of fantasy; though her optimism is infectious, it’s clear that people don’t mix so well in any real world. Her characters never really want: either, as in Archie’s case, they are provided for out of the blue or they discover that they don’t want what they thought they did. Irie, who dreams she comes across a sign saying ‘Lose weight to earn money,’ hates her frizzy hair and has it painfully bleached and then good Indian hair plaited in, but Neena and her lover Maxine tell her she looked great the way she was, and she has a change of heart.

There is a frequent Harry-Potterish deflation of tension; a mounting crisis tends to be resolved before it can cause the reader too much anxiety. When Archie’s conservative paper-folding colleagues discover his new wife is black, he is called before his boss, Kelvin Hero, for a chat. Although Archie seems blissfully unaware that anyone might be upset, you start getting worried when Kelvin, finding the situation tough going, says: ‘I know you’re getting on a bit, and the old leg gives you a bit of trouble – but when this business changed hands, I kept you on, Arch.’ We know what’s coming. But two pages later he finally comes out with it: he’d rather Archie and Clara didn’t come to the next works dinner. It didn’t sound as if Archie wanted to go anyway.

A more disturbing deflation affects much of the second half of the book. The years from 1987 to 1989 are represented by three episodes, chosen for their historical weight: the storm in October 1987, nearly equal in its effect on the Iqbal house to the tornado in The Wizard of Oz; the issuing of the fatwah on Salman Rushdie (mysteriously referred to even in the quoted newscasts as ‘the writer’); and the pulling down of the Berlin Wall. I slept through the storm and I heard about the other two on TV, but it’s not just that other things happened in those years: part of the problem is that we don’t always feel time moving on like this – Smith has a way of dealing with time that’s not far off that of her Jehovah’s Witnesses. She glides over the terrifying fact of being stuck in the present moment – a terror that comes with need – by pressing fast-forward. More than this, it means that too many of the little things are lost, which are what Smith is best at. Early on in the book there is this: ‘At the corner of the road Alsana popped behind the post office and removed her pinchy sandals in favour of Samad’s shoes. (It was an oddity about Alsana. She was small but her feet were enormous. You felt instinctively when looking at her that she had yet more growing to do.)’ Alsana’s feet are never mentioned again. Nor is Alsana, much. It seems a shame.