Friday, February 7, 2014

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith
Wow. I remember the fuss when this book appeared in 2000 -- the effusive praise, followed by the train of awards. Now, 14 years later, I realise that none of it was excessive. Probably not even adequate.

With her jaunty, quirky, uneven style, Zadie Smith's voice defies membership in any clique, gang or group. Like her genetic and ethnic composition (both themes running through White Teeth), her voice is gloriously unique.

Each of her characters is, on the surface, a collection of meticulously chosen eccentricities, but beneath the fa├žades, there is substance. Smith takes care that, at some level or another, we can relate to each and every one of them.

As the book opens, Archie Jones sits in his car, a Hoover tube running from the exhaust pipe, in what is quite possibly the most memorable and funny failed suicide bid in all of English literature.
Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 06.27 hours on 1 January 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate face down on the steering wheel, hoping the judgement would not be too heavy upon him. He lay forward in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed either side like some fallen angel; scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage license (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him. A little green light flashed in his eye, signaling a right turn he had resolved never to make. He was resigned to it. He was prepared for it. He had flipped a coin and stood staunchly by its conclusions. This was a decided-upon suicide. In fact it was a New Year's resolution.
But even as his breathing became spasmodic and his lights dimmed, Archie was aware that Cricklewood Broadway would seem a strange choice. Strange to the first person to notice his slumped figure through the windscreen, strange to the policemen who would file the report, to the local journalist called upon to write fifty words, to the next of kin who would read them. Squeezed between an almighty concrete cinema complex at one end and a giant intersection at the other, Cricklewood was no kind of place. It was not a place a man came to die. It was a place a man came in order to go other places via the A41. But Archie Jones didn't want to die in some pleasant, distant woodland, or on a cliff edge fringed with delicate heather. The way Archie saw it, country people should die in the country and city people should die in the city. Only proper. In death as he was in life and all that. It made sense that Archibald should die on this nasty urban street where he had ended up, living alone at the age of forty-seven, in a one-bedroom flat above a deserted chip shop. He wasn't the type to make elaborate plans -- suicide notes and funeral instructions -- he wasn't the type for anything fancy. All he asked for was a bit of silence, a bit of shush so he could concentrate. He wanted it to be perfectly quiet and still, like the inside of an empty confessional box or the moment in the brain between thought and speech. He wanted to do it before the shops opened.
Overhead, a gang of the local flying vermin took off from some unseen perch, swooped, and seemed to be zeroing in on Archie's car roof -- only to perform, at the last moment, an impressive U-turn, moving as one with the elegance of a curve ball and landing on the Hussein-Ishmael, a celebrated halal butchers. Archie was too far gone to make a big noise about it, but he watched them with a warm internal smile as they deposited their load, streaking white walls purple. He watched them stretch their peering bird heads over the Hussein-Ishmael gutter; he watched them watch the slow and steady draining of blood from the dead things -- chickens, cows, sheep -- hanging on their hooks like coats around the shop. The Unlucky. These pigeons had an instinct for the Unlucky, and so they passed Archie by. For, though he did not know it, and despite the Hoover tube that lay on the passenger seat pumping from the exhaust pipe into his lungs, luck was with him that morning. The thinnest covering of luck was on him like fresh dew. Whilst he slipped in and out of consciousness, the position of the planets, the music of the spheres, the flap of a tiger-moth's diaphanous wings in Central Africa, and a whole bunch of other stuff that Makes Shit Happen had decided it was second-chance time for Archie. Somewhere, somehow, by somebody, it had been decided that he would live.
And why was Archie calling it quits?
Archie Jones attempted suicide because his wife Ophelia, a violet-eyed Italian with a faint moustache, had recently divorced him. But he had not spent New Year's morning gagging on the tube of a vacuum cleaner because he loved her. It was rather because he had lived with her for so long and had not loved her. Archie's marriage felt like buying a pair of shoes, taking them home and finding they don't fit. For the sake of appearances, he put up with them. And then, all of a sudden and after thirty years, the shoes picked themselves up and walked out of the house. She left. Thirty years.
Jenny Sterlin, narrator

White Teeth's cast of characters, although they've collided in Willesden, come from Jamaica, Bangladesh, India, and British academia. They are Muslims, Hindus, atheists and Jehovah's Witnesses, all trying to find their own niches in England without surrendering their identities. All are sympathetic, all are vividly memorable.

I've written before about the pros and cons of audio vs. printed books. So much, really, depends upon the narrator.  I listened to White Teeth, and when I'd finished, I seriously considered starting again at the beginning, perhaps to loop through this book again and again. I believe Jenny Sterlin's narration quite possibly made the audio book, if possible, even finer than the original text. Her wry intonation and timing are impeccable. The review of this recording in AudioFile is dead on: "The number of characters, let alone accents, requires dazzling skill to perform--and prepare to be dazzled--as Jenny Sterlin works some kind of miracle with this wildly mad and impressive book. A marvelous audio experience."

As Archie Jones is wont to quip, "Can't say fairer than that."

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a book with nary a dull moment, and a colourful cast of characters! I saw a copy on the SPCA Jumble bookcase, must ask Nic to keep it for me. Will read it after my exams.


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