Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) is extraordinarily post modern in its breadth. If you are looking for a text with a “grand arc” or timeline, or a text with rich, formidable characters whose inner depths to which the reader plunges, I would not recommend this novel. Try Charles Dickens or Herman Melville…
I find defining post modern to be quiet easy in 2012, and especially within the plethora of examples formulated by Smith. For example, “Because there aren’t any alien objects or events anymore, just as there aren’t any sacred ones. It’s all so familiar. It’s all on TV” (436). Here Smith is describing the inner thoughts/feelings of Millat Iqbal, the twin son of Samad Iqbal, who seems comfortable with the notion of being violent even though he has never experienced violence first-hand—with a pistol, that is. Contrast this with Archie, who, along with Samad, experienced the tail end of World War II and a direct, one-on-one, conflict with the gruesomeness of war, violence, etc.—i.e. not on TV (therefore, not post modern). The breadth of this novel is its attempt to juxtapose these notions: the modern against the post modern, real violence in a wanting of peace versus contrived violence in a wanting of war.
To do this, Smith does not rely on a grand tale of heroism and personal discovery. Her novel is composed of vignettes, short stories, images, moments that are all heavily layered with adjectives with which we (the reader) find ourselves familiar. From Archie mentioning Britain’s longest running television show, Last of the Summer Wine, to Millat’s love of De Niro, Ray Liotta, American Gangster films in totem, and his insistence in quoting Paul Sorvino’s character from the 1990 film, Goodfellas. These vignettes are essential to the post modern style, and Smith’s endless quotations and references are equally essential to post modern substance of her novel.
Smith relies on Archibald Jones as the closing and opening “Hero” of her story, and seems to be quite in love with—and at her best—when speaking for and through Archie. Criticize how you may, this is Archie’s story. BUT (a big but), because this story is Archie’s story, the characters merely revolve around him. Archie is stalwart during the storm, and this is what Smith loves about him. He is reliable, durable, and always makes a choice (heads or tails). This is simply what Smith loves about him, and conversely, why every character chastises Archie. Because of Archie, every character can be crazy and irrational, they can be dramatic, licentious, provocative, heretics, or prophets; but only because Archibald Jones is unwaveringly dependable—a trait I feel is specifically rooted in his rescued suicide attempt, or second chance at life.
Finally, there is one last theme in need of exploration. Immigration. Smith poses it in a question, which is pondered existentially throughout either by the narrator or the characters, and uttered by one of the least profound of the many minor character’s: Joely (wife to Crispin, co-founder of FATE (Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation), and love interest of Joshua Chalfen). Joely says, in a very post modern fashion (a vernacular simile and an unattributed quote): “‘It’s like that quote: ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.’ The choice between duty and country” (410). This theme permeates the text. To whom is the migrant loyal: nation or family? Of course this brings up a multitude of philosophical discussions on the rise/instillation of nationalism that is better referred to in this text: Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983).
But I digress.
This theme is also echoed by Dr. Sick, whom Archie has the “choice” of killing during his stint in WWII. He states: “‘The problem,’ continued Dr. Sick… ‘is that of a young French student who ought to care for his sick mother in Paris but at the same time ought to go to England to help the Free French fight the National Socialists… what should he do?'” (444-45). For Archie it’s easy: He just chooses one: Either heads/Or tails, and deals with the consequences. Again, this is what Smith loves about Archie: his basic simplicity. This theme is also present in the introductory quote to the text: “What is past is prologue”. And it echoes throughout earlier post modern novels such as The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), where the opening line reads: “My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost” (3).
White Teeth is a beautiful exegesis on the struggles of the modern and the post modern. It is a quiet existential fight for the past when the present is consistently interrupting and making decisions the past did not predict. It is the passing of generations who live with one foot in one land, and the other foot in this one. It is the tug of war amongst expectations, disappointments and every day delights. It is often hilarious and surprising, and a wonderful play with the post modern style, form, and content.