As a reader, I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a wide variety of literary pieces – from potboiler mysteries to critically acclaimed tomes. I just like to read, I guess, and I like to talk about reading. And because I (unfortunately) don’t have a lot of people in my life to talk about reading with, I find myself simply reading more, filling the spaces usually reserved for discussion with another book or two.
On the other hand, I’ve always cast a wary eye at the book club culture. Though sometimes desperate to speak about East of Eden and the themes therein, I hate the idea of joining a book club (or book group, or reading circle, or whatever you call it) and essentially being forced to read a specific novel, regardless of whether or not it’s on your list of “To Be Reads.”
So here I sit, frightfully aware that I am shunning the most popular way to communicate about books while lamenting on the lack of literary conversationalists in my life. I mean, it’s hard to talk about books that I’ve read if the people I know haven’t read them as well. Hence, a book club would be a good idea.
And with that, I will admit my defeat. I have crumpled. My wife, who has always wanted to start a book club (and has herself appeared in a few over time) convinced me that it was the proper way to go. We gathered some friends, chose a book, and made a date. I’m in a real book club now, no longer clinging to this faux book club gimmick that I’ve used here at Millions to reach a wider audience.
The book of the month (both here and at home) is Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Have you read this? If so, can you believe that this is Zadie Smith’s first novel? (It is!) Can you believe that it first appeared on the scene in 1997, when she was just 22? (It’s true!) It’s amazing, actually, that I didn’t spontaneously combust while reading it. I was that jealous – of her writing, of her storytelling, and especially of her complex narrative – one that weaves through two generations of London outcasts so wonderfully that I felt attached to their stories, each one of them.
White Teeth is a tale of immigration, albeit an angry and forlorn type of immigration. In it, we find a pair of immigrants, their friends (one of which is also an immigrant), and their children struggling with acceptance. Every character has a sort of pained disdain for every other character, which leads to a wonderfully rich web of alliances and experiences. It’s written with snark – as if Zadie had channeled the failed lives of her characters and funneled their speech through her pen.
As far as first novels go, few are this good. Surprisingly, Smith doesn’t rely on clever writing and funny anecdotes to drive her characters. Instead, she delves deeply into the mindset of each character.
There’s Samad Iqbal, a man who longs for his motherland and takes up a failed form of Islam, one that is constantly strained by both his wife, Alsana, and his location: 1980s London. There’s Archie Jones and his wife Clara – two amazingly simple people with amazingly complex friendships and pasts. And then there are the kids; three children who grow to despise their expected callings, forcing their way out of the caste and into an extreme and opposite version of their parent’s desires.
Smith uses White Teeth to touch upon the bonds of parenthood. She searches for meaning within the failed expectations of a child led astray. She manages to grasp the bonds that tie us to our religion and sort them out while illustrating how complicated religion can be, even among people of the same beliefs. She shows us the difference between intent and action, leaving us to ask – which is more important? The intent to do good? Or the actual doing of good, even if on accident? And which, ultimately, will win out?
Did I mention that she was 22? When I was that young, I was just learning how to drink alcohol properly. Damn it.
White Teeth looks at immigration from a more resistive stance, one that is tense, sarcastic and angry. These people moved from high status to low, from small-town India and Jamaica to London, where they are easily lost and often mocked. Instead of helping to create the land they are moving to, they are expected to fit into the land, slowly fading into the background until they have become a forgotten relic of some ancient culture. Until they are more British, really, and less whatever they used to be. Instead of blending their beliefs with the culture around them, they are forced to become part of the culture, leaving their pasts behind.
There’s a whole load of themes and discussion topics with White Teeth. I’ve probably missed a few: science vs. religion; nature vs. nurture; the power of a wonderfully planned, converging set of story lines. But one thing is for sure. I haven’t been more awed (and more jealous) of a book in a long time. Which is good.
After all, I got the chance talk to more than just myself about it this time.