by Zadie Smith
542 pages, Penguin
Review by Pat Black
How the years roll by. Nineties nostalgia will probably start creeping into popular culture soon. It seems like we only just turned the lights off on that decade.
I foresee some nu-grunge, album reissues, movie remakes, bright red lipstick, Jennifer Aniston’s hairdo, Britpop and Grunge nostalgia nights. The tartan shirts are back already; I had a couple of those the first time they were in vogue. Everything’s cyclical.
The end of the nineties were a very curious time. We had fin de siècle anxiety, but there was an added sense of hysteria because it wasn’t just the end of a century, it was the end of the millennium. (Unless you’re one of these ball-aching pedants who start hemming and hawing about how there is no year zero. Just shut up.)
People scrabbled around, looking for something to worry about. We had some analogue-sounding problems in the shape of Y2K and the supposed bursting of the “dotcom bubble”. But everything ended up alright. We could look forward to a bright new future.
Of course, how we felt about the world in 1999 seems quaint, even cute – like looking back on the worries we had as children. In hindsight, the world was a far less dangerous place.
It seemed inevitable, with that creeping feeling of the clock running down, that the big publishing houses would try and harness the time when all the zeroes came round on the dial and aim for something new – fresh faces, loud voices.
The “author of the millennium” in Britain was Zadie Smith, a 25-year-old Londoner whose debut novel, White Teeth, thudded onto the shelves in January 2000. She had the temerity to be beautiful as well as talented, and her book was big and ambitious. She fit a template, her story was good, she won loads of prizes and sold truckloads. God, I could spit.
The book recalls Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, a family saga as well as an examination of what it is to be an immigrant in England. It traces the history of Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshi man, and his friendship with Archie Jones, an Englishman. They met during the Second World War when they fought in Europe against the Germans, and their relationship endures as they both get married and have kids in the UK. Samad has an arranged marriage with a Bangladeshi woman, Alsana, and she bears him twins, Magid and Millat. Meanwhile, Archie goes from a suicide attempt to meeting Clara, a Jamaican immigrant, in the space of a day. In time she bears him Irie, a clever but awkward girl the same age as the Iqbal boys.
The book shifts perspective and shoots up and down the decades, looking at Samad and Archie’s lives, then focusing on the children as they grow up in multicultural London in the 1980s. The historical events Smith references are ones I remember well – Indira Gandhi being assassinated, the hurricane of 1987, the Berlin Wall falling, Salman Rushdie’s fatwa.
The book is short on plot, but the outline of one appears with the intrusion of the Chalfens, a smug, silly, white middle-class Jewish/Catholic family who “adopt” Irie and Millat. The father, Marcus Chalfen, is a scientist working on the FutureMouse project – a scheme whereby a creature’s whole life can be arranged and mapped out to the minute of death through its DNA. All of the principal characters in the story come together on New Year’s Eve 1992, for very different reasons, as the FutureMouse project is unveiled to the public at a raucous launch event.
The first thing to say is that it’s a very funny book – there’s not a trace of pre-millennial angst in these pages. Smith’s style is playful, and the omniscient third-person narrator sometimes takes on a voice of its own, like someone telling a story down the pub.
The book’s message on race is that there is only one, no matter what your colour, religion or family background. The recurring motif of the white teeth in the title hints at our common humanity, beautiful and weird and complex though our differences may be. And it’s also a secular book, although religion figures heavily. The believers shout it out loud at the end, raging against science and progress; but they are ultimately drowned out by FutureMouse’s appearance. The creature’s own anti-climactic act of escapology cocks a snook at the forces of straight lines, dogma and established order. Our own race will travel along similar crooked paths, you feel.
The book’s most interesting theme was its treatment of Islam. Samad seems to be tortured by his beliefs; at one stage, when he finds himself frozen out from the marital bed, he embarks on a fairly chaste affair with a ginger teacher at his sons’ school. Out of the ashes of his guilt at the hanky-panky comes a horrible decision, when he sends one of his boys back to Bangladesh in order to live a more Islamic life – something he decrees without consulting the formidable Alsana. But young Magid, almost an object of veneration back home for his supposed piety, becomes an atheist scientist, in cahoots with Marcus Chalfen’s genetic tinkering. Meanwhile, back home, the wild, all-boozing, all-shagging twin Millat gets involved with some Muslim extremists – the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (KEVIN!) – and becomes radicalised, the polar opposite of his brother. Poor Samad feels cursed.
As Smith has admitted herself in interviews, there’s a blithe quality to the way Millat’s extremism was essayed while the Twin Towers still stood. No-one had any inkling that 9/11 was on the cards; the activities of KEVIN are comical rather than threatening, with the actions of the extremists mocked, and not seen as being dangerous to society at large.
And that’s probably the biggest jolt of all in this book; we remember the way things were, when radicalised Muslim extremists were not the world’s number one bogeymen, when we hadn’t embarked on those damned wars, when our economies weren’t swirling down the drain. Smith was writing a time capsule entry without realising it.
Indeed, she has a prescient warning about fundamentalism and the dangers of indulging in ignorant behaviour. In the book’s most brilliant turn of events, the young Millat and his crew from school attend a book-burning session in Bradford, torching copies of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. The scimitar-tongued Alsana catches sight of her son on the television news, and the boy comes home to find that his mother has made a bonfire of all his records, training shoes, books, video tapes and posters. “Either everything is sacred, or nothing is,” she says, impassive as the Sphinx while her son weeps over his blazing treasures.
The novel rambles along well, oblivious to concerns of pacing or structure beyond focusing on one particular character or other, but Smith realised she’d have to end it somewhere. So the big climax feels contrived, a means of introducing some sort of dramatic tension as she wraps things up. She even seems to admit this in her “past tense, future perfect” appraisal of what will happen to her characters in 1999. I do have sympathy, though. Where do you start, and where do you end, when you seek to document history?
It’s a great book, but the novel of the millennium seems dated already. It’s more of a signpost than a landmark, a peek into the way we were at a particular time, the kind of thing whose appeal might fade badly with the passage of a few more years. But like all of those nineties preoccupations, both material and metaphysical, it might find itself back in fashion once again; we should be happy to live in the sort of world circumstances that gave birth to Zadie Smith’s career.