These were the first words I ever heard her say. I mean I knew about her from before, I had heard whispers of her, she was on my radar. People whose opinion I trusted spoke about her. They said glowing things and I was aware of her. How exactly I can’t say but I knew about her white teeth and how admirable they were, so when I finally got the chance to meet her how could I say no.
“How long is a generation these days?”
She began. And with that Zadie Smith wrote an essay that I know I’ll remember for a long, long time. She begins this review of the movie the social network by recalling her time in Harvard. Thinking that she must be in Mark Zuckerberg’s generation since they are only 9 years apart but feeling different from him somehow experiencing the yawning of a generation gap in less than a decade, prompting the above query. The review ,or essay I would say, is my favourite kind, it moves from musings on a movie, ,”it’s a talkie for god’s sake” jumps into the writings of Jaron Lanier(who with a name like that could only ever have one career of choice, a techie philosopher) which concern themselves with how much we allow technology to take away a part of our humanness. The way we contort ourselves to fit computers instead of expanding them(the computers) to match us because life cannot be plotted on data points or represented in their bases. It’s why having 2,000 Facebook friends is not the same as having 200 actual friends or even 20. And as relates to the technology directly we allow ourselves to think some forms of software are as good as it gets because we are used to them, because they have become too big to fail. A non-digital example of this is the typewriter. There’s a story that the QWERTY keyboard was designed to impede typing skills because typewriters would get too heated if people typed too fast. But by the time we got typewriters that would not get heated it was too late. The format was too big to fail. She turns this logic on Facebook itself. The reason it’s blue and white? “ Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green colour-blind. “Blue is the richest colour for me—I can see all of blue.” The ubiquitousness of the relationship status? Because that’s what college sophomores think about. Using Facebook she says is being “forced to interface with the mind of Mark Zuckerberg.” Near the end she writes “Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?” and you know what by then she has earned those words. A movie review became a discussion of the way technology reduces us to less than we can be restricting contact and access, taking away tone and body language and by the time you realise what you were reading its finished and she has won you over, or at least me. Read the essay, go on.
With such a powerful first meeting it was obvious we would get along, it was obvious I would like her and like her a lot. As time went by I kept seeing glimpses of her. No full body shots. No long dates or retreats, just short texts. The essence of her after she had left a room, a shadow whose form I knew but whose substance I could hardly grasp. But this was enough. I began clicking on interviews of her online because I was curious. I was attracted. In one interview she was asked if it was difficult to describe a character who had closed themselves off to change and she said.
“Not at all! That’s what a novelist is: someone who does the same thing every day while things decay around them. In their pyjamas. With dirty plates and fag ends and piles of dirty clothes and hair that is dreadlocking itself through neglect. It was very easy to write those scenes! ”
Not everyone likes this kind of girl. No, not everyone. But I do, or at least I am drawn to this kind of girl maybe an actual relationship would be unworkable because there has to someone who sorts the dirty piles of clothes and it makes no matter if it’s the guy or the girl as long as this person exists. But then we are always attracted to the unworkable because in those rare times when the unworkable works it takes off and flies.
You know that thing when someone is on your mind all the time and somehow you make them materialise in front of you. You make them call by thinking about calling or text by holding the phone in your hand with intent. Well that happened. I was walking through town when I saw her just waiting for the right guy. I picked her up without a second thought because I knew it was meant to be and when it is it just happens. I spirited her off to shags and spent hours by the lakeside with her. I spent time naked and bathed, or fully clothed and making myself hot enough that I could take my clothes off and skinny dip. Late at night and early in the morning she was a constant companion. You see I found the book white teeth on the street in that way you can often find beautiful second hand books on the streets of Nairobi.
The book starts off with an attempted suicide, only attempted because
“No matter what anyone says, suicide takes guts. It's for heroes and martyrs, truly vainglorious men. Archie was none of these. He was a man whose significance in the Greater Scheme of Things could be figured along familiar ratios:
Pebble : Beach
Raindrop : Ocean
Needle : Haystack”
And we are off to the races. The suicide is bungled by a man who is spending time killing pigeons. They have been shitting all over his butchery, a man who knows that ; “The shit is *not* the shit (this was Mo's mantra,) the *pigeon* is the shit.”
White teeth then introduces us to a whole slew of characters. And their families. And their histories. And their famlies' histories. And even their history's familys. The title in the story referring both to the propensity for brown skinned people to have very, very white teeth(this may either be a work of contrast or genetics-) and also (because double entendre is just amazing) to the roots that teeth have. You can see just the surface but if you go into the gum you can see that they are planted firm in there. Melanin in soft tissue, tissue so soft it feels more fragile than rotting meat and nerves all over the place connected to the brain and the nose and more tender when struck than the relationship you have with a puppy. It looks all surface but there is something buried underneath, there is a history, “the past is always tense, the future perfect.”
Since a lot of the book is about recent immigrants to London it captures a lot of their fears and troubles. I have really come to like reading books about immigrants, they are people like us and the fears they have are the same ones we face except ours are more abstract. Theirs are tangible. Theirs are real. We all worry that we won’t fit in but imagine the immigrant, he really does not. His skin is a different colour, his accent is wrong, his religion is foreign, and everything about him screams other. This is a fear we all have this lack of belonging except for the immigrant it is played out in sound and colour.
“ ...it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears - dissolution, disappearance”
This is a fear she tackles incredibly well; the reason immigrant parents want their children to marry within their own race. She’s writing about London and one of the parents imagines his genetic imprint being lost in a sea of blondeness. As first his children then grandchildren get assimilated not just into the culture(because this is a battle unavoidably lost if only because these children will make a culture of their own different from either their parents’ or their adoptive country’s) but genetically as well. This made sense to me. Children is how we achieve immortality, an evolutionary imperative to further our own. Recently I have read a lot about Israel/Palestine(because for some reason that has nothing to do with my current religious state the fate of the holy lands are important to me to the point I still call them the holy lands.) I read this article , it’s about xenophobia in Israel. A xenophobia that has been directed against so many groups in its history and shows no signs of dying down. The European Jews did not like the Middle Eastern Jews, neither of them liked the Arabs and then the Africans moved in and there was a new place to direct the hate. Some of the men who are more tolerant than others have no problem with the Africans but they shouldn't date their girls. “Women are weak and can be easily persuaded.” One of them says. But he qualifies his statement, ‘This isn’t just hate for the sake of it — there is good reason, we are thinking of the future.’ How, he wanted to know, ‘will we stay Jewish if we intermarry?”
And that’s the Israeli question. Well one of them. How to stay Jewish. How to have a Jewish state. They see themselves poised on the brink of something, annihilation, extinction. And can we really blame them? Their neighbours hate them. They went through the holocaust not 70 years past, the history of anti-Semitism goes back further than the history of European interference on African soil and they are trying to build a Jewish state to keep themselves safe. The thing about a Jewish state is that it must be primarily, demographically Jewish. Their dissolution is something they are scared about. It’s not America that will slip on a new identity in 2050 when white people are the minority this is a country that has no idea what to do. They fear disappearing and everyone reacts to what they fear by hating it, by having emotional reactions to it.
White teeth also has a lot of truth in it. Some simple pithy statements that ring as true maybe because they are sad, “this is what divorce is, taking things you no longer want from people you no longer love.” Am not sure if this is what divorce but it seems to capture the essence. The loss of love and the things you used to value. The feeling of failure and the fact that it’s not a gracious loss. It’s not happiness at having finished the race, its frustration at not being able to. Its lashing out at someone you used to love by taking something you used to want. Something that perhaps you only wanted because of the way that person made you feel. Some things are only precious because of the shared history they have, they don’t matter at all when you are alone and that’s the worst thing maybe. At the end of it when a divorce has happened it feels like the marriage didn’t matter at all. It’s just something you don’t want taken from someone you don’t love.
However she has a sense of humour. I was laughing all through the book. There is an introduction of an Islamic fundamentalist group some ways through the novel,
“I am from the Kilburn branch of the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation," said Hifan proudly.
Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation," repeated Millat, impressed. "That's a wicked name. It's got a wicked kung-fu arse sound to it."
Irie frowned. "KEVIN?"
We are aware," said Hifan solemnly, pointing to the spot underneath the cupped flame where the initials were minutely embroidered, "that we have an acronym problem.”
Scenes like that abound, for some reason I remember the sad things all too well though.
“It's a funny thing about the modern world. You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, "Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He didn't love me. He just couldn't deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me." Now, how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll---then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.”
There is if we let ourselves see it a lot of truth in that paragraph. The world tells us that we should be intellectually stimulated, sexually satisfied, creatively challenged, physically healthy, spiritually at ease. In other words happy in all the facets of our lives when this is not really possible. And the thing is a lot of people believe they deserve it like a spoiled brat pissed off at the world for not giving us what we want. The dark stuff is there(as it is in life) and it’s a part of the book but it’s been a while since I laughed so much as I read. A while since I stood in public and read through the glare of the sun because I could not bear to tear myself away from the impending climax. So if you can read this book.
After the book I read more about her. She reads all the time and reading is like work though it’s the only way she relaxes so she has to find a way of disconnecting from the world.
“I love to be drunk – that helps. That's why a lot of writers drink – you don't have to be engaged”
I don’t think she made a mistake in the word choice here. You see there is a world of difference between the phrases I love drinking and I love to be drunk. One of them is a love of the process. The savouring of a fine wine or an expensive scotch. The feeling of fire in your stomach as alcohol makes it way down. The atmosphere, the conversations. The slow build up just before the release. One is a love of the result. The sitting back with your cares far, far away. The world spinning and you not being on it. Not analysing, not thinking just being. you can never have the result without the process but when you hear someone say something like this you feel like they wish they could. And for those many, many reasons I have a huge, huge crush on Zadie Smith.