ZADIE SMITH: WHITE TEETH (2000)

© 2021 by M. Keith Booker

British literature moved into the twenty-first century with the publication of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which remains to this writing the most feted text of twenty-first-century British literature. White Teeth is a sort of epic of late-twentieth-century multicultural Britain, a central literary monument to the mongrel nature of British culture and society in the postimperial era. It’s a sprawling, energetic, rambunctious novel built on many influences and drawing on many genres; it contains many styles and many narratives, exhibiting a plural nature that is typical of much postmodernist fiction—but that is also much like contemporary Britain itself. The “British” characters of the book, Londoners all, have roots that span the globe, from Jamaica, to England, to Bangladesh. And appropriately so: in the post-imperial era, of course, England itself has roots all over the globe. As Alsana Begum, one of the Londoners in the book with Bangladeshi roots, points out (after reading in an encyclopedia about the multicultural history of Bangladesh itself),“You go back and back and back and it’s still easier to find the correct Hoover bag than to find one pure person, one pure faith, on the globe. Do you think anybody is English? Really English? It’s a fairy tale!” (196). Despite her explosive temper, Alsana is at times something of a voice of reason and practicality in the text; somewhat marginal to the main plot, she nevertheless plays an important rule in constantly bringing her husband, Samad Iqbal, himself given to flights of romantic and religious excess, back to earth. And her reminder here of the mongrel nature of all cultures at this point in history can be taken as a crucial statement of the central message of the book as a whole.

White Teeth employs a shambling, nonlinear narrative structure, though its events can generally be sorted into roughly chronological order. Most of the actual narrative occurs between the middle of the 1970s and the end of the 1990s, thus covering the final quarter of the twentieth century. However, occurrences of crucial importance to the narrative begin with the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and extend through events such as the Kingston, Jamaica, earthquake of 1907, to the final days of World War II, then on to the end of the twentieth century. The Indian rebellion is important because Samad Iqbal, perhaps the single most important character in the narrative, derives so much of his personal sense of identity from the claim that his great-grandfather, Mangal Pandey, was the instigator of the Indian Rebellion. The book acknowledges that Pandey’s actual role in the rebellion has been questioned and that he has often been maligned by Western historians, but to Samad he is a great hero and being descended from him is probably the one personal characteristic of which Samad is most proud.

What we know of Pandey in White Teeth, however, emanates almost entirely from the mind of Samad, whose claims of Pandey’s greatness are not necessarily taken seriously even by other members of his own family. Meanwhile, Samad’s purported descent from Pandey is paralleled in the text by the story of the family background of Clara Jones (née Bowden), who is the daughter of Hortense Bowden, a woman who is herself stipulated to have been born in a church in Kingston, Jamaica, during the cataclysmic Kingston earthquake of 1907. The daughter of a black Jamaican teenager and a (white) British colonial officer, Captain Charlie Durham, Hortense was apparently born in a Kingston Catholic church just as her mother, though nine-months-pregnant, was about to be raped by a drunken British colonial businessman and would-be religious reformer, Sir Edmund Glennard. The earthquake then erupted, the church collapsed, and Sir Edmund, in a fateful act of poetic justice, was crushed beneath a falling statue of the Virgin Mary. Hortense, however, was delivered alive and well amid the chaos and rubble that surrounded her.

All of these details provide background to the main plot of the book in a manner that is indicated by the epigraph that appears in the book’s frontmatter:

What is past is prologue.

                        Inscription in Washington, D.C., museum

This inscription does indeed appear on a statue located outside the National Archives Building in Washington. But it originates in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611), perhaps the first great literary work to focus on the expansion of England into a colonial power. The phrase has been used widely ever since as an indication of the way in which past events determine the conditions under which present events unfold—which is, of course, precisely why it appears outside the National Archives Building. It’s a highly appropriate epigraph for White Teeth, in which the past hovers over the present lives of so many of the characters and provides so much important background to their current experiences. And it serves as an announcement up-front that history will be important in this novel (as it so often is not in the novels of the postmodern era). But why the attribution to an American “museum” instead of to Shakespeare? Smith—with her degree in English literature from Cambridge and her Generation Xer’s ability to use Google—could not possibly be unaware of the Shakespearean origins of her epigraph, so one must assume that this epigraph serves the dual purpose of reminding us of the importance of the past while also suggesting that some of us need to get beyond our reverence for the heroes of the past (like Shakespeare, one-time icon of British imperial majesty) and move forward without slavish devotion to past traditions.

Of course, the biggest historical prologue that hovers over the text of White Teeth is the experience of empire—and of subsequent imperial decline. Thus one Arab Londoner in the text scoffs at the English penchant for statuary featuring their heroes from the past, making those statues sound like the one of Ozymandias made famous by Shelley: “They have no faith, the English. They believe in what men make, but what men make crumbles. Look at their empire. This is all they have. Charles II Street and South Africa House and a lot of stupid-looking stone men on stone horses. The sun rises and sets on it in twelve hours, no trouble. This is what is left” (417). Meanwhile, one aspect of this decline—one that, in a sense, hovers over all post-imperial British culture, is the sense of having been supplanted by the United States as a global power. In White Teeth, this sense is expressed most clearly in the description of the aftermath of the 1907 Kingston earthquake, when the most effective aid to the devastated British colony is supplied, not by the British themselves, but by the Americans. When Durham returns to Kingston to view the damage, he realizes that “It is the Americans, not the British, who have the resources to pledge serious aid, three warships full of provisions presently snaking down the coast from Cuba. It is an American publicity coup that the British government does not relish, and like his fellow Englishmen, Durham cannot help but feel a certain wounded pride. He still thinks of the land as his” (300). He even experiences a certain offense that the Americans feel authorized to enter Jamaica without asking his permission. Among other things, this passage provides a reminder that, in the complex process of global modernization, the Americans were already making great strides toward overtaking the British as early as 1907, when the process of rapid modernization underway in Britain was underway at an even more accelerated pace in America. By World War II, many British colonies in the Caribbean were occupied by American soldiers, sent to protect against German invasion, with the British military stretched too thin to provide such protection. And, of course, by this time inhabitants of British colonies all over the world (and of Britain itself) had become accustomed to viewing imported American films, often with a sense that the American films they saw were superior to the British ones, thus driving another nail in the coffin of British superiority.

Clara ultimately immigrates with her mother to Britain and becomes the wife of one Archie Jones, an extraordinarily ordinary Englishman whom she meets on New Year’s Day, 1975, just after he has attempted to kill himself in the wake of the breakdown of his first marriage. New Year’s Days in general play an important role in White Teeth, signifying new beginnings.This particular date in 1975, however, was also predicted (wrongly) by the Jehovah’s Witnesses (a religion counting Hortense and Clara as members) to be the day of the Biblical end of the world. Archie, more than twice Clara’s age, is Samad’s best friend, the two having first met when they were members of a tank crew in the waning days of World War II, their mutual adventures having included the capture and apparent execution of a Nazi doctor—though we will eventually learn that Archie had failed to execute the doctor, having flipped a coin to determine the doctor’s fate. Samad and Archie are then reunited when Samad immigrates to England with the much younger Alsana, whom he has recently wed in an arranged marriage.

Much of White Teeth then details the interactions of these two families as they build lives in North London, Archie working at a print shop (where he is in charge of folding) and Samad (despite his high intelligence and university education) working as a waiter in an Indian restaurant. The Joneses have a daughter, Irie, while Samad and Alsana have two sons, Magid and Millat, identical twins with completely different personalities and inclinations. Much of the story simply entails the day-to-day experiences of these two families as they live their lives the best they can in the complex environment that is multicultural Britain. Samad, for example, spends much of his time struggling to be what he regards as a good Muslim in a modern secular society that often conflicts with the demands of his religion. Those demands also conflict with the demands of the flesh, and Samad (who has almost no sexual relationship with Alana) spends much of his time trying to resist his penchant for masturbation, only to have his frustrated libido eventually drive him into an affair with his sons’ young, very pretty, very white, very English music teacher, Poppy Burt-Jones. When the boys spot him on an outing with Poppy, Samad is so horrified that he not only ends the affair but decides he must send his boys back to Bangladesh to receive a proper Muslim upbringing, free of the secular lures of modern London. Unfortunately, he concludes that he can only afford to send back one son, so he ultimately makes the choice to send Millat, the more studious of the two, back to the land of his ancestors, a decision he makes without the knowledge of Alsana, who never forgives him.

White Teeth in general does not cast Samad’s actions here in a very positive light, both because Samad seems to be acting more out of his own guilt at his inability to control his sexual impulses and because the text seems skeptical of any such attempt to idealize the place of one’s origins. Later in the text, Irie becomes fascinated by her ancestral homeland in Jamaica, in a way that Smith (who herself has roots in Jamaica through her mother) clearly finds problematic: “No fictions, no myths, no tangled webs—this is how Irie imagined her homeland. Because homeland is one of the magical fantasy words like unicorn and soul and infinity that have now passed into the language. And the particular magic of homeland, its particular spell over Irie, was that it sounded like a beginning. The beginningest of beginnings. Like the first morning of Eden and the day after apocalypse. A blank page” (332).

White Teeth as a whole is also skeptical of Samad’s reverence for tradition, as when a narrative voice in the text, responding to this reverence, issues a warning against such slavish devotion to the past that is very much in keeping with the overall spirit of White Teeth, even if this narrator canoe be identified as the authoritative voice of the text—or, for that matter, identified at all:[1]

“If religion is the opiate of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein, and a needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made” (161).

Religion, according to this statement, is overt and strident, as obvious and blatant as the shooting up of heroine. Tradition is stealthier, often doing its work invisibly by subtle appeals to common sense and good manners. The suspicion toward tradition (which amounts to an endorsement of modernization and change) that is embodied in this statement seems even more clear when one considers that the statement is made in the midst of an anecdote about how the queen of Thailand once fell off a boat and was allowed to drown because tradition dictated that she not be touched by anyone, thus preventing anyone from saving her.

This does not, of course, mean that the modern West is without its own problems. For example, despite its energetic portrayal of a complex multicultural Britain, White Teeth also acknowledges that the mixture of races and cultures that constitutes contemporary England has not occurred in some sort of idealized utopia but in a real world where some very ugly forms of racism still exist. For example, the book acknowledges Enoch Powell’s notorious 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech, the memory still haunts England’s immigrant community, as when Alsana recalls the speech by “E-knock someoneoranother,” filled with “rivers of blood silly-billy nonsense,” after which the Iqbals had been forced take refuge in their basement as white anti-immigrant rioters tore their way through Whitechaple breaking windows (52).

Even in the 1980s, virulent racism can still be found in London. At one point, Millat, Magid, and Irie—on their way to carry out a school project designed to help elderly shut-ins—find themselves grumbled about by a “disgruntled old age pensioner,” who delivers a clichéd pronouncement that such people as these brown children “should all go back to their own … “ (137, Smith’s emphasis and ellipsis). Such ideas, though, are clearly identified in the text as outdated, ready to be consigned to the dustbin of history: “But this, the oldest sentence in the world, found itself stifled by the ringing of bells and the stamping of feet, until it retreated under the seats with the chewing gum” (137).

The three children then have an even more alarming encounter with racism when they arrive at their destination, where they hope to deliver some free food to one Mr. J. P. Hamilton, an elderly former British soldier. After first trying to shoo them away, Mr. Hamilton eventually invites the children in, though he assures them that he cannot eat the food they have brought him because of his bad teeth. He then lectures them on dental hygiene but tops the lecture off with a shockingly racist anecdote about the potential disadvantages of having clean, shiny, white teeth. When he fought in the Congo in World War II, he tells the children, he faced adversaries who were black Africans recruited by the Germans, made visible in the darkness of the jungle only by the whiteness of their teeth, which made them easy targets (144). A stunned Irie begins to cry, while Millat responds that his father fought in the war for England. But Mr. Hamilton assures him that he must be mistaken, because “there were certainly no wogs” in the British army. The children flee, while the addle-brained Hamilton, clearly not in full possession of his faculties, prattles on.

The moment will retrospectively turn out to be an important one in Millat’s growing experience of prejudice as a brown-skinned Muslim in Britain. Meanwhile, in addition to such examples of overt racism, White Teeth also outlines a possibly more insidious form of racism through its portrayal of the Chalfen family, an affluent and seemingly liberal-minded group with “good genes,” clearly influenced by the “hippie” counter-culture of the 1960s but thoroughly devoted to modern scientific rationality. The family patriarch is world-class geneticist Marcus Chalfen, a secular Jew, while his wife Joyce is a lapsed Catholic who conducts her own experiments in the family garden and writes popular books related to horticulture. They, in fact, practice no religion other than a belief in doing things a certain, logical “Chalfenist” way. Indeed, their frequent references to their family philosophy of Chalfenism indicate a clear sense of superiority to and separateness from ordinary mortals, an attitude that perhaps enables Marcus’s experiments with genetics, which to some might come close to trying to play god.

As special as the Chalfens might think themselves to be, however, they are not immune to the intergenerational conflict that is an important motif in White Teeth. Much of this conflict is part of the book’s exploration of the immigrant experience: after all, if the parents in a family grow up in, say, Bangladesh, while their children grow up in London, it would seem likely that the normal “generation gap” would be exacerbated, the two generations having literally grown up in different worlds. On the other hand, the pace of change by the second half of the twentieth century is such that one might argue that children always grow up in a world different from the one in which their parents grew up. Writing about her observations in the late 1960s and through most of the 1970s (about the same time, in short, when Hortense, Clara, and the Iqbals were immigrating to Britain), the eminent anthropologist Margaret Mead marveled not only at the increasing rate of change in the modern world, but also at the way that change was leading to a convergence of global cultures. For her, modern culture changes so rapidly that only the very young are living in their own culture; by the time they reach adulthood, they will already be living in a culture that is foreign to the one they grew up in:

“Today, everyone born and bred before World War II is an immigrant in time—as his colonizing forebears were in space—struggling to grapple with the unfamiliar conditions of life in a new era. Like all immigrants and pioneers, these immigrants in time are the bearers of older cultures. The difference today is that they are represented in all the cultures of the world” (70–71).

This last point seems especially crucial for a book like White Teeth, which is fundamentally about a convergence of different cultures, in this case, about people from different cultures literally converging in North London.“It is as if,” Mead notes, “all around the world, people were converging on identical immigration posts, each with its identifying sign: ‘You are now about to enter the post–World War II world’” (70).  For Mead, then, all of the people of the world, “whether they are sophisticated French intellectuals or members of a remote New Guinea tribe, landbound peasants in Haiti or nuclear physicists, have certain characteristics in common” (71).

Smith, though, is very much aware that, however intermixed cultures might be in the age of late capitalism, globalization does not for a moment mean that life is literally the same for everyone everywhere. Huge gaps remain between the way life is lived in the relatively safe, clean, prosperous metropolitan centers and in parts of the world where life is far more precarious, far more a matter of a struggle to survive from one day to the next. Essentially extending the comparison between the safe, routine comforts of England and the dangers of Africa made by Marlow in Heart of Darkness, Alsana at one point muses on the same difference between modern England and her native Bangladesh:

“You could divide the whole of humanity into two distinct camps, as far as she was concerned, simply by asking them to complete a very simple questionnaire … (a) Are the skies you sleep under likely to open up for weeks on end? (b) Is the ground you walk on likely to tremble and spit? (c) Is there a chance … that the ominous mountain casting a midday shadow over your home might one day erupt with no rhyme or reason?” (175).

For Alsana, in short, the different camps of humanity are separated not so much by differences in culture or religion as by whether the earth itself is likely to kill you at any moment, without warning:

“People who live on solid ground, underneath safe skies, know nothing of this; they are like the English POWs in Dresden who continued to pour tea and dress for dinner, even as the alarms went off, even as the city became a towering ball of fire. Born of a green and pleasant land, a temperate land, the English have a basic inability to conceive of disaster, even when it is man-made” (176).

In general, though, Smith would appear to read the global cultural situation in very much the same way as Mead. Smith also seems to understand the implications of Mead’s arguments about generational change as well. Thus, in her depiction of the Chalfens, Smith complicates the rather obvious observation about generation gaps in immigrant families by depicting a similar gap even in the Chalfen family, seemingly a haven of continuity and stability in a changing world. Indeed, White Teeth reverses the typical dichotomy between a modern Western world driven by change and a more traditional world outside the metropolitan center by noting the continuity in the Chalfen clan, which can (with supposed confidence) trace its ancestry back into the seventeenth century, a fact for which Irie expresses both admiration and envy, though Marcus, geneticist that he is, dismisses the notion that his family goes back further than hers (while at the same time subtly claiming a sort of superiority): “Nonsensical statement,” he says. “We all go back as far as each other. It’s just that the Chalfens have always written things down” (280).

As it turns out, if Samad has good reason to worry about his sons growing up in a world so different from that of their forebears, so too does young Joshua Chalfen grow up to differ dramatically from his parents. While Marcus spends his time tinkering with the DNA of animals and Joyce spends her time trying to find ways to get plants to do her bidding, Joshua rejects this sort of interference with nature and in fact becomes an animal-rights activist, working to oppose precisely the sort of work that his father is doing in genetics (and that his mother implicitly endorses with her parallel work in horticulture). Just as Millat ultimately joins KEVIN (“Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation) to protest what he sees as objectionable trends in modern Britain, Joshua joins FATE (“Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation”), which turns out to be an equally ineffectual group, even if they at least have a better acronym.

Indeed, one might argue that a key weakness of White Teeth is its skepticism toward political activity, both in the ways it depicts groups such as KEVIN and FATE as ultimately achieving nothing and in the ways it suggests that the political commitment of activists such as Millat and Joshua might arise less from well-thought-out analysis and more from personal, perhaps Freudian, grudges. Almost all actual political activity in the book is depicted as vaguely ridiculous, while the book’s seeming endorsement of progressive change also tends to suggest that such change happens automatically, without human intervention, somewhat like evolution.

In a similar vein, the progressive school that Joshua, Millat, Magid, and Irie all attend functions as an example of a futile attempt at social engineering through institutional intervention. It is devoted to multiculturalism to the point of absurdity, ultimately observing so many holidays from so many cultures that virtually every day is a holiday of some sort. And yet, when push comes to shove, the school can still display an underlying racism. One of the most telling sequences in White Teeth occurs when Joshua, Millat, and Irie are all rounded up in an operation designed to counteract the epidemic of marijuana-smoking that seems to have swept through their oh-so-liberal school. Being this liberal, the school reacts with what it thinks is a certain tolerance, assigning all four children to meet periodically at the home of the Chalfens, because the Chalfens (being who they are) will be good influences on all of them. Joshua, of course, already lives with the Chalfens, so what this decision really means is that Joshua receives no real punishment, while the three brown-skinned children are assigned to spend time with the white, educated, cultured Chalfens in the hope that some of their greater civilization will rub off on the children.

White Teeth has been compared by critics with the work of numerous predecessors, from Dickens to Salman Rushdie. Indeed, Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is probably the single book with which it has been compared most often—perhaps because of certain similarities in style and energy and subject matter, though probably also because her publisher openly marketed Smith as the “next Salman Rushdie.”[2] It also probably didn’t hurt that Rushdie himself essentially invited such comparisons by writing a glowing blurb for the back cover of the book when it was first published. “An astonishingly assured début,” wrote Rushdie, “funny and serious … I was delighted.”[3]

White Teeth, in fact, contains a number of multicultural comic constructions that are somewhat reminiscent of the work of Rushdie. Archie and Samad, for example, generally hang out at a pub called O’Connell’s Poolroom, which, we are assured is “neither Irish nor a poolroom” (153). The name, in fact, has simply been carried over by its current Arab proprietors from the previous Irish one, and the décor is now a tangled mixture of inherited Irish elements and added Arab elements. Meanwhile, this hybrid establishment is run by an Arab Muslim family all of the male members of which are named “Abdul,”—”to teach them the vanity of assuming higher status than any other man” (155). This lesson, of course, also leads to considerable confusion in communication, so each of the Abduls also adopts and English name to distinguish himself from all the other Abduls, leaving them with labels such as “Abdul-Mickey” and “Abdul-Colin.”

Squires suggests that the greatest influence of Rushdie on Smith is probably “linguistic” (16), and it is certainly the case that Smith’s language in the book is rich and varied, paralleling the multicultural nature of the society it portrays. It clearly participates in the project of “decolonizing” the English language that Rushdie has famously described in his well-known article “The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance,” in which he applauds the efforts of postcolonial writers to bend and shape the English language to their own ends, thus taking an already rich language and enriching it further: “I don’t think there’s another language large or flexible enough to include so many different realities,” declares Rushdie.

Smith seizes on this inherent ability of the English language to represent a variety of cultural positions and uses it to reflect the richly multicultural texture of contemporary Britain.[4] But White Teeth resembles Rushdie’s work in other important ways as well—perhaps most crucially in its comic view of the human condition and in its attempt include a wide variety of points of view, without pronouncing any of them to be authoritative. This anti-authoritarian approach is particularly inhospitable to religious fundamentalism, so it is not surprising that KEVIN does not come off well in the text. Samad’s own battles with his religion are also a source of considerable comedy in the book, though there is nothing of the fundamental challenge to the premises of Islam that one finds in The Satanic Verses. One also detects no hints of Islamophobia in White Teeth, despite the fact that it includes the would-be “terrorists” of KEVIN, a comically bumbling group, somewhat reminiscent of the anarchists in Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907).

Millat’s radicalization, in another link to Rushdie, is furthered by the publication of The Satanic Verses, a book he does not read but nevertheless finds deeply insulting to himself and to his religion—another, in fact, in a long line of insults. So he participates in a book-burning demonstration in Bradford with a group of friends in an action that clearly serves as a direct predecessor to the founding of KEVIN. For his own part, Samad is also offended by the book (which he also hasn’t read), though Alsana scoffs at his righteous indignation, given that “he does not even know what the bloody book is about” (194). Samad retorts that he knows enough to realize that the publication of the book is a crucial turning point in the history of Muslims in Britain. Alsana is then horrified as they watch television news coverage of the demonstration in Bradford to see Millat on her screen participating in the book burning. Infuriated, she decides to teach him a lesson by gathering up all of the Western secular materials he has accumulated (including video tapes of his beloved gangster films) and burning them in a bonfire in the backyard, hoping to make a point about the ridiculousness of the burning of The Satanic Verses.

The Jones family also has a strong dose of religion in its background. Though she has rejected the religion by the time she marries Archie, Clara was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness by Hortense, who remains committed to the religion to the end of the book. If anything, the Witnesses are treated even more comically in the book than is Islam, their penchant for periodically predicting the End of Days, only to have the world go on as before, becoming a sort of running joke in the text. Their marginal status is also signaled by the fact that, in the book’s climactic scene, they remain on the outside looking in, demonstrating and handing out pamphlets, and generally being ignored by everyone, despite their self-seriousness.

That scene involves the culmination of the last portion of the book, in which the genre (as sometimes happens in Rushdie as well) shifts to what is essentially science fiction, with at least some connections to real science.[5] This plot involves the work of the geneticist Chalfen to produce a genetically-engineered mouse (dubbed “Future Mouse©” ) whose very DNA is so carefully constructed that all chance and uncertainty is removed from its life cycle.[6] Chalfen, driven by a scientific rage for order, clearly hopes eventually to be able to apply the same principles to human beings, a project that concerns Samad greatly—especially after Magid, the son he had sent back to Bangladesh to become a good Muslim, instead becomes an atheist and an associate of Chalfen, just as the son who stayed in sinful Britain has become a fundamentalist Muslim. It is apparently not so easy to engineer, or even predict, the lives of others. As Samad puts it to Magid (ignoring the irony of the fact that he himself has tried so hard to control the lives of others, especially Magid), this attempt to control the course of human lives is downright blasphemy:

“Marcus Chalfen has no right. No right to do as he does. It is not his business. It is God’s business. If you meddle with a creature, the very nature of a creature, even if it is a mouse, you walk into the arena that is God’s creation. You infer that the wonder of God’s creation can be improved upon. It cannot. Marcus Chalfen presumes. He expects to be worshipped when the only thing in the universe that warrants worship is Allah.” (376, Smith’s emphases)

White Teeth, of course, is a book that embraces the messiness of existence, so it comes as no surprise that Chalfen’s project leads not to order but to chaos, just as Samad’s plans to engineer the lives of his sons have backfired. Chalfen plans a major announcement of his project, adding showmanship to his science by unveiling the Future Mouse© at a large gathering on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1992, attended by most of the book’s major characters. Thus begins the public display of a life engineered to pass through several predictable milestones and then to end on approximately December 31, 1999, thus coinciding with what has popularly been regarded as the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of a new millennium. But KEVIN’s operatives, with Millat playing the key role of assassin, have infiltrated the crowd, planning (apparently) to kill the elder Chalfen. Meanwhile, sons being sons, Joshua Chalfen also attends the event with a group of FATE protestors who hope to disrupt the proceedings—while the Jehovah’s Witnesses protest ineffectually outside in the cold.

Millat, who has learned his moves as a militant Islamic hit-man mostly by watching American gangster films, fingers the hand-gun he has just acquired in order to assassinate Marcus Chalfen. He has never held a gun before, but he realizes that it feels oddly familiar, because he has seen so many guns in movies, television shows, and video games. In today’s world, children are exposed to so many images of so many things that “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. So handling the cold metal, feeling it next to his skin that first time, it was easy” (436). In other words, in the media-saturated environment of the late twentieth century, the routinization of modern life described by Weber has been extended to include the familiarization of all sorts of experiences because we have seen them so many times in movies and on television. However, as the big moment approaches, Millat finds that it seems less and less easy, though he still thinks of the moment in images mediated by his experience of television. Instead of comfortable and familiar, the gun in his pocket suddenly “feels like someone put a fucking cartoon anvil in there—now he sees the great difference between TV and life, and it kicks him in the groin” (436).

Chaos ensues. Just as Millat is about to kill Chalfen, the scientist announces that the real credit for his research goes to his mentor, Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret, whom Archie suddenly recognizes as the Nazi doctor he let live back at the end of World War II.[7] Archie, meanwhile, has also seen enough TV to know exactly what it means when he sees Millat reaching for the gun. He hurls himself between Millat and the stage and finds himself taking the bullet that Millat fires, though by this time it is not clear whether he is firing at Chalfen or Perret. Meanwhile, the glass case enclosing the special mouse is shattered, and the mouse escapes, skittering away into parts unknown. Chalfen’s quest for total control of the life of the Future Mouse© thus fails utterly, and we never learn whether the experiment would have worked in any case.

White Teeth, in fact, ends with a swirl of uncertainties, in keeping with its general embrace of disorder. After the shooting of Archie, the authorities are never able definitively to identify the would-be assassin because Magid and Millat are so identical in appearance. On the other hand, the entire book has reminded us that, despite being genetically identical, they are two very different people, with very different characteristics. Their whole lives provide a thorough deconstruction of the notion of genetic determinism in human beings. Meanwhile, one thing they share is an attraction to Irie. Both, in fact, have sex with her on the same day shortly before the end of the book, and she becomes pregnant by one of them on that day. As the book ends, however, it is clear that no one will ever be able to determine the identity of the father, because the two brothers have absolutely identical DNA.

Such uncertainty, in the worldview endorsed by White Teeth, is probably a good thing. The book then leaps ahead on its last page to a mock ending that pokes a bit of fun at those who would want to be able to predict the future and wrap up all plot lines. We get a quick look at an idealized and imaginary version of December 31, 1999, with still no word on the fate of the mouse. Meanwhile, on this fateful date (at least in the “tall tale” world of this mock ending), the unthinkable occurs: Abdul-Mickey opens the doors of O’Connell’s Poolroom to women for the first time. Alsana, Samad, Clara, and Archie all attend, while we learn that Irie and Joshua, now lovers, are on a beach in Jamaica with Irie’s daughter, the latter being described as liberated by the fact of not knowing the identity of her father—thus presumably freeing her from at least some of the problematics of patriarchy. “But surely,” the narrator tells us, “to tell these tall tales and others like them would be to speed the myth, the wicked lie, that the past is always tense and the future perfect. And, as Archie knows, it’s not like that. It’s never been like that” (448). The book’s last sentences then shift back to the real final scene of the book, in which a wounded Archie, back on New Year’s Eve, 1992, is pleased to see the Future Mouse© escaping into an air vent, off to meet adventures Marcus Chalfen could never have foreseen.

NOTES


[1] As with the texts of Joyce, there is no specific narrator in White Teeth, but merely a collection of diverse narrative voices, some of which can be associated with the points of view of specific characters, as in the technique of indirect free style, but some of which seem to come essentially out of nowhere. The latter can be vaguely identified with the attitudes of Smith herself, but one should be cautious about making assumptions with a text as complex as this one.

[2] Squires suggests that Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1989) is probably a more “legitimate comparison” with White Teeth than is Midnight’s Children, if only because The Satanic Verses deals with immigrants in London (17). More than any specific text, though, I would argue that Rushdie’s influence is a general one (and one that has certainly been exercised on Smith’s entire generation of British writers, especially those with roots in the former colonies.

[3] See MacLeod for an interesting discussion of the similarities between Midnight’s Children and White Teeth. MacLeod, in fact, thinks that the two books might be a bit too similar. For him, the success of Midnight’s Children might have established a new form of orthodox hybridity in British literature, while White Teeth was successful because it followed this new orthodoxy so directly, rather than breaking genuinely new ground.

[4] For more on this topic, see Jarica Watts, who also notes that language can be a limiting factor for immigrants in England as well.

[5] See, for example, Ashley Dawson’s chapter on White Teeth in his book Mongrel Nation, where he reads White Teeth within the context of the findings of the Human Genome Project.

[6] For a discussion of the some of the ethical problems associated with Chalfen’s tendency to think of this mouse as merely an experimental object, rather than a living creature, see Braun.

[7] This connection, of course, links Chalfen’s work directly with the notorious genetic experiments of the German Nazis, despite the fact that Chalfen is Jewish. This link clearly places Chalfen’s work in an even more negative light than it already was.