Both Sides Now
On Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith. Feel Free: Essays. Penguin Press, 2018.
Zadie Smith. Swing Time. Penguin Press, 2016.
Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, begins with its main character, a middle-aged British man named Archie Jones, trying to commit suicide in a parked car. Up to this point, he has concluded, his time on earth has been essentially meaningless: he is a divorced, childless professional paper folder with limited career prospects and few friends. His most eventful moment came in the army during World War II, but he was posted to the front lines too late to do any fighting. Since then, his life has been a series of failures. Even his suicide attempt is less an act of will than an effect of randomness. He flips a coin, his habitual way of making decisions, and when it comes up tails — death — he prepares to go through with it. Archie’s plan is thwarted twice over: first, by the halal butcher who finds Archie sitting in his car in front of the butcher’s store and warns Archie that his property isn’t licensed for suicide; then, later that day, by Clara Bowden, the statuesque 19-year-old Jamaican girl he meets at a New Year’s party he has wandered into. Within six weeks, Archie and Clara are married. By the end of the year, Archie has become a father for the first time, at 47.
One way to read Archie’s story, and White Teeth as a whole, is as an allegory for the revitalization of the UK by the waves of immigrants from its former colonies during the mid-20th century. The first impression the book gives is of tremendous energy. Set in the working-class London neighborhood where Smith grew up, it is animated by an obvious delight in the incongruous juxtapositions of different voices and cultures: the second-generation immigrant children with “first and last names on a direct collision course,” the Iraqi brothers named Abdul-Colin and Abdul-Mickey who operate a bar called O’Connell’s Poolroom, the Bangladeshi lesbian who sews bondage gear for a sex shop, the Jamaican matriarch who falls in love with a Vespa-riding scenester, the Muslim fundamentalist who loves Goodfellas.
The daughter of a white British father and a black Jamaican mother, Smith herself was a living symbol of this transformation, a combination of author and subject that helped make White Teeth one of the most successful debut novels of the past two decades. In the early 2000s, you could find copies on the library shelf of every youth hostel from Bali to Marrakech next to dog-eared Lonely Planet guides and the love poems of Rumi, a cultural totem for the Fulbright Scholars, backpacking college students, and NGO workers who embraced it as a symbol of a brave new globalized world of which they saw themselves as privileged intermediaries.
A dissenting view came from the critic James Wood, who famously cited White Teeth as an example of a disturbing new literary trend he named “hysterical realism.” Behind Smith’s energetic style, Wood identified a troubling evasion of the tragedy of the human condition. Rather than a playful celebration of hybrid forms, he saw a vacuous embrace of novelty for its own sake. In what became the authoritative critical verdict on the novel, he charged Smith