As with all book clubs, a great part of the joy in our Imaginary Book Club is reading together and discussing books we’ve all read. Each month, the Read With Imaginary Book Club series will feature a book we plan to read and post about during the first week of the next month. Read (or re-read) along with us and share your thoughts in the comments! Connect with us using #ReadWithIBC to share and hear thoughts about our monthly book.
Join us this coming month in reading (or re-reading) Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby. Our discussion will go up the first week of February.
At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad and their families become agents of England’s irrevocable transformation. A second marriage to Clara Bowden, a beautiful, albeit tooth-challenged, Jamaican half his age, quite literally gives Archie a second lease on life, and produces Irie, a knowing child whose personality doesn’t quite match her name (Jamaican for “no problem”). Samad’s late-in-life arranged marriage (he had to wait for his bride to be born), produces twin sons whose separate paths confound Iqbal’s every effort to direct them, and a renewed, if selective, submission to his Islamic faith. Set against London’s racial and cultural tapestry, venturing across the former empire and into the past as it barrels toward the future, White Teeth revels in the ecstatic hodgepodge of modern life, flirting with disaster, confounding expectations, and embracing the comedy of daily existence.
I sat down to begin this discussion of White Teeth countless times. I waffled repeatedly between wanting to write something warranted by a well-reputed novel which takes on challenging and complex social issues and really really really wanting to write how much I really did not enjoy this freaking book.
Zadie Smith’s opus White Teeth is a work seeking to encompass the social and cultural struggles of immigrants and their children living a classically working/middle class life in England. It focuses on the lives of two good friends – Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal – acquainted when the pair were stationed together in Italy during the war (The war. The only war. World War II).
Each character is a token – a satire – a stereotype. They each take on extreme characteristics to portray their background and beliefs: Archie as the middle class Englishman facing a mid-life crisis in divorce, remarriage, and procreation; Samad as a Bengali Muslim attempting to retain his family honor and tradition raising very English children in England. Their lives become even further entwined when Archie marries Clara, a Jamaican daughter of a Jehovah’s Witness, and has a daughter named Irie. At the same time, Samad’s wife Alsana delivers twins – Millat and Magid, soon to become the bane of their father’s existence.
While Good Reads enthusiastically describes White Teeth as “epic and intimate, hilarious and poignant”, I found myself overwhelmed by numerous yet oversimplified characters, following seemingly endless and unrelated twists and turns in personality and behavior. It feels impossible now to recount the many odd little plot devices used to motivate bizarre decisions and an unfocused and forgettable culmination of events.
I won’t even bother to mention how an English family – the Chalfen’s – become central characters, or how genetic testing becomes the resolution point. There’s just a lot packed in there!
What I can say, having now stepped away from the novel for an extended period, is that Smith was clearly seeking something powerful. Although I found the work overly convoluted and simplistic at the same time, Smith’s attempt to show how all forms of extremism (be it militant Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses, scientific discovery, or animal rights activists) can lead to irrational choices and distortions of reality.
Unfortunately, by creating an overwrought plot and satirical and stereotypical characters, the value of that core message was diluted. It simply didn’t hit the target because there was too much distracting from the core.
Yet in 2000, when White Teeth was released, it won several awards – including the Whitbread Book Award. I never know what to think when I am struck by a book in this way. I wanted to enjoy it, but could not. I think there are so many better, more controlled and more intentional, books out there. If you are looking for a great work on the immigrant experience, try Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie’s Americanah instead.
I’ve always found it fortuitous luck for a book club to start out with a contentious book – something that people love or hate, have strong reaction to, or simply can’t quite put their finger on what’s going on. Perhaps this is a good sign for our Imaginary Book Club. Love it or hate it, I cannot wait to hear your thoughts on Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.
Don’t forget to grab a copy of Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby for our February discussion!
Got an idea for a book we should read next? Share it with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.