536/1030: TBT White Teeth

It’s just a coincidence that today is Thursday. I wasn’t planning to do a throw-back, I was just looking to see if I can clean out my drafts folder a bit. Then, I found this entry from August 2014. It’s the start of a review from when I was preparing for my MA oral exam, the main impetus for starting this site, and it’s kind of interesting to see that I’ve been carrying around Zadie Smith’s story in my head for 3.5 years. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

“While continuing to slog through Tristram Shandy, I picked up Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which I had ordered since it was on my reading list. It turned out to be much less work and more pleasure than the other works on the list so far. It actually seems like cheating to count it as academic studies, mostly because the language was much simpler and there was less close-reading that needed to be done. Plus, I had read a very similar book”

And that’s where it ends. I can’t remember for the life of me what the other book was that I’d read that was similar. Maybe… nope. Can’t remember.

But clearly I never got to write anything of substance about this book. One can see what I have to say about Smith’s other books here and here. But White Teeth? In reviewing my blog archives, I actually wrote a response on German Unity Day, because there is a passage in the book discussing the Fall of the Berlin Wall, which is a major discussion point of mine. So I didn’t completely neglect the book. Of course, there remains a lot more to be said.

In Zadie Smith’s much-celebrated debut novel White Teeth, the reader sees several events in intermedial references to television, but one significant event is the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, referred to very shortly, but rather effectively, near the end of Chapter Nine (which is also near the end of the second part, which precedes the section devoted to elucidating Irie’s character). Here the event is used as a backdrop to characters Millat and Irie asserting their opinions in the face of their parents Archie, Samad- though mainly against Samad. Millat’s assertion is quite simply to express his disinterest in the event. Irie’s, on the other hand, is worth examining further.

Irie Jones, “[a] stranger in a strange land” (222), speaks in textbook and Newsnight English.

“That’s totally your problem, Mill. No interest in the outside world. I think this is amazing. They’re all free! After all this time, don’t you think that’s amazing? That after years under the dark cloud of Eastern communism they’re coming into the light of Western democracy, united, […] I just think democracy is man’s greatest invention.” (198).

Before getting into the way that Irie emphasizes the word “amazing” and what she thinks about democracy, one should note how Smith frames her protagonist’s (often considered by critics to be a sort of autobiographical figure for Smith) words by pointing out that she is “quoting Newsnight faithfully.”

Newsnight, started in 1980, is a BBC Two currents affairs program that runs for 45 minutes  every evening and provides analytical reports of current events.

Yet what is it about the language Irie uses that makes it not her own? The criticism is that Irie cannot express herself in an individually persuasive way. She relies on the formulations of other people. However, in using it, it does become hers, to some extent. On the other hand, the question of anything becoming hers, of her having or laying claim to anything is challenged by the way she is inscripted by fate. My use of the word inscripted is not coincidental, since I mean to highlight the medium of writing, but I also want to point out the comments about Irie (obvious through the end, “you can only avoid your fate for so long” (448)) that she is one of those stuck by fate, which is parallel, but runs opposite to, history. This is the truth Smith seems to have and wants to highlight, that one will “race towards the future only to find [one] more and more eloquently express[es one’s] past.” One cannot “escape [one’s] history anymore than you yourself can lose your shadow” (385). Interesting about this point is the way the authorial voice suddenly transitions to second-person, speaking to the reader directly about her personal shadow.

So, in short, the event becomes significant- not because of the event itself (or how it is depicted), but what it creates as a narrative space for the other characters to do and interact. In a book that is very much invested in a realist style- in specific details and dates and specific details about dates-, one cannot ignore the reference to the Berlin Wall, how Irie interacts with the event as a medial event happening on TV that they are seeing together expresses something about her identity and her mode of expression.

And that’s what I have to say today.

In writing news, I finally made it to the Uni and am able to devote all day to cleaning up the mess of an outline (but at least I have an outline!) so that I can give it to my sponsor next week. Aaaaahhhhh!

Oh, and happy International Women’s Day. I support the women who are striking today to show their work communities what a day on the job would look like without their contributions. Unfortunately, me not being on the job today wouldn’t make a perceivable difference, since all I’m doing is sitting alone in an office typing on my computer.



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