'White Teeth' -- Rushdie on crack

May 07, 2000|By Kay Chubbuck | Kay Chubbuck,Special to the Sun

"White Teeth," by Zadie Smith. Random House. 462 pages. $29.95.

Not since Mary Shelley composed "Frankenstein" at the age of 19 has a bookish young woman made such an extraordinary debut. In this case, "White Teeth" was written during 24-year-old Zadie Smith's spare time at Cambridge University. But make no mistake: it's no Brideshead Regurgitated. Instead, this novel has zest. It bubbles and pops in its imaginative intensity.

Smith's intent: a comic portrayal of what it means to be "ethnic." To do this, she zeroes in on immigrants living in the North London neighborhoods of Cricklewood and Willesden Green. Indians and Ethiopians knock elbows at greasy fish 'n chips. "Irish" pubs like O'Connell Yusuf's serve curry but no bacon.

"Past is prologue" for the children of these unions: Irie Jones, part Jamaican, part Welsh, must contend with a father so indecisive he flips a coin to commit suicide and a toothless mother on the lam from a flock of Jehovah's Witnesses. Family history -- in the Caribbean and in World War II -- interferes with Irie's more pressing concerns. Like losing weight, fitting in, taming her hair.

Irie's friends, the twins Magid and Millat Iqbal, are likewise insensible to their parents' history. As their father Samad wails: "I GIVE YOU A GLORIOUS NAME LIKE MAGID MAHFOOZ MURSHED MUBTASIM IQBAL! AND YOU WANT TO BE CALLED MARK SMITH!" He cannot understand.

To counteract the West's pernicious effects, Samad kidnaps Magid and sends him back to Bengal. He grows up an atheist in the shadow of a mosque. Meanwhile, Millat, left in London, joins KEVIN, or Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation -- but not until after he smokes pot, has sex and discovers punk rock.

It is here, in her characters, that Smith excels, producing a gallery of the bizarre, the strange, the carnivalesque. It is also here that she reveals her most pertinent influence: her novel reads like Salman Rushdie on crack. For example, Samad is also a one-armed waiter who can't stop masturbating. He turns PTA meetings topsy-turvy when he falls in love with the violet-eyed Poppy Burt-Jones. His veiled wife, Alsana, sews S&M clothes for a living. When angry, she wrestles Samad under the floodlights in their muddy back yard.

Other characters include Darcus, a vinegary old man hooked up to a catheter so he won't miss his game shows; Mr. Topps, a Witness, counting the days till the Apocalypse; Horst Ibelgaufts, a Swedish cyclist who sends enigmatic letters; as well as Niece-of-Shame; Supermouse; and the brainy Chalfen family, who inject a bit of down-home Englishness into the mix.

(Did I say English? Actually, the Chalfens are descended from Polish and German immigrants.)

Certainly, it's a wild ride all the way to the finish -- which fizzes out like a bad firecracker in a cloud of destiny and DNA. The end is disappointing, as is Smith's style, which can jolt from brilliance to bathos (and back) on a single page. As the author herself commented in a London magazine, "White Teeth" can be seen as "the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing 10-year-old." She's right. This novel is too big. It tries too hard. But it's brilliant, nonetheless.

Kay Chubbuck is an assistant professor of 19th century British literature at the U.S. Naval Academy. She has writen for Newsweek, Outside and other publications.

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