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Book: White Teeth

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I was a bit let down by White Teeth. I expected too much from a novel with this much praise, though I should have lowered my expectations by noting that the praise was generally couple with "potential" and/or "first novel." It is a bold novel for a newcomer, but I also felt that it feel short of its goals and, while there was cleverness and wittiness, it was spread out enough that it stood out instead of blending into the fabric of the narrative. Perhaps I was more disappointed having just read Midnight's Children, which made it clear that White Teeth is a good, but not great novel.

There was one passage I really enjoyed, which is in the extended entry (page 384), where Smith took the idea of Zeno's paradox and related it to how her characters moved through life (by constantly reliving the past). Putting aside the actual notion of the paradox aside, I found it interesting to extend the idea that "if you can divide reality inexhaustibly into parts... you move nowhere." Similarly, if we look back on the past and constantly relive it, subdivide it, expand it, we turn it into an infinite space that is like Zeno's paradox: no movement through it is possible.

(see the Invisible Man entry for connections between this book, Midnight's Children, and Invisible Man).

p. 11

Once the car started to fill with carbon monoxide, he had experienced the obligatory flashback of his life to date. It turned out to be a short, unedifying viewing experience, low on entertainment value, the metaphysical equivalent of the Queen's Speech. A dull childhood, a bad marriage, a dead-end job -- that classic triumvirate -- they all flicked by quickly, silently, with little dialogue, feeling pretty much the same as they did the first tiime round. He was no great believer in destiny, Archie, but on reflection is did seem that a special effort of predestination had ensured his life had been picked out for him like a company Christmas present -- early, and the same as everyone else's.

p. 13

The other cyclists used to watch him do it. Lean their bikes against the incline and time him with the second hand of their wristwatches. 62.8 everry time. That kind of inability to improve is really very rare. That kind of consistency is miraculous, in a way.

p. 21

Archie nodded vigorously. He always wanted advice, he was a huge fan of second opinion. Tat's why he never went anywhere without a tenpence coin.

p. 31

Well, "dealing" with Ryan turned out to consist of three major pastime (in order of importance): admiring Ryan's scooter, admiring Ryan's records, admiring Ryan. But though other girls might have balked at dates that took place in Ryan's garage and consisted entirely of watching him pore ovoer the engine of a scooter, eulogizing its intricacies and complexities, to Clara there was nothing more thrilling. She learned quickly that Ryan was a man of painfully few words and that the rare conversation they had would only ever concern Ryan: his hopes, his fears (all scooter-related), and his peculiar belief that he and his scooter would not live long. For some reason, Ryan was convinced of the aging fifties motto "Live fast, die young," and, though his scooter didn't do more than 22 mph downhill, he liked to warn Clara in grim tones not to get "too involved," for he wouldn't be here long... Clara's inexplicable dedication to Ryan Topps knew no bounds. It transcended his bad looks, tedious personality, and unsightly personal habits. Essentially, it transcended Ryan, for whatever Hortense claimed, Clara was a teenage girl like any other; the object of her passion was only an accessory to the passion itself, a passion that through its long suppression was now asserting itself with volcanic necessity.

p. 225

And that's how it was for Millat. He was so big in Cricklewood, in Willesden, n West Hampsteada, the summer of 1990, that nothing he did later in his life could top it. From his first Raggastani crowd, he had expanded and developed tribes throughout the school, throughout North London. He was simply too big to remain the object of Irie's affection, leader of the Raggastanis, or the son of Samad and Alsana Iqbal. He had to please all of the people all of the time. To the Cockney wideboys in the white jeans and the colored shirts he was the joker, the risktaker, respected lady-killer. To the black kids he was fellow weed-smoker and valued customer. To the Asian kids, hero and spokesman. Social chameleon. And underneath it all, there remained an ever-present anger and hurt, the feeling of belonging nowhere that comes to people who belong everywhere.

p. 278

Marcus's room was like no place Irie had ever seen. It had no communal utility, no other purpose in the house apart from being Marcus's room; it stored no toys, bric-a-brac, broken things, spare ironing boards; no one ate in it, slept in it or made love in it. It wasn't like Clara's attic space, a Kubla Khan of crap, all carefully stored in boxes and labeled just in case she should ever need to flee this land for another one. (It wasn't like the spare rooms of immigrants -- packed to the rafters with all that they have ever possessed, no matter how defective or damaged, mountains of odds and ends -- that stand testament to the fact that they have things now, where before they had nothing.)

p. 338

Lemme tell you someting. I'm not like dem Witnesses jus' scared of dyin'. Jus' scared. Dem wan' everybody to die excep dem. Dat's not a reason to dedicate your life to Jesus Christ. I gat very different aims. I still hope to be one of de Anointed evan if I am a woman. I want it all my life. I want to be dere wid de Lord making de laws and de decisions." Hortense sucked her teeth long and loud. "I gat so tired wid de church always tellin' me I'm a woman or I'm nat heducated enough. Everybody always trin' to heducate you; heducate you about dis, heducate you about dat... Dat's always bin de problem wid de women in dis family. .Somebody always trin' to heducate them about someting, pretendin' it all about learnin' when it all about a battle of de wills. But if I were one of de hundred an' forty-four, no one gwan try to heducate me. Dat would be my job! I'd make my own laws an' I wouldn't be wanting anybody else's opinions. My mudder was strong-willed deep down, and I'm de same. Lord knows, your mudder was de same. And you de same."

p. 381

Hell hath no fury, et cetera, et cetera. Iris walked hot-faced from the Iqbal house and headed straight for the Chalfens with revenge on her mind. But not against Millat. Rather in defense of Millat, for she had always been his defender, his blacky-white knight. You see, Millat did not love her. And she thought Millat didn't love her because he couldn't. She thought he was so damaged, he couldn't love anybody anymore. She wanted to find whoever had damaged him like this, damaged him so terribly; she wanted to find whoever had made him unable to love her.

It's a funny thing about the modern world. You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, "Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He didn't love me. He couldn't deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me." Now, how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll -- then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced in the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worth of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.

p. 384

The cynical might say they don't even move at all -- that Magid and Millat are two of Zeno's headfuck arrows, occupying a space equal to themselves and, what's scarier, equal to Mangal Pande's, equal to Samad Iqbal's. Two brothers trapped in the temporal instant. Two brothers who pervert all attempts to put dates to this story, to track these guys , to offer times and days, because there isn't, wasn't, and never will be any duration. In fact, nothing moves. Nothing changes. They are running at a standstill. Zeno's paradox.

But what was Zeno's deal here (everybody's got a deal), what was his angle? There is a body of opinion that argues his paradoxes are part of a more general spiritual program. To
(a) first establish multiplicity, the Many, as an illusion, and
(b) thus prove reality a seamless, flowing whole. A single, indivisible One.

Because if you can divide reality inexhaustibly into parts, as the brothers did that day in that room, the result is insupportable paradox. You are always still, you move nowhere, there is no progress.

But multiplicity is no illusion. Nor is the speed with which those-in-the-simmering-melting-pot are dashing toward it. Paradoxes aside, they are running, just as Achilles was running. And they will lap those who are in denial just as surely as Achilles would have made that tortoise eat his dust. Yeah, Zeno had an angle. He wanted the One, but the world is Many. And yet still that paradox is alluring. The harder Achilles tries to catch the tortoise, the more eloquently the tortoise expresses its advantage. Likewise, the brothers will race toward the future only to find they more and more eloquently express their past, that place where they have just been. Because this is the other thing about immigrants ('fugees, emigres, travelers): they cannot escape their history any more than you yourself can lose your shadow.

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This page contains a single entry from kwc blog posted on February 13, 2005 6:27 PM.

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