After going through some 250 pages of its 500 total, the only passage I’ve highlighted in Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” is pictured above. And I only highlighted it because it is a spiritual fun fact, not because the writing is somehow stunning.
Since this year I’ve committed to only reading spectacular books, I decided to drop “White Teeth” altogether. No, “White Teeth” is not bad, I just feel like I’ve already read a better version of it: Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.” And, to be honest, I would rather reread Rushdie than read more of Smith.
Of course, the Southeast Asian/UK immigrant story has a lot more flight than that given to it by Rushdie; my qualm with Smith is not rooted in a tired story. My problem with Smith’s novel is that half-way in, I cannot even begin to imagine what her point is. Rushdie’s point, no matter how wacky his story line gets, remains clear: yank the Persian rug from under Islamic extremism, leaving it with no cultural underpinning upon which to stand.
In a way, Smith’s writing reminded me of Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” a good book that I forced myself to finish. Both Smith’s and Diaz’s work marry over-the-top sentences with semi-fantastical plots and twirl them into exuberant landscapes, à la Gabriel García Márquez. But. They. Have. No. Point.
I do have to admit, though, that I am grateful to Smith. Her novel helped me understand that my problem with most of the books I’ve recently read is not with the act of reading itself, but with the actual books. I was beginning to fear that I’d lost my love of reading!
But, no, my problem is with fancy footwork that leads nowhere, intricate stories that circle away from a center they never establish. This problem has a ready solution, however. It’s time to pop some Steinbeck, Hemingway and Ferrante.