Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" is the latest in a new genre of over-heated realist novels. Are they just imitating Dickens without the emotional force?by James Wood / November 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
a genre is hardening. It is becoming possible to describe today’s “big, ambitious novel.” Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: Dickens. Such recent novels as Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, DeLillo’s Underworld, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges.
The big contemporary novel is a perpetual motion machine. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, flaunting their glamorous congestion. Vitality is storytelling, as far as these books are concerned. A parody would go like this. If a character is introduced in London (call him Toby Awknotuby, ie “To be or not to be”-ha!) then we will be swiftly told that he has a twin in Delhi (called Boyt: an anagram of Toby), who, like Toby, has the same curious genital deformation, and that their mother belongs to a religious cult based in the Orkney Islands, and that their father (who was born at the exact second that the Hiroshima bomb was dropped) has been a Hell’s Angel for the last 13 years (but in a curious Hell’s Angel group, devoted only to the fanatical study of late Wordsworth), and that their mad left-wing aunt, Delilah, was curiously struck dumb when Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister, and has not spoken since. And all this, over many pages, before poor Toby Awknotuby has done a thing, or thought a thought!
Is this really a caricature? Recent novels by Rushdie, Pynchon, DeLillo, Foster Wallace and others, have featured a great rock musician who, when born, began immediately to play air guitar in his crib (Rushdie); a talking dog, a mechanical duck, a giant octagonal cheese and two clocks having a conversation (Pynchon); a nun called Sister Edgar who is obsessed with germs and who may be a reincarnation of J Edgar Hoover, and a conceptual artist painting retired B-52 bombers in the New Mexican desert (DeLillo); a terrorist group devoted to the liberation of Quebec called the Wheelchair Assassins, and a film so compelling that anyone who sees it dies (Foster Wallace). Zadie Smith’s novel features, among other things: a terrorist Islamic group based in North London with a silly acronym (Kevin); a Jewish scientist who is genetically engineering a mouse; a woman born during an earthquake in Kingston, Jamaica in 1907; a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses; and twins, one in Bangladesh and one in London, who both break their noses at about the same time.