Gritted White Teeth: on Literary Envy and Zadie Smith
The first thing Ian and I talked about -- or, rather, texted about -- was our favorite authors. "Living or dead?" he asked me. "DEAD," I responded, "I want the expired ones."
I like dead writers better than living ones. A lot better. This is one of the things my contemporary-literature-prone (bless him) boyfriend is trying to help me through. Making me a better reader and writer, and probably also person.
For most of my life, I thought I'd be a professional literary eulogizer. That is, an English teacher. I even crossed the Atlantic to attend a pretty prestigious master's program that I hoped would bring me, after years of reading more expired authors, to a life as a professor of literature. There has always been safety for me among the bookish crowd in the underworld. I'm not a competitive person but I can be a jealous one, and as a result it is easier for me to celebrate Charles Dickens' robust characters when I know he's nestled safely under a slab of slate in Westminster Abbey than it is to celebrate Zadie Smith's when I know full well that she is living in London and cooking up more marvelous people in her imagination as we speak.
Another of Ian's initiatives to cure my of my envy for living writers: get me to more readings. About a week after we met, I found myself at one in New York's McNally Jackson bookstore. Beforehand, Ian bought me Smith's White Teeth. I started it almost immediately.
It is of course a monstrously good book. A unique book. Written with an exuberant confidence normally reserved in the literary realm for first proposals in Jane Austen novels.
Spanning several decades, it centers on Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones, two middle-aged friends whose common experience during wartime ties their friendship and the fates of their families together far more than their disparate beliefs and personalities. Though there are as many themes as there are points of view in White Teeth, the question that kept driving me through my envy (and awe) was why on earth these two people would or could remain friends this long and how they could not, after what they had been through together.
The inventiveness and freedom with which Smith writes is well-documented and formidable. Her ear for matching character to dialogue/voice is impeccable: Hemingway characters all sound like Hemingway; Mamet characters all sound like Mamet. Smith's characters speak with their own voices to such an extent that you almost have to assume the author is schizophrenic.
Naturally, my envy of Zadie Smith and her remarkable book is the result of comparison, which is itself the result of my fear of not being interesting enough, of not having anything new to say. But that fear doesn't mean there isn't also value in embracing my contemporaries, even though it might stir up some insecurity. As safe and prolific as my favorite dead authors and their Elizabeth Bennetts and Jay Gatsbys may be, none of them have experienced the glorious, dangerous, globalized, internet-ed, post-colonial, post-9/11, postmodern, post-post world. So for the purposes of learning, they are what I would like to call "differently useful" to me and my characters living in the 2000s than, let's say, Zadie and Samad and Archie. How could we not be friends, after what we have been through together?
White Teeth did more than make me feel envy, it made me feel guilt of the best kind, which is just anticipation by another name if you respond to it the way you should. I am looking forward to my next 21st-century adventure with Zadie Smith.