Molly O’Brien: The Last Book I Loved, White Teeth


I was ten years old when 1999 became 2000. My knowledge of the Y2K problem was vague; I could only glean a nebulous mood of panic from overheard newscasts and conversations between adults. My own parents did not seem worried. We went to New Year’s Eve festivities at a family friend’s house. I was part of a kid coalition that choked down the mature prosciutto-melon appetizers, then huddled in the basement away from parents and their flowing Korbel. We watched five or six hours of a South Park marathon. At midnight one of the adults humorously turned the lights off to invoke–what? Apocalypse? The failing of computers all over the globe? Everyone thought the prank was very funny. That was my Y2K.

White Teeth, Zadie Smith’s debut novel, published on January 27th, 2000, begins in 1975 and ends at the moment when 1999 became 2000. The plot concludes on a sort of narrative precipice, with enough uncertainties and unfinished bits to induce extreme millennial panic in the calmest of readers. Smith crafts storyline after storyline, and once she reaches the midnight countdown, she lets each one fly off on its own velocity, like unmanned garden hoses spouting water all over the yard. Can we blame her for not tying up loose ends? Time was supposed to dictate the terms of the Y2K bug nobody could control time. Even though Smith has complete control over the temporal aspect of her novel–when to begin it, when to end it–she doesn’t go so far as to make a prediction, not even a fictional one. Rather, she lays the groundwork for about a dozen potential resolutions, doing so with an audacity that can often only be found in debut novels.

White Teeth might be the definitive millennial novel, if only because of the sheer amount of stuff in it. It bowls itself over with broad genealogies and garbled histories. It crackles with paranoid energy, and it overloads information in the most charming of ways. Smith plays the clever seamstress, weaving together the threads between mothers and daughters, fathers, sons and distant great-great-grandfathers, only to take the end results and rend them, Penelope-style.

In profiles of Smith at the time of White Teeth’s release, most journalists paid attention to her youth in relation to her novelistic scope, but twelve years later, I see Smith’s accomplishment as less the result of youthful zeal than that of just plain zeal. To read White Teeth one needs energy; to have written White Teeth must have necessitated unbelievable amounts of caffeine and nerve. It’s important to pay attention to the discrete elements Smith pulls together by both her writing skill and her sheer force of will: religious fundamentalism, adolescent awkwardness, British pubs mouldering in suburban obscurity, the morality of scientific experiments, the difficulties of being a twin.

The novel encompasses wide swathes of time and a tall family tree. Irie is the daughter of Archie, a bumbling, affable war veteran, and Clara, a Jamaican ex-Jehovah’s Witness. Samad, a Bengali scientist manqué and Alsana, his prearranged bride, have produced identical twin offspring Millat and Magid. These two sets of kin generate three generations worth of drama: Millat, the cool kid, joins an Islamic activist group whose name, the Keepers of the Eternal Victorious Islamic Nation, begets the unfortunate acronym KEVIN; Magid, the consummate nerd, works with a geneticist who creates a divisive “FutureMouse”; Irie, not quite nerdy and not quite cool, wavers crucially between the two brothers. None of this fits well into a synopsis, and this is why I love it.

I want debut novels to be indescribable. I don’t want debut novels to fit into a single-sentence précis. Alex Carnevale, who runs the audiovisual stimulus website This Recording, expresses his desires for debuts in this way: “Above all things a first novel should be (1) lascivious, (2) impossible, and (3) autobiographical.” White Teeth is not exactly lascivious (though there are a couple of carnal moments) and Smith herself has denied the novel’s purported autobiography, stating in an interview that, “none of my family appear in White Teeth in any obvious way.”

But the novel is impossible, and what characterizes the sense of its impossibility is its focus on the immigrant experience. This experience is as literal as Samad and Alsana’s moving from Bangladesh to London, or as figurative as Clara’s crossing over from Jehovah’s Witness to agnostic. As Smith writes, “This has been the century of the great immigrant experiment. It is only this late in the day that you can walk into a playground and find Isaac Leung by the fish pond, Danny Rahman in the football cage, Quang O’Rourke bouncing a basketball, and Irie Jones humming a tune.” Characters are forever transgressing borders: riding a bus from a run-down neighborhood to a posh one, escaping from one island to another, moving from an atheist England to pious Bangladesh and back, changing spiritual outlooks simply by taking a plane ride in the middle of the night.

I’m not an immigrant. The country where I was born is the country in which I live now. Even when I studied abroad in the Czech Republic, my inability to speak the native language wasn’t of much consequence, and on the metro it would have been impossible to distinguish me from any native Praguer. It isn’t difficult for me to cross borders because of my blue-and-gold passport cover, because of my white skin, because of my nativity, because of whatever.

So I look to novels like this one in order to gain some kind of understanding. White Teeth elucidates immigration for those who have never had to immigrate; it constantly evokes the queasiness I imagine occurs every time someone moves from the familiar to the foreign. The novel’s multiplicity of voices, both in the various dialogues and the omniscient narration itself (Smith introduces a young outcast couple as such: “Ryan was red as a beetroot. And Clara was as black as yer boot”), stretches the plot’s orbit so it can encompass more people, more places, more stuff. Smith’s writing does the impossible because it acknowledges borders, then swings them wide open. The bold lines become perforated. The distances between Bangladesh and England and Jamaica are nothing.

As I read, I felt that familiar tingle of Y2K fear. Why? That millennial anxiety should have come pre-digested, the way birds and wolves deliver dinner to their babies. I should have read the story and chuckled at the doomsday prophecies, but I didn’t. Twelve years ago Zadie Smith whipped up a tale about a strange possibility: that the new millennium would render every person an immigrant in a new and unexplored time. The border between 1999 and 2000 seemed uncrossable. We all ended up crossing it, but reading White Teeth took me back twelve years, when I was only ten and I watched that stupid ball drop, the countdown ticking toward zero, ever so slowly.

Molly O'Brien is a writer and student from Burlington, VT. Her work has appeared in This Recording, Thought Catalog, and the music site InYourSpeakers. She blogs here. Follow her on Twitter @missmollymary. More from this author →