Hysterical realism, also called recherché postmodernism or maximalism, is a literary genre typified by a strong contrast between elaborately absurd prose, plotting, or characterization and careful detailed investigations of real specific social phenomena.
The term was coined by the critic James Wood in an essay on Zadie Smith's White Teeth, titled "The Smallness of the 'Big' Novel: Human, All Too Inhuman", which appeared in the July 24, 2000 issue of The New Republic and was later reprinted in Wood's 2004 book, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel. Wood uses the term to denote the contemporary conception of the "big, ambitious novel" that pursues "vitality at all costs" and consequently "knows a thousand things but does not know a single human being."
He decried the genre as an attempt to "turn fiction into social theory," and an attempt to tell us "how the world works rather than how somebody felt about something." Wood points to Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon as the forefathers of the genre, which survives in writers like David Foster Wallace and Salman Rushdie. In response, Zadie Smith described hysterical realism as a "painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own White Teeth and a few others he was sweet enough to mention." Smith qualified the term, though, explaining that "any collective term for a supposed literary movement is always too large a net, catching significant dolphins among so much cannable tuna."
Wood's line of argument echoes many common criticisms of postmodernist art as a whole. In particular Wood's attacks on DeLillo and Pynchon clearly echo the similar criticisms that Gore Vidal and other critics lodged against them a generation earlier. The "hysterical" prose style is often mated to "realistic", almost journalistic, effects, such as Pynchon's depiction of 18th century land surveys in Mason & Dixon, Don DeLillo's treatment of Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra, or Robert Clark Young's treatment of the arcana of U.S. Navy life in One of the Guys.
This extravagant treatment of everyday events can be found in the work of earlier authors, such as Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, Harry Stephen Keeler's meganovels such as The Box from Japan, Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels, and Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man and Moby-Dick. Even earlier precursors include Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, often cited as the first postmodernist novel, and The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton. A less "hysterical" version of such a juxtaposition of essay and narrative passages can be found in the work of Milan Kundera.
It is interesting to note, additionally, that hysterical realism resembles an older, more established literary tradition: the classic Russian novel. The works of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, as well as others, are long epic books about a large ensemble of characters. The prose in these novels is rich and thick, going into extreme detail about all manner of things.
Human, All Too Inhuman by James Wood
The smallness of the "big" novel.
A genre is hardening. It is becoming easy to describe the contemporary idea of the "big, ambitious novel." Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: he is Dickens. Such recent novels as The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Mason & Dixon, Underworld, Infinite Jest, and now White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges. A landscape is disclosed--lively and varied and brightly marked, but riven by dead gullies.
The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence--as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs. Indeed, vitality is storytelling, as far as these books are concerned. If, say, a character is introduced in London, call him Toby Awknotuby (that is, " To be or not to be"--ha!) then we will be swiftly told that he has a twin in Delhi (called Boyt, which is an anagram of Toby, of course), who, like Toby, has the same very curious genital deformation, and that their mother belongs to a religious cult based, oddly enough, in the Orkney Islands, and that their father (who was born at the exact second that the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima) has been a Hell's Angel for the last thirteen years (but a very curious Hell's Angels group it is, devoted only to the fanatical study of late Wordsworth), and that Toby's mad left-wing aunt was curiously struck dumb when Mrs. Thatcher was elected prime minister in 1979 and has not spoken a word since. And all this, over many pages, before poor Toby Awknotuby has done a thing, or thought a thought!
Is this a caricature, really? Recent novels--veritable relics of St. Vitus--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 Mexico 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), an animal-rights group called fate, 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 who think that the world is ending on December 31, 1992; and twins, one in Bangladesh and one in London, who both break their noses at about the same time.
This is not magical realism. It is hysterical realism. Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they structure and drive themselves on. The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked. Appropriately, then, objections are not made at the level of verisimilitude, but at the level of morality: this style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality--the usual charge against botched realism--but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself. It is not a cock-up, but a cover-up.
One is reminded of Kierkegaard's remark that travel is the way to avoid despair. For all these books share a bonhomous, punning, lively serenity of spirit. Their mode of narration seems to be almost incompatible with tragedy or anguish. Indeed, Underworld, the darkest of these books, carries within itself, in its calm profusion of characters and plots, its flawless carpet of fine prose on page after page, a soothing sense that it might never have to end, that another thousand or two thousand pages might easily be added. There are many enemies, seen and unseen, in Underworld, but silence is not one of them.
The optimism of all this "vitality" is shared by many readers, apparently. Again and again, one sees books such as these praised for being cabinets of wonders. Bright lights are taken as evidence of habitation. The mere existence of a giant cheese or a cloned mouse or several different earthquakes in a novel is seen as meaningful or wonderful, evidence of great imaginative powers. And this is because too often these features are mistaken for scenes, as if they constituted the movement or the toil or the pressure of the novel, rather than taken for what they are--props of the imagination, meaning's toys. The existence of vitality is mistaken for the drama of vitality.
What are these stories evading? One of the awkwardnesses evaded is precisely an awkwardness about the possibility of novelistic storytelling. This in turn has to do with an awkwardness about character and the representation of character. Stories, after all, are generated by human beings, and it might be said that these recent novels are full of inhuman stories, whereby that phrase is precisely an oxymoron, an impossibility, a wanting it both ways. By and large, these are not stories that could never happen (as, say, a thriller is often something that could never happen); rather, they clothe real people who could never actually endure the stories that happen to them. They are not stories in which people defy the laws of physics (obviously, one could be born in an earthquake); they are stories which defy the laws of persuasion. This is what Aristotle means when he says that in storytelling "a convincing impossibility" (say, a man levitating) is always preferable to "an unconvincing possibility" (say, the possibility that a fundamentalist group in London would continue to call itself kevin). And what above all makes these stories unconvincing is precisely their very profusion, their relatedness. One cult is convincing; three cults are not.
Novels, after all, turn out to be delicate structures, in which one story judges the viability, the actuality, of another. Yet it is the relatedness of these stories that their writers seem most to cherish, and to propose as an absolute value. An endless web is all they need for meaning. Each of these novels is excessively centripetal. The different stories all intertwine, and double and triple on themselves. Characters are forever seeing connections and links and plots, and paranoid parallels. (There is something essentially paranoid about the belief that everything is connected to everything else.)
These novelists proceed like street-planners of old in South London: they can never name a street Ruskin Street without linking a whole block, and filling it with Carlyle Street, and Turner Street, and Morris Street, and so on. Near the end of White Teeth, one of the characters, Irie Jones, has sex with one of the twins, called Millat; but then rushes round to see the other twin, called Magid, to have sex with him only moments after. She becomes pregnant; and she will never know which twin impregnated her. But it is really Smith's hot plot which has had its way with her. In Underworld, everything and everyone is connected in some way to paranoia and to the nuclear threat. The Ground Beneath Her Feet suggests that a deep structure of myth, both Greek and Indian, binds all the characters together. And White Teeth ends with a clashing finale, in which all the novel's characters--most of whom are now dispersed between various cults and fanatical religious groups--head toward the press conference which the scientist, Marcus Chalfen, is delivering in London, to announce the successful cloning of his mouse.
Alas, since the characters in these novels are not really alive, not fully human, their connectedness can only be insisted on. Indeed, the reader begins to think that it is being insisted on precisely because they do not really exist. Life is never experienced with such a fervid intensity of connectedness. After all, hell is other people, actually: real humans disaggregate more often than they congregate. So these novels find themselves in the paradoxical position of enforcing connections that are finally conceptual rather than human. The forms of these novels tell us that we are all connected--by the Bomb (DeLillo), or by myth (Rushdie), or by our natural multiracial multiplicity (Smith); but it is a formal lesson rather an actual enactment.
An excess of storytelling has become the contemporary way of shrouding, in majesty, a lack; it is the Sun King principle. That lack is the human. All these contemporary deformations flow from a crisis that is not only the fault of the writers concerned, but is now of some lineage: the crisis of character, and how to represent it in fiction. Since modernism, many of the finest writers have been offering critique and parody of the idea of character, in the absence of convincing ways to return to an innocent mimesis. Certainly, the characters who inhabit the big, ambitious contemporary novels have a showy liveliness, a theatricality, that almost succeeds in hiding the fact that they are without life: liveliness hangs off them like jewelry.
This is less true of Zadie Smith than of Rushdie; her principal characters move in and out of human depth. Sometimes they seem to provoke her sympathy, at other times they are only externally comic. But watch what she does with one of the many bit-parts in this large and inventive book. Smith is describing the founder of kevin, the fundamentalist Islamic group based in North London. She tells us that he was born Monty Clyde Benjamin in Barbados in 1960, "the son of two poverty-stricken barefoot Presbyterian dypsomaniacs," and converted to Islam at the age of fourteen. At eighteen, he fled Barbados for Riyadh, where he studied the Koran at Al-Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University. He was five years there, but he became disillusioned with the teaching, and returned to England in 1984.
In Birmingham, he locked himself in his aunt's garage and spent five more years in there, with only the Qur'an and the fascicles of Endless Bliss for company. He took his food in through the cat-flap, deposited his shit and piss in a Coronation biscuit tin and passed it back out the same way, and did a thorough routine of press-ups and sit-ups to prevent muscular atrophy. The Selly Oak Reporter wrote regular bylines on him during this period, nicknaming him 'The Guru in the Garage' (in view of the large Birmingham Muslim population, this was thought preferable to the press-desk favoured suggestion, 'The Loony in the Lock-Up') and had their fun interviewing his bemused aunt, one Carlene Benjamin, a devoted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Clearly, Smith does not lack for powers of invention. The problem is that there is too much of it. The passage might stand, microcosmically, for the novel's larger dilemma of storytelling: on its own, almost any of these details (except perhaps the detail about passing the shit and piss through the cat-flap) might be persuasive. Together, they vandalize each other: the Presbyterian dypsomaniacs and the Mormon aunt make impossible the reality of the fanatical Muslim. As realism, it is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic; and anyway, we are not led toward the consciousness of a truly devoted religionist. It is all shiny externality, all caricature.
It might be argued that literature has only very rarely represented character. Even the greatest novelists, such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, resort to stock caricature, didactic speaking over characters, repetitive leitmotifs, and so on. The truly unhostaged writer, such as Chekhov, is rare. Buddenbrooks, a beautiful novel written by a writer only a year older than Zadie Smith, makes plentiful use of the leitmotif, as a way of affixing signatures to different characters. (Yet how those tagged characters live!) Less great but very distinguished writers indulge in the kind of unreal, symbolic vitality now found in the contemporary novel--consider the autodidact in Sartre's Nausea, who is somewhat unbelievably working his way alphabetically through an entire library, or Grand, the writer in The Plague, who somewhat unbelievably writes the first line of his novel over and over again.
Dickens, of course, is the great master of the leitmotif. Many of Dickens's characters are, as Forster rightly put it, flat but vibrating very fast. They are vivid blots of essence. They are souls seen only through thick, gnarled casings. Their vitality is a histrionic one. Dickens has been the overwhelming influence on postwar fiction, especially postwar British fiction. There is hardly a writer who has not been touched by him: Angus Wilson and Muriel Spark, Martin Amis's robust gargoyles, Rushdie's outsize chararacters, the intensely theatrical Angela Carter, the Naipaul of A House for Mr. Biswas, V. S. Pritchett's cocky salesmen, and now Zadie Smith. In America, Bellow's genius for grotesquerie and for vivid external description owes something to Dickens. And what is Underworld but an old-fashioned Dickensian novel like Bleak House, with an ambition to describe all of society on its different levels?
One obvious reason for the popularity of Dickens among contemporary novelists is that his way of creating and propelling theatrically alive characters offers an easy model for writers unable, or unwilling, to create characters who are fully human. Dickens's world seems to be populated by vital simplicities. He shows a novelist how to get a character launched, if not how to keep him afloat, and this glittering liveliness is simply easier to copy, easier to figure out, than the recessed and deferred complexities of, say, Henry James's character-making. Put bluntly, Dickens makes caricature respectable for an age in which, for various reasons, it has become hard to create character. Dickens licenses the cartoonish, coats it in the surreal, or even the Kafkaesque (the Circumlocution Office). Indeed, to be fair to contemporary novelists, Dickens shows that a large part of characterization is merely the management of caricature.
Yet that is not all there is in Dickens, which is why most contemporary novelists are only his morganatic heirs. There is in Dickens also an immediate access to strong feeling, which rips the puppetry of his people, breaks their casings, and lets us enter them. Mr. Micawber may be a caricature, a simple, univocal essence, but he feels, and he makes us feel. One recalls that very passionate and simple sentence, in which David Copperfield tells us: "Mr. Micawber was waiting for me within the gate, and we went up to his room, and cried very much." It is difficult to find a single moment like that in all the many thousands of pages of the big, ambitious, contemporary books--difficult to imagine the possibility of such a sentence ever occurring amid the coils of knowingness and the latest information.
It is now customary to read 700-page novels, to spend hours and hours within a fictional world, without experiencing anything really affecting, sublime, or beautiful. Which is why one never wants to re-read a book such as The Ground Beneath Her Feet, while Madame Bovary is faded by our repressings. This is partly because some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist's quarries any more. Information has become the new character. It is this, and the use made of Dickens, that connects DeLillo and the reportorial Tom Wolfe, despite the literary distinction of the former and the cinematic vulgarity of the latter.
So it suffices to make do with vivacious caricatures, whose deeper justification arises--if it ever arises--from their immersion in a web of connections. Zadie Smith has said, in an interview, that her concern is with "ideas and themes that I can tie together--problem-solving from other places and worlds." It is not the writer's job, she says, "to tell us how somebody felt about something, it's to tell us how the world works." Citing David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers, she comments: "these are guys who know a great deal about the world. They understand macro-microeconomics, the way the Internet works, math, philosophy, but . . . they're still people who know something about the street, about family, love, sex, whatever. That is an incredibly fruitful combination. If you can get the balance right. And I don't think any of us have quite yet, but hopefully one of us will."
That is gently, modestly put. And to give Smith her considerable due, she may be more likely to "get the balance right" than any of her contemporaries-- in part just because she sees that a balance is needed, and in part because she is very talented and still very young. At her best, she approaches her characters and makes them human; she is much more interested in this, and more naturally gifted at it, than is Rushdie. For a start, her minor Dickensian caricatures and grotesques, the petty filaments of this big book, often glow. Here, for instance, is a school headmaster, a small character who flares and dies within a few pages--but Smith captures his physical essence surely: "The headmaster of Glenard Oak was in a continual state of implosion. His hairline had gone out and stayed out like a determined tide, his eye sockets were deep, his lips had been sucked backwards into his mouth, he had no body to speak of, or rather he folded what he had into a small, twisted package, sealing it with a pair of crossed arms and crossed legs." This conjures a recognizable type, and indeed a recognizable English type, always in the process of withdrawing or disappearing--as Smith's highly Dickensian image suggests, always mailing himself out of the room.
Smith, as Rushdie has said, is "astonishingly assured". About her, one is tempted to apply Orwell's remark that Dickens had rotten architecture but great gargoyles. The architecture is the essential silliness of her lunge for multiplicities--her cults and cloned mice and Jamaican earthquakes. Formally, her book lacks moral seriousness. But her details are often instantly convincing, both funny and moving. They justify themselves. She tells the story, essentially, of two families, the Joneses and the Iqbals. Archie Jones is married to a Jamaican woman, Clara Bowden, and is the father of Irie. He fought in the Second World War, as a teenager, alongside Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslim from Bangladesh. The two men have been friends for thirty years, and now live near each other in North London. This is a bustling, desolate area, full of velvetlined Indian restaurants and yeasty pubs and unclean laundromats. Smith bouncily captures its atmosphere. Any street in this region will include, "without exception":
one defunct sandwich bar still advertising breakfast
one locksmith uninterested in marketing frills (KEYS CUT HERE)
and one permanently shut unisex hair salon, the proud bearer of some unspeakable pun (Upper Cuts or Fringe Benefits or Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow).
Samad's wife Alsana is an engaging creation. She earns a living sewing leather garments, at home, that are bound "for a shop called Domination in Soho." Samad is a waiter at a restaurant in central London, an intelligent man, frustrated by his foolish occupation; and a moral man, frustrated by the lax country he lives in. He spends much of the novel in a fury--he is, precisely, a caricature more than a character--about England and English secularism. He is determined that his twin sons, Millat and Magid, will grow up in the ways of the Koran. But Millat, at least initially, has joined a tough street gang, who speak "a strange mix of Jamaican patois, Bengali, Gujurati and English," and hangs out on streets populated by "Becks, B-boys, Indie kids, wide-boys, ravers, rude-boys, Acidheads, Sharons, Tracies, Kevs, Nation Brothers, Raggas and Pakis." (Such an inventory is what Smith means by bringing us the information. But this crocodile of youths has a use-by date inside it: Colin MacInnes brought us the information about the London of the 1950s in Absolute Beginners, and where is that novel? At an absolute end.) Millat's brother, Magid, is a scientific rationalist, and apparently no more interested in Islam than his brother. But his father decides to send Magid, the better student, back to Bangladesh, for a safely religious education. The plan backfires, of course.
When Smith is writing well, she seems capable of a great deal. At several moments, for example, she proves herself skilled at interior monologue, and brilliant, in other passages, at free indirect style:
'Oh Archie, you are funny,' said Maureen sadly, for she had always fancied Archie a bit but never more than a bit because of this strange way he had about him, always talking to Pakistanis and Caribbeans like he didn't even notice and now he'd gone and married one and hadn't even thought it worth mentioning what colour she was until the office dinner when she turned up black as anything and Maureen almost choked on her prawn cocktail.
One of the novel's best chapters is a gently satirical portrait of the Chalfen family, middle-class North London Jewish intellectuals of impeccable smugness, with whom Millat, Magid, and Irie become involved. (One of the Chalfen sons, Joshua, attends Glenard Oak school with the Jones and Iqbal children.) There is Marcus Chalfen, busy with his genetic experiments, and his wife, Joyce, who writes about gardening. She lives the politically unexamined life of the liberal who is sure that she is right about everything. Even her gardening books encode her bien-pensees about the importance of hybridity. Smith funnily invents a long passage from one of them: "In the garden, as in the social and political arena, change should be the only constant... It is said cross-pollinating plants also tend to produce more and better-quality seeds."
Yet this same Joyce cannot help eing, when Millat and Iris first appear in her house, about the delightful novelty of having "brown strangers" in the house. By mocking the Chalfens, even gently, Smith works against the form of her own novel, and guards against a Rushdie-like orthodoxy about the worship of hybridity. Here Smith evinces an important negative capability which she promptly deforms by inserting a needless little lecture into the same chapter: "This has been the century of strangers, brown, yellow and white. This has been the century of the great immigrant experiment." Still, these are rare lapses. Far more powerful than such announcements on the authorial Tannoy is a lovely moment when Marcus Chalfen puts his arms around his adored wife (the two are devoted, if a little complacently, to each other) , "like a gambler collecting his chips in circled arms," whereupon the fifteen-year-old Irie, whose parents are much less communicative, thinks "of her own parents, whose touches were now virtual, existing only in the absences where both sets of fingers had previously been: the remote control, the biscuit tin, the light switches."
Smith is a frustrating writer, for she has a natural comic gift, and yet is willing to let passages of her book descend into cartoonishness and a kind of itchy, restless extremism. Here, for instance, is her description of O'Connell's, a bar and cafe where Archie and Samad have been regulars for many years. Comically, it is run by a family of Iraqis, "the many members of which share a bad skin condition," but it has kept its Irish name, and various Irish accoutrements. It is where, we are told, Archie and Samad have talked about everything, including women:
Hypothetical women. If a woman walked past the yolk-stained window of O'Connell's (a woman had never been known to venture inside) they would smile and speculate--depending on Samad's religious sensibilities that evening--on matters as far reaching as whether one would kick her out of bed in a hurry, to the relative merits of stockings or tights, and then on, inevitably, to the great debate: small breasts (that stand up) vs big breasts (that flop to the sides). But there was never any question of real women, real flesh and blood and wet and sticky women. Not until now. And so the unprecedented events of the past few months called for an earlier O'Connell's summit than usual. Samad had finally phoned Archie and confessed the whole terrible mess: he had cheated, he was cheating... Archie had been silent for a bit, and then said, 'Bloody hell. Four o'clock it is, then. Bloody hell.' He was like that, Archie. Calm in a crisis.
But come 4.15 and still no sign of him, a desperate Samad had chewed every fingernail he possessed to the cuticle and collapsed on the counter, nose squished up against the hot glass where the battered burgers were kept, eye to eye with a postcard showing the eight different local charms of County Antrim.
Mickey, chef, waiter and proprietor, who prided himself on knowing each customer's name and knowing when each customer was out of sorts, prised Samad's face off the hot glass with an egg slice.
This kind of writing is closer to a low and unliterary "comic" style than it ought to be. It has a pertness, but it squanders itself in a mixture of banality and crudity. And unlike many passages in the book, it cannot shelter behind the excuse that it is being written from within the mind of a particular character. This is Smith as narrator, as writer. Yet nothing we know about Samad (and nothing we later learn, incidentally) convinces us that Smith is telling the truth when she tells us that this hot-headed Muslim sat talking about women's breasts; the topic seems, instead, to have been chosen by Smith from a catalogue of cliches called "Things Men Talk About in Bars." And then there is the extremism of the language: Samad is not just anxious, but has bitten his fingers down to the cuticles, and has to be "prised" off the counter "with an egg slice." It seems only a step from here to exploding condoms and the like. The language is oddly thick-fingered, and stubs itself into the vernacular: that juvenile verb "squished," for instance. It comports bewilderingly with sentences and passages elsewhere that are precise and sculpted.
The first half of Smith's novel is strikingly better-written than the second half, which seems hasty, the prose and wild plots bucking along in messy harnesses. Just as the quality of the writing undulates, sometimes from page to page, so Smith seems unable to decide exactly the depth of her commitment to the revelation of character. Samad offers a good example. Overall, he must be accounted a caricature, complete with Indian malapropisms and Indian (or Bengali) "temperament," for he has, really, only the one dimension, his angry defence of Islam. Still, every so often Smith's prose opens out into little holidays from caricature, apertures through which we see Samad tenderly, and see his frustrations, such as the restaurant he works in: "From six in the evening until three in the morning; and then every day was spent asleep, until daylight was as rare as a decent tip. For what's the point, Samad would think, pushing aside two mints and a receipt to find fifteen pence, what is the point of tipping a man the same amount you would throw in a fountain to chase a wish."
This is breathtaking, and peers into a depth of yearning: it is very fine to link the tip to money thrown into a well, and to link both to Samad's large desires. One wonders if Smith knows how good it is. For it is bewildering when, thirty pages later, she seems to leave Samad's interior, and watch him from the outside, satirically (and rather crudely). She is describing Samad's and Archie's war experiences, and the moment they first met. The tone wavers drastically around the mock-heroic. Archie has been staring at Samad, and Samad, all of nineteen, malapropistically demands: "My friend, what is it you find so darned mysterious about me that it has you in such constant revelries? . . . Is it that you are doing some research into wireless operators or are you just in a passion over my arse?" We seem to be in the world of cartoons again.
Forty pages later, Smith has a funny passage about Samad trying and failing to resist the temptation of masturbation. Samad becomes, for a while, an enthusiastic masturbator, on the arrangement (with Allah) that if he masturbates, he must fast, as recompense: "this in turn . . . led to the kind of masturbation that even a fifteen-year-old boy living in the Shetlands might find excessive. His only comfort was that he, like Roosevelt, had made a New Deal: he was going to beat but he wasn't going to eat." As in the passage about O' Connell's, the question is one of voice. Again, Smith is not writing from inside Samad's head here; the sophomoric comparison to a boy in the Shetlands is hers. So what is going on? The reference to the New Deal is hopelessly misplaced, and merely demonstrates the temptation that this kind of writing cannot resist, of binging in any kind of allusion. And what of that phrase, "he was going to beat but he wasn't going to eat"? "Beat" is not Samad's word; he would never use it. It is Smith's word, and in using it she not only speaks over her character, she reduces him, obliterates him.
And so it goes on, in a curious shuffle of sympathy and distance, affiliation and divorce, brilliance and cartoonishness, astonishing maturity and ordinary puerility. White Teeth is a big book, and does not deal in fractions: when it excites, and when it frustrates, it "o'erflows the measure." Indeed, its size tests itself, for one reason it disappoints has partly to do with the fact that it becomes clear that over the length of the book Smith's stories will develop, and develop wildly, but her characters will not develop at all. Yes, Smith's characters change; they change opinions, and change countries. Millat, once an urban rapper, becomes a fundamentalist terrorist; Joshua Chalfen, once a rationalist and loyal son of his scientist father, becomes an animal-rights freak. Yet whenever these people change their minds, there is always a kind of awkwardness in the text, a hiatus, and the change itself is always rapidly asserted, usually within a paragraph or two. It as if the novel were deciding at these moments whether to cast depths on its shallows, and deciding against.
Which way will the ambitious contemporary novel go? Will it dare a picture of life, or just shout a spectacle? White Teeth contains both kinds of writing. Near the end, an instructive squabble occurs between these two literary modes. The scene is the conference room, where Marcus Chalfen is delivering the news about the mouse. All of the book's major characters are present. Irie Jones is pregnant, and for a while we inhabit her mind, and her drifting thoughts. She looks from Millat to Magid, and cannot decide which twin is the father of her child. But she stops worrying, because Smith breaks in, excitedly, to tell us that "Irie's child can never be mapped exactly nor spoken of with any certainty. Some secrets are permanent. In a vision, Irie has seen a time, a time not far from now, when roots won't matter any more because they can't because they mustn't because they're too long and they're too tortuous and they're just buried too damn deep. She looks forward to it."
Yet it is Smith who made Irie, most improbably, have sex with both brothers, and it is Smith who decided that Irie, most improbably, has stopped caring who is the father. It is quite clear that a general message about the need to escape roots is more important than Irie's reality, what she might actually think, her consciousness. A character has been sacrificed for what Smith called, in that interview, "ideas and themes that I can tie together--problem-solving from other places and worlds." This is problem-solving, all right. But at what cost? As Irie disappears under the themes and ideas, the reader perhaps thinks wistfully of Mr. Micawber and David Copperfield, so uncovered by theme and idea, so uninsured, weeping together in an upstairs room.
James Wood is a senior editor at The New Republic. Born in England, Wood studied English Literature at Jesus College, Cambridge.
Wood is responsible for writing and commissioning book reviews. He was the winner of the acclaimed British Press Young Journalist of the Year Award in 1990 and has been the chief literary critic of The Guardian newspaper in London since 1992.
His essays and reviews have appeared in a number of other publications including The New Yorker and The London Review of Books, where he is a member of its editorial board. He served as one of the judges for the 1994 Booker Prize for fiction.