In a Youtube video from May 2010, Ned Beauman, the Author of Boxer, Beetle, suggested that readers aren’t entirely honest with themselves: that our motivation for reading novels and the way we talk about them may not be aligned.
There are lots of words that book reviewers use in book reviews that you and I never ever use talking about books, like ‘coruscating’, or ‘timely’, or ‘scandalous’… but there’s one word that you and I use all the time talking about books that book reviewers never use, which is ‘boring’: which is weird because we all know that lots of books are boring. Most books are boring. It’s a triumph ever to come across a book that’s not boring. And yet the biggest crime that a book can commit is to be boring… All I wanted to do when I started this was write a book with a modicum of intelligence that’s not ever boring, and if I’ve achieved that then I’ll be relatively happy.
One could take this as a preventative strike on his part, anticipating reviews whose only negative word about his debut would be something like ‘busy’, ‘convoluted’, or a patronisingly meant ‘ambitious.’
This is to be expected of a novel which features collectors of Nazi memorabilia; assassins; a gay, Jewish-Cockney flyweight-boxer; an aristocratic eugenicist; carnivorous super-beetles and a composer of atonal music. I am a reader who found the book to be constantly interesting without being convoluted. In fact, it is surprisingly well executed. Every circus-level curiosity gives the impression of being handled with subtlety, modesty and understanding. The slimness of it – only 250 pages – certainly contributes to its polish. But Beauman was dead right in expecting that some reviewers are suspicious of literary novels which make a concerted effort not to be boring.
The ‘Hysterical Realism’ debate may be old news now, but it is insistent enough to reassert its power every time a ‘busy’ novel is written. The essay of that name which appeared in James Wood’s collection The Irresponsible Self: Laughter and the Novel identifies and (in most cases well deservedly) attacks ‘The contemporary, big, ambitious novel’ – a long work, full of acrobatic plot-twists and multifarious coincidental, interlinking sub-stories. Wood’s main gripe was that the authors of these CBANs (and his list is formidable: Pynchon, DeLillo, Rushdie, Foster-Wallace) appeal to the reader’s hunger for storytelling, but neglect their duty to make their stories convincing. Boredom is avoided at the expense of seriousness. Wood believes this type of novel to be the enemy of nuance: ‘The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, overworked… it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself.’ The other author Wood mentions in his list of offenders is Zadie Smith.
It seems silly, patronising even, to return to White Teeth – a debut that was discussed exhaustively when it came out at the turn of the millenium – now Smith is a mature artist. But youth will always be topical. It is especially relevant to the discussion of novels which display – even advertise – their energy and verve. Apprentice novels are often overly conscious of delivering a specific kind of vivacity or voice; they might not get published or noticed otherwise. Wood spent most of his essay talking about White Teeth, even though he believed Smith to have offended far less than (and, actually, to be a far superior writer than) the established authors of the other CBANs he condemns. This favour is partly the result of him making concession to her youth, and to her ‘potential’ – to that type of energy and vivacity that is no longer present in the established authors who sit comfortably in their readership and acclaim.
One need only read Smith’s short story ‘Mrs. Begum’s Son and The Private Tutor’ to get a compact sense of this youthful vivacity, and of her promise in every other area of the craft. One obviously requires and expects more concentrated immediacy from a short story than from a novel. But this short story is one we can expect to have a double injection of verve. It was a showcase piece, written for The Mays: Oxbridge’s most prestigious and competitive creative anthology, which, every year, is judged by people like Seamus Heaney and Andrew Motion, and circulated to agents and publishers. Smith was a Mays success-story. ‘Mrs. Begum’s Son’ secured her an agent, publisher and large advance before she’d written her first novel. And all this while in her final year at Cambridge.
Again, this is old news, but it gives a context to the urgency of her writing. She wasn’t just the apprentice: she was the intern. The prose is pretty good, but carrying that intentional, deferential awkwardness of a student writer, which is articulate and acute, but eschews pompousness and precociousness almost fanatically. This is the literary equivalent to broadening one’s accent in speech in order to seem humble or intellectually unthreatening. Smith embraces the unliterary, proclaiming her relevance with mentions of Barbie and My Little Pony. Having had a short story in there myself, I can testify that as well as whatever else the judges may have thought of my writing, my inclusion would have been reinforced by my lucky choice to depict the wedding of two young adults in Northeast England, with the possibility of a political statement about the war in Afghanistan hovering in the title (but not in the story itself.) I like to think that my style, voice, handling of character etc. were the reasons I was picked, but it was probably down to (what was seen to be) my ‘relevance:’ the things I consciously put into my story to fulfill the showcase’s criteria.
Zadie Smith came from this into writing White Teeth. She was still writing for a competition – an author’s first novel. The first few pages are obliged to be either the biggest of them all, or a promise of consistent massiveness for the rest of the book. And how massive Zadie Smith’s first pages are! They are some of the most massive first pages I’ve ever read. Wood identifies the sensationalism of Smith’s plot as an excess or ‘acceleration’ of storytelling. If Wood sees the chief vice of ‘Hysterical Realism’ to be a sort of nervous boredom: a rambling and sprawling listlessness, Smith has a nervous eagerness to entertain and to earn respect. The main difference between a CBAN in the hands of a first time novelist and in the hands of a seasoned one is that the former needs her novel to be interesting. And White Teeth reads like a first novel, and reads like it knows it is a first novel which must earn its place. Beauman’s debut, Boxer, Beetle reads like it needs to be interesting to survive, but also wants to be interesting for its own pleasure. Its vividness is not a strain on the reader. It is all interesting, and meticulously researched, but has an energy that is vital and worldly rather than academic and bookish.
White Teeth is designed in a different way. Smith said in an interview with The Guardian in 2000 that ‘to worry about whether a Bengali man of a certain age might say such and such, well, that’s very limiting.’ She would advocate not only using ones imagination, but trusting it above researched or received knowledge: ‘As long as you honestly believe that people can be, say or do anything, then you stop worrying about it.’ Therefore, her job as a novelist is to create a dialect from which her characters can convincingly speak. And for the most part, it is convincing. She generates a narrative folk-lore – a received wisdom where details seem exaggerated from generation to generation. But rather than being obscured by the path of time, family histories acquire more narrative vehemence the more unlikely or miraculous they sound. They take on such a life of their own that they seem independent of the characters produced by them, and are more often than not entirely superfluous to the action.
The effect created is one which has divided readers. James Wood believes that in the most part this detracts from the craft of the novel. I have a fondness for it as a structural curiosity – but this sort of fondness looks kindly on imperfection, and therefore reduces what it praises. When you read about Archie Jones’s first wife (the existence of whom is never mentioned again, and has hardly any bearing on his actions), you can’t help wanting to join in the fun of Smith’s ingenuity: ‘She referred to Ophelia’s madness, which lead her to believe, half of the time, that she was the maid of the celebrated fifteenth-century art lover Cosimo de Medici.’ It delights at the reading, but upon recalling it, seems put there for the author’s amusement rather than the validity of the work.
Smith’s interest in the provenance of everything, as well as being the premise of White Teeth, resigns her to a formula that any novelist would struggle to sustain over a long stretch. Every character must have an interesting genealogy. They must be approached through their religious leanings and backgrounds, rather than how they appear in the present and what they have gathered with them to that moment. One tires of going backwards rather than forwards, not because the many back-stories are uninteresting – on the contrary, they are all quite brilliant. But one gets bored of exercising the same readerly muscles over and over again. On the level of character, this process doesn’t enrich them. The narrator can go one hundred years into a character’s past without giving an impression of why they are who they are.
Smith’s novel is founded on the trite-ism that ‘everybody has a story.’ True – but those stories aren’t instantly available to the eye. They should be the reward of more study than the cursory, though ever-penetrative, glance. Smith tries to make her people wear their stories on the outside, which cannot be achieved. If anything, White Teeth is a means for other apprentice novelists to learn that a narrator doesn’t have to demonstrate her entire knowledge of a character at once. James Wood compares White Teeth to another ambitious debut – another lengthy family saga – Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. As one would expect, Wood finds a way of demonstrating that, though both authors use similar apprentice techniques for character – the leitmotif for instance – Mann’s characters ‘live!’ more convincingly that Smith’s.
One of the most famous young debuts of European literature – upon its publication both esteemed and popular – Buddenbrooks was allegedly the reason for Mann’s winning the Nobel years later. And it was written when he was only twenty-five. But however casually damning it can be to say of White Teeth; ‘Well, it’s no Buddenbrooks,’ it is an undeniable elevation. And I would assert that Buddenbrooks and White Teeth have more in common in terms of quality than Wood would like to acknowledge. Smith’s and Mann’s characters often live at the same rate. Mann’s novel is ultimately (very slightly) finer because it displays more evidence of authorial duty than Smith’s: Mann’s eye is trustworthy because it doesn’t show favouritism. He has been given a town to observe and dedicates himself to depicting each inhabitant – knowing them – even if they are not immediately rewarding. Whereas Smith’s authorial eye is that of a magpie. A fickle, impatient observer, it moves quickly, only attracted to garish curiosities that glitter with irregularity. Characters must court authorial attention in order to be noticed. But just because Mann’s eye is diplomatic where Smith’s shows favoritism doesn’t mean that he never errs on the side of hyper-exuberance. Herr Permaneder, with his verbal tick ‘pain in th’ ol’ (said even as he is forcing himself on the maid, and then as he apologises to his wife for doing it,) is no more respectable than something by Smith at her most flagrant.
But it must be Smith’s serial hyper-exuberance which gives the impression not of idiosyncrasy, but difficult conventionality: what philistinism would term ‘quirkiness.’ Smith’s character list often reads like a roll call of Big Brother contestants in the later years. There were two types of idiots there: ones with a single massive trait, who said things like ‘say it to me face, don’t go slagging me off behind me back;’ or the people deemed misfits by the production company – an amputee with pretensions of clairvoyance and an unapproachably complex sexual identity would be a typical contestant: typical because of her atypicality. The object being to imply a diversity and range in the national populous through such particularity. But doing so is a fallacy. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, this is done to enable a story in the easiest way possible. Ned Beauman’s debut would appear to give a similarly berserk cross-section of characters if one was to read a blurb or a synopsis, but not if one were to read the novel itself.
Boxer, Beetle is realised through repellent consciousnesses: the repressed homosexual eugenicist with his 1930s homophobia (the cold rejection of homosexuality as an illness, as opposed to the modern hot fear of it as a threat); and the collector of Nazi memorabilia who constantly examines and justifies his hobby in light of his conscience. Where a character that has a disease making him smell like fish could conceivably appear in White Teeth without attracting too much notice, Beauman treats such a garish abnormality with respect and responsibility, rather than as a gimmick which advertises the narrative. This treatment is evident in all of the creations which could easily be made into flashy curiosities. Where Smith has a host of characters which she has thoroughly inhabited, she hasn’t accessed the true potential for their ironies, or if she has, she hasn’t become comfortable enough to handle them with affection. Beauman’s scientist Philip Erskine has none of the endearing exuberance of Smith’s scientist, Marcus Chalfen: he has less showy mannerisms that say ‘I am Philip Erskine!’ but nevertheless vivifies his own substance far more convincingly than all of Smith’s characters (excluding Samad, who would be a credit to any novelist).
Characters in White Teeth have a tendency to appear as advertisements for themselves as well as for the novel, in a similar fashion to the way Ricky Gervais writes the celebrity cameos in his comedy. They move as if the thought ruling their interiority is ‘I am X – I must remember to be X,’ and the effect is that they seem, at some stage, to have forgotten who they are – forgotten they have a self at all. They announce themselves as if they aren’t thoroughly convinced: ‘I’m Ben Stiller!’ ‘I’m Clive Owen!’ ‘I’m Liam Neeson – I was in Schindler’s List!’ The effect is one of curious tentativeness and disassociation. But in a Ricky Gervais comedy the actors are playing themselves. It is knowing self-parody.
It takes a feeling novelist to know his characters so well as to play irreverently and affectionately with their inner ironies. Beauman has Philip Erskine’s sister Evelyn (an ingenious character in her own right) say to him ‘I really don’t understand why anyone is interested in children,’ to which he responds ‘no.’ What a great thing for a Eugenicist – somebody who’s primary interest is the preservation of the species – to say! One couldn’t imagine even in Joyce Chalfen – the creation who demonstrates some of Smith’s most scathing and at the same time sensitive work – the same lightness of touch that has gone into creating Philip Erskine and the conflicting loyalties of his conscience and consciousness. Where Beauman is backed by his research, Smith protests to be comfortable without it. But it is Beauman who is more comfortable in the very essence of his characters. And it is from the essence that Smith believes she speaks when she trusts her imagination over research.
Buddenbrooks is economical in the way it allows characters to survive and demonstrate their essence. The leitmotif, though initially helpful, is a troublesome way of keeping a character afloat. Remember what Humbert Humbert says in Lolita, about a novelist writing a character with a dog and being lumbered with the prospect of finding new ways in which the dog can be brought into the action. Mann has to constantly find new opportunities for his characters to exhibit their one or two idiosyncrasies. They live the same, they don’t need to change, but they have to busy themselves to be believed. The fraud Benedix Grünlich is a relatively brief but significant contributor to the book’s action. A dandyish conman posing as a merchant, he is a master of economy in social and emotional matters as well as in business. Full of gestures that connote ‘flourishing’ and elegant prosperity, he is constantly aware of the price of the effect produced – getting value for money – and in doing so never ceases to demonstrate a certain lack of sense, a meanness of spirit; a meagreness. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than his verbal tick, ‘I have taken a couple of rooms at the City of Hamburg Inn.’ This phrase comes in even when he is begging for Antonie’s hand in marriage. Putting it here would naturally seem crass and needless, as is the case with Antonie’s second suitor Permaneder’s verbal ticks, but the effect produced here is acute:
I could bear it no more. I threw myself into the next coach. Hastened here as fast as I could. I have taken a couple of rooms at the City of Hamburg Inn… and here I am.
The leitmotif here is used not to amplify the character but to restrain him; to regulate his emotional expenditure. It is not just the minor characters who are made full by skilful use of this device. Christian Buddenbrook, one of the leads, after coming to work for the family firm, often dismays his family at the dinner table with explorations of his sensibilities; how he sometimes dares himself not to swallow, for instance. And then when it appears that he has settled into bourgeois respectability, he delights by transforming the solid, satisfying, dynamic routine of a businessman into something his brother Thomas would call, ‘unusually obscure or supremely refined,’ by describing the way his hand feels satiated and tired after a day’s writing. This perturbs the family just as much. Witnessing a character resist development and expansion here yields equal pleasure to seeing a character develop, and is in itself an appropriate kind of expansion. Deriving sophisticated pleasure from a static character is reliant on that character being subtly static. Smith’s static characters afford the reader much pleasure, but often the shallow pleasure of merely laughing at them. Yet how deep a pleasure can one really afford through observing Mann thoroughly master a shallow technique? One easily gets bored of Mann, increasingly so as he gets better at writing his big novels.
The more rigorously I probe the hasty impulse of characterisation in White Teeth the more I have a niggling sense that my approach is wrong, and that James Wood’s philosophically-aware seriousness, rather than being too high for the novel’s shortcomings, is in fact of no use to this novel and its goals. After Wood, I am frustrated by the tasteless economy of some of Smith’s descriptions. A spotty face is a ‘join the dots enthusiast’s wet dream’, Clara’s father’s chair is ‘bug infested.’ These are the luminous, hasty brushstrokes of the idiomatic voice which has read Martin Amis and believes the world to be its oyster. There is nothing wrong with learning how to capture modern urban life from 80s-90s Amis, and there is everything to gain from learning about style from him. The problem comes when Amis’s innovations of voice, originally a quest for freshness, are lazily reproduced. This is excusable in White Teeth, however, in that it runs on unoriginalities. They are the novel’s fuel. Just as James Joyce constructed characters’ interiorities from the refuse, the unoriginalities of the mind in Ulysses, Smith constructs an exterior narrative out of trite-isms. She gets the tone of her debut right for its day. The narrative voice is enabled by its endorsement of public hearsay. This is what Wood doesn’t seem to understand: hyperbole is part of the process by which the narrative voice has collated her story. It engages directly with a semi-urban climate of storytelling. Transmission happens everywhere, sometimes across continents, so it is no wonder details find themselves ‘hysterically’ altered: ‘So the legend went back in St Elizabeth.’ The narrative embraces the possibility that the tales may be too wonderful to be true. Where for Wood this cheapens the novel, for Smith it makes the story possible. This is how the narrative sources its information, and this is a reason why Wood and Smith can’t get along here.
One can’t imagine James Wood readily investing himself in a narrative process so close to blind faith. And when a novel asserts that ‘It couldn’t be, but it was. That is how people describe a miracle,’ it is to be expected that the steady mind of the knowledgeable, tested atheist may demand a little more ‘seriousness’ from the book. He has written a collection of essays about the intersection of Theology and Literature; it is his subject, and the axis of his one novel: The Book Against God, which establishes it’s narrative / reader bonds on mistrust. One could imagine him seeing the ease of miracle as a shirking of responsibilities on the part of the logician, the craftsman and the self-respecting reader. But Wood himself, in How Fiction Works, asserts that the success of a novel should be judged by how well it teaches you to follow its rules: to believe its texture and grammar. A novel fails, ultimately, when it ‘has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level.’
Smith allows her narrative provincial and blind belief as well as scientific caution because such an argument is the crux of her creation: Chalfenism versus Bowdenism – the determinism of science versus the determinism of God. I believe in the texture and grammar of her book, and for me, it very rarely fails on its own terms. But when it does, it happens drastically. Smith turns on her conventions and her whole creation in the very last two pages, abandoning the tension between the unbelievable and the determinable to a disenchanted logic. She imagines her reader as a focus group who ‘would no doubt tick the box that asks to see all these things played to their end,’ and goes on a little parade around the hypothetical, then condemns the hunger for storytelling which she has (up until now) been satisfying. It seems she has run out of steam and wants her novel finished: ‘But surely to tell these tales and others like them would be to speed the myth, the wicked lie, that the past is always tense and the future, perfect. And as Archie knows, it’s not like that.’ One thinks, now you decide to reject the sentimental elements of story-telling? – for exaggeration is a function of the nostalgic: the sentimental. That is what White Teeth teaches us.
It isn’t the novel’s busyness that defeats it; the way it bristles with information actually holds it together. After reading it all, we realise that although we might have felt overwhelmed by the novel’s fullness, it was the way it voided itself in the end that damaged it. Zadie Smith was trying so hard not to let her novel get boring, and she was doing so well. But then the novelist got bored of the novel.