Pulling Teeth: Zadie Smith and the Culturalized Mouth
Old Testament: Tradition & Autoeroticism
Yes! responds the “anthropomorphized voice…in Samad’s right testicle.” (132). Samad is courting his sons’ music teacher, Poppy, when he is suddenly struck by this testicular affirmative. In the wake of this seminal meeting, Samad cannot help helping himself to himself. He quiets his conscience by abstaining from other bodily letches. He fasts: “No substance passed [his] lips” (118). In result, increasingly less passes out of him. Food & Drink, he can control. But, as Portnoy to his shiska, Samad is to his Poppy. He becomes a prolific masturbator. Later, however, having gone to bed with Poppy, the relationship founders, largely because Samad insists that it is phys-ical, not metaphysical, as though the inner and the outer were cleft. Manifestly clear, Samad is a pecker-head with a legion of problems. Chief among them is a stupid self-importance (bordering on solipsism), a hidebound historicism. More often than not, Samad’s self-orthodoxy is undercut by his despair at failing to convince anyone save Archie of his importance, his superior blood. To make matters worse, Samad listens to nobody. His ears are “like the grave.” So it seems, then, that this autoeroticism has metaphysical corollaries. Recall, for instance, the Queen of Thailand who drowned because tradition insisted that no one, under any circumstances, should touch her. Smith puts culture in Samad’s terms: “Tradition was culture and culture led to roots…untainted principles” (181). Samad favors precolonial, indigenous traditions, hence his genealogical talisman, Pande. But he does so for all the wrong reasons, that is, because tradition for him is the last rampart between Pande and secularism-modernity. Tradition, unlike anything else under late capitalism, has the power to remain static, identifiable. Basically: The less food that goes in, the less that ultimately goes out. It is the loss of tradition, not Magid, that Samad mourns, which explains his disappointment when his brainy son returns “more English than the English.” As we see, Samad’s hostility toward westernization shows up in mutated form, later, with KEVIN. Rather comically, as terrorist organizations go, these green ties distribute their literature—leaflets rather—as young boys once traded holographic cards of their favorite Yankee shortstop. This canned fundamentalism is consistent with one of White Teeth’s bargain tropes, which is that nothing nowadays exists outside capitalism’s objectifying gaze. Even the post-colonial “novel” can be self-consciously reproduced. One wonders, nevertheless, how scant is the thread, if any, which binds tradition with culture, that sows nation as the seed of culture. All the same, White Teeth seems the most prickled by tradition that tends to narrow or backslide into monolithism, a tradition that becomes, overtime, a collective expression of solipsism, the autoeroticism of the body politic.
New Testament: Shrink-to-Fit Futurity
Whereas the first-generation immigrants in White Teeth seem still to straddle that divide between their native land and their new home, the second- and third-generation immigrants seem either to have staked themselves nowhere or everywhere. For instance, the adolescent Irie regards all of England as one bloody big mirror. Having inherited the Bowden bundle, Irie longs for European proportions, a desire that takes a disastrous turn when she visits a salon to have her hair straightened and it falls out in clumps. In a more colloquial form of transgenesis, she is then forced to have someone else’s hair weaved in. Likewise, Mafia Millat falls in early on with the nicotine crowd, kids who are “passionate about fags….The stuff that turns white teeth yellow” (243). They’re even in the habit of collecting cigarette butts in order to reconstitute them into serviceable sums. This scrap-scavenging is precisely what characterizes the individual-social projects of these second- and third-generation immigrants. We might call it the cannibalization of persona, of (Jameson speaking) “all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture” (Postmodernism, p.18). Far as I can tell, this line of reasoning is quite deliberate on Smith’s part inasmuch as it is attention-calllingly pervasive throughout White Teeth. (One could argue that the book is actually about cultural studies within the academy.) What remains enigmatic to me, however, is whether or not these young people, particularly Millat and Irie, are going to make something more of their lives than a “meaning effect.” Could it be that their fates are bound up in that of FutureMouse, who has, like Dedalus (or Cisneros’ Esperanza), absconded, sounding the trumpet blast, “Welcome, O Life!”? And what’s to come of this baby abrew in Irie, whose roots are so cleaved as to be unrooted? Right now, I’m seeing too much langaue and not enough parole in these young people. Tonight, unslept, I know the feeling.