The Age of White Teeth
Zadie Smith’s gritty White Teeth does much to disrupt the stability of age as an index of experience, knowledge, or growth. If evolutionary time far exceeds the scope of a human being’s lived time, and “genome time” acts as another layer of complexity beyond the limits of conceivable chronologies, the often untranslatable meaning of a person’s age exposes for Smith the way planes of temporality, history, memory, and trauma construct the individual body in non-linear, non-progressive patterns. Smith, for example, toys with the timing of birth when she describes teenage Archie, in the sweltering, eye-blood-dripping maternal body of war, “his moon-shaped face lit up like a big baby, entering life head first” (102). Never simply born, he and Samad are reborn and reborn and reborn. In other instances, Samad, two years older than Archie, discusses his yet unborn wife (83). Alsana treats Neena as though she is of another “generation,” even though she’s a mere two years younger. Alsi, thinks Neena, “was young and old at the same time” (54). “Old” and “young” variously take on and shed meaning over the course of the twosomes—two friends, two families, two years, two minutes, two histories, and so on—that structure the novel. The children of generations, we learn, can emerge “older” than their parents, bearing the greater weight of the “original trauma,” often (as Lee Edelman would similarly have it) by virtue of the very investments made in those children as bearers of a purer Future.
Of course, the greatest example of the novel’s concern with age comes in the form of Millat and Migad, “younger” and “elder” twin brothers—this the perverse distinction that engraves a hierarchy between them as constructed and exaggerated as the superiority of “New Year’s Day” in a calendar that disguises incessant circularity. One boy becomes “second” to the other’s “first.” I turn to the identical twin plot as a fraternal twin myself, born, I am told, one minute before my sister. As with M and M’s two Minutes, the single minute that separated/separates us has translated into years-long differences in our physiological and personal development. In one case the minute eerily became a precisely one-year-long difference during our adolescence that proved easy to associate with the “original” temporal divide. What is interesting about the narratives our family has created to explain our relative, no less hierarchized developments—indeed, I often identify as an older sister—is the way other factors become elided by the sign—the precious minute—that seems to perfectly explain the differences that flout comprehension. Because time appears to help describe distinctions in “maturity”—a concept confounded by White Teeth—that sliver of seconds during birth seems reasonably to name their cause. Smith interrogates the leaps in logic that enable these kinds of interpretations. She unsettles our understanding of when “youth” and “oldness” happen, and of what activities people are “too old” or “too young” to do. Ends and beginnings, and life and death drives, intersect with “old” and “young” in unpredictable ways. If the larger pattern persists cyclically, the pattern of the individual and her/his deceptively namable age is less easily mapped in the space—the messy middle—between a lifetime’s spring and winter, its innocence and violent “familiarity,” its impotence and potency, and so on.