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  • "Certainty in Its Purest Form":Globalization, Fundamentalism, and Narrative in Zadie Smith's White Teeth
  • Benjamin Bergholtz (bio)

Zadie Smith's White Teeth revolves around an aporia, or double bind. To recognize this aporia, consider the following: thematically, the novel dramatizes the disastrous interplay of a series of competing narratives of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is attractive to Smith's characters because, to paraphrase the novel's refrain, it allows one to eliminate the random and control the world. Such control is especially seductive in White Teeth because it purports to overcome the uncertainty characterizing London, the postwar, postcolonial, and global city dramatized in the novel. But here we approach a paradox: Smith shows fundamentalism to be a woefully inadequate response to globalization because its insistence on the inerrancy of a single narrative—whether it is Marcus Chalfen's scientism, Millat Iqbal's militant Islam, or Hortense Bowden's Christianity—is incompatible with the ambiguity inherent in a pluralistic society.1 To accomplish this, however, she employs a narrator who mimics the absolutist certainty satirized in her characters. Readers are invited to laugh at characters such as Millat and Hortense for allowing didactic texts, including The Right to Bare: The Naked Truth About Western Sexuality (308) and the "latest Watchtower article" (337), to interpret the world for them, but the narrator's essayistic asides, descriptions of what is "[a]propos" (71), and intrusive interruptions ask the reader to repeat the very error Smith is satirizing. That is, they ask us to interpret [End Page 541] the world through the lens prescribed by her didactic narrator. Like Irie Jones trying to transcribe Ryan Topps's apocalyptic prose, then, the incongruity between a narrative satirizing "certainty in its purest form" (405) and a narrator embodying it often leaves the reader "gritting her teeth at the author's interruptions, as every ten minutes" she "pop[s] back into the room" (337).2

I am not the first critic to notice this incongruity. Beginning with James Wood, many of Smith's detractors and a few of her defenders have acknowledged, as Lewis MacLeod writes, that "the interior discourse of the novel is in tension with the larger discourses which enclose it" (164). But while others tend either to excuse or excoriate Smith for descending "into cartoonishness and a kind of itchy, restless extremism" (Wood), I would like to reconsider her employment of "extremism" in light of the extremism pervading the text.3 In White Teeth, Smith takes a significant feature or, to put it crudely, "effect" of globalization, and organizes the entire world of the novel around it; she both satirizes the illusions of fundamentalism and risks mimetically reproducing them in the reader by presenting her satire through the voice of an intrusive and overzealous narrator. This narrator is not a "fundamentalist," strictly speaking, but her narrative technique employs—and thus risks endorsing—the abstract certainty by which White Teeth's narratives of fundamentalism operate. This technique is both paradoxical and precarious because its success depends upon the reader both recognizing that the narrator is mimicking the dogmatic certainty of her characters and reflecting upon the inadequacy of such structural certainty in addressing the problems dramatized in the novel. [End Page 542]

The obvious question, therefore, is if and how well Smith's novel induces this recognition and reflection, and to what end it might lead. To begin to answer this question, I analyze White Teeth alongside a thinker who has yet to be invoked in discussions of Smith, Theodor W. Adorno. Adorno's invocation of "immanent analysis," a form of criticism that "grasps the relation of [a work of art's] elements to each other processually rather than reducing them analytically to purported fundamental elements" (Aesthetic Theory 180, 176), seems particularly germane to understanding Smith's aporetic aesthetic. If we consider the issue of style in isolation, then we are forced to agree with the book's critics: Smith "obliterates" her characters (Wood), often reducing them to abstract stereotypes in an effort to control the narrative. But if, thinking "processually," we analyze this stylistic choice in conjunction with the fundamentalism pervading the text, a case can be made that the employment of a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9949
Print ISSN
0010-7484
Pages
pp. 541-568
Launched on MUSE
2017-07-13
Open Access
No
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