‘All too inhuman?’ Half-formed thoughts on Information and Connection in White Teeth

Trotting my way through Zadie Smith’s works. There are a few things I want to think through about White Teeth, as scaffolding  for my embryonic ideas about the digital and form in NW .[1]

James Wood famously/infamously labelled the novel an example of the “hysterical realism” which he felt characterized the later post-modernism of writers like Pynchon, DeLillo. Wood’s critique is an odd one, which decries the lack of humanity in these works. The challenge that these novels are “full of inhuman stories” has always sat quite strangely with me, with the implication being that “the grammar of storytelling” is somehow a thing which isn’t utterly human. It relies on a kind of normative standard for the idea of the good realist novel, one that must, in his parlance, lead us towards a consciousness. This is an unclear phrase, a kind of humanist jargon that literary critics like to fall back on, and it’s reinforced when Wood asks for a “return to an innocent mimesis”. Quick! Back to the Golden Age of 19__!

Far more perceptive, I think, is his description of these sorts of novels as reliant on information. “Information has become the new character” is a far more useful critical comment than claiming some innocent age where Henry James wrote all that was worth anything. It is this description of character which I think more interesting a way of exploring a novel like White Teeth.

Information appears in many different forms in White Teeth, always conspicuous by the form it takes – whether as encyclopaedia (being bought or sold), or DNA, or religious leaflets or pamphlets, or even as a drug. Samad’s morphine-high is an information overload: “all the information contained in the universe, all the information on walls, would pop its cork and flow through him like electricity through a ground wire”. Archie says the men are wells of experience “like encyclopedias” (he is violently corrected by the women in novel). The bourgeois-family the Chalfens are most significantly a family who define themselves by knowing more, by having the information that other families don’t. We understand because we’ve read more, we’ve had more access to more information than you. 

I would argue that information isn’t just a formal game, a meaningless web, as Wood suggests of White Teeth. The final setpiece – Marcus Chalfen’s presentation to an audience of the mouse who will help cure cancer – is a climax of human proportions. Sure, it’s mildly unbelievable that a network of such different groups would come together in this way. But all of them are attempting to sort different forms of information, different systems of belief and understanding, in order to fulfill they way of living. Information is something which drives human action in the novel, whether it is a desire for religious understanding or biological advances.

In a century where the very fabric of information has changed, Smith I think understands that information is entirely human – you are defined by what you understand, the kind of data you choose to interact with, what you share with others. In other words, I don’t think the wealth of information, the network, the web of White Teeth, means it moves away from consciousness, or the representation of consciousness, or whatever form of value you want to attach to the ostensibly realist novel. What the novel shows is that a logic of human connection, whatever language it is shrouded in, relies on exchange with each other. And that is what Smith’s work seems to privilege – an exchange, a gifting of human experience from one to the other. And it’s her concern for displaying the experience of the other which guides her formal experimentation, and I think the atmosphere of her works overall.

 

 

[1] (A joyful recommendation, here. Smith’s essay on David Foster Wallace in her  collection Changing My Mind is one of the most perceptive appraisals of the writer I’ve ever come across, mainly because it isn’t hagiographic or vague, and is analytically rigorous without being inaccessible. It doesn’t rely on the uncritical presentation of extracts from stories (there’s lots of “isn’t this stuff just so human” when it comes to Wallace). Smith even challenges the self-help-oh-so-inspiring status of This Is Water (go listen to it rather than buying the ridiculous toilet book that’s been created). Her analysis of the key feature of Wallace, the recursive sentence, is excellent, because it gives substance to the discussion of Wallace as an ethicist, that tautological label “a moral writer”.)

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