I finished Zadie Smith's White Teeth last night with disappointment. Aside from the lack of a plot--at least until the last 100 pages or so, which then ended abruptly--I thought it lacked what you might call soul. The book fell into a category that I like to call "testosterone intellectual," which I might have to rename. So far the books I've categorized this way were written by men. They are books that paint the world as a grand carnival, filled with outlandish characters and unlikely events. Their great fault is that they depict the horrors of human life without acknowledging the suffering that must accompany such horrors.
For example: in the chapter of White Teeth titled "The Root Canals of Hortense Bowden," Hortense's fourteen-year-old mother barely escapes being raped, saved only by an earthquake, during which she gives birth. But there is hardly a whisper of fear and pain in all this. In fact, Smith summarizes my problem in the sentence that leads into these events: "Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories." Apparently Smith is not interested in writing the inside history. And I guess that is a valid choice, but I'm just not that interested in reading a purely outside history.
I saw Steppenwolf's production of Conor MacPherson's play The Seafarer this afternoon, and it crystallized for me what was missing from White Teeth. There is no doubt that the mad drunks of The Seafarer are suffering. Like King Lear, the play demands: "Break, heart, I prithee, break!" This is a play that can make you weep. Smith's characters are colorful and alive on the page, but I'd never shed a tear for them.