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Zadie Smith’s White Teeth & J.M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello

Reviewed by Gail Vida Hamburg
Author of The Edge of the World (Mirare Press)

White Teeth and Elizabeth Costello are serious books, both of them hyper-intellectual literature of ideas. However, White Teeth is more accessible to the general reader, while Coetzee’s book is for a rarefied audience.

White Teeth is most of all, about consequences and responsibility. Smith opens the book with a quote from E.M Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread: “Every little trifle, for some reason, does seem incalculably important today, and when you say of a thing that “nothing hangs on it” it sounds like blasphemy.” In White Teeth, Smith uses three families to spin her large ideas into an interesting saga. The privileged, fully actualized Chalfens represent old England, while the Iqbals, a failed immigrant family, haunted and crippled by its past, embody the dispossession and alienation of new immigrants. The Jones family on the other hand speaks for contemporary multicultural England. They are a hybrid of England and Jamaica--an inter-racial family born out of accident, suffering, and individual leaps of faith and courage.

The Iqbal family comes apart at the seams because of England’s historical aspirations and adventures in the Asian sub-continent. The family’s lack of progress on English soil shows the impact of migration on those who cannot erase memory and start anew. Memory and individual acts affect many of the characters, especially the members of the Jones family. Though the last sixty pages of the book depart from the central and compelling concerns of the work, by advancing what seems to me an unrelated notion—genetic engineering, White Teeth is a good manual for the writer focusing on political matters. Smith is never didactic; she does not bore us with rampant philosophizing. She refracts her political concerns through the characters in a way that is believable and uncontrived, falling heavily on satire to puncture the gravity of her ideas.

Elizabeth Costello dwells on the responsibilities of storytelling, as perceived and elucidated by a woman of letters. Elizabeth Costello, a famous novelist and frequent speaker on the university lecture circuit, is an arresting character. “In her heyday, she would like to think, she could have given winged Eros himself cause to pay earth a visit. Not because she was so much of a beauty but because she longed for the god’s touch, longed until she ached…” “You are killing me! You are tearing the flesh from my body!” she screams at her young children. A passionate woman. Yet, the Elizabeth Costello we meet is pitiful—old, vulnerable, stripped off her sexuality, her youth. She’s “an old hag who wears a blue lady novelist’s uniform and white shoes with which there is nothing wrong yet which somehow make her look like Daisy Duck.''

The six lectures or “lessons,” which are the narrative frame of the book, start out well enough. However, especially in Lesson 3, ''The Philosophers and the Animals,'' and Lesson 6, “The Problem of Evil,” the fiction begins to sink under the weight of the brilliant and difficult ideas. Costello pontificates, philosophizes, and moralizes without pause. Costello is no longer the writer of whom, her son says: ''I think you are baffled, even if you won't admit it, by the mystery of the divine in the human. You know there is something special about my mother -- that is what draws you to her.” Instead, we find her arguments ill considered, and sometimes banal. In her lecture on animal suffering, she compares ''what is being done to animals at this moment in production facilities (I hesitate to call them farms any longer), in abattoirs, in trawlers, in laboratories, all over the world,” to the killing of Jews in the gas chambers of Treblinka between 1942 and 1945. She adds that the breeding of animals for slaughter is more awful and degrading than ''anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them.

Mr. Coetzee writes disturbing books. His character is disturbing. Yet, despite Elizabeth Costello’s insufferable views, she is a poignant character. I wanted to know more about her outside the confines of the lecture hall and lectures. It is a serious and difficult book. I did not enjoy reading it—which indicates nothing but my own lack of maturity as a reader.

   

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