Ryan Topps

Well, “dealing” with Ryan turned out to consist of three major pastimes (in order of importance): admiring Ryan’s scooter, admiring Ryan’s records, admiring Ryan. But though other girls might have balked at dates that took place in Ryan’s garage and consisted entirely of watching him pore over the engine of a scooter, eulogizing its intricacies and complexities, to Clara there was nothing more thrilling. She learned quickly that Ryan was a man of painfully few words and that the rare conversations they had would only ever concern Ryan: his hopes, his fears (all scooter-related), and his peculiar belief that he and his scooter would not live long. For some reason, Ryan was convinced of the aging fifties motto “Live fast, die young,” and, though his scooter didn’t do more than 22 mph downhill, he liked to warn Clara in grim tones not to get “too involved,” for he wouldn’t be here long; he was “going out” early and with a “bang.”

Pulchritude

Pulchritude. From the Latin, pulcher, beautiful. That was the word that first struck Joyce when Millat Iqbal stepped forward onto the steps of her conservatory, sneering at Marcus’s bad jokes, shading his violet eyes from a fading winter sun. Pulchritude: not just the concept but the whole physical word appeared before her as if someone had typed it onto her retina–Pulchritude–beauty where you would least suspect it, hidden in a word that looked like it should signify a belch or a skin infection. Beauty in a tall brown young man who should have been indistinguishable to Joyce from those she regularly bought milk and bread from, gave her accounts to for inspection, or passed her checkbook to behind the thick glass of a bank till.

Twins

But the fact was Millat didn’t need to go back home: he stood schizophrenic, one foot in Bengal and one in Willesden. In his mind he was as much there as he was here. He did not require a passport to live in two places at once, he needed no visa to live his brother’s life and his own (he was a twin, after all). Alsana was the first to spot it. She confided to Clara: By God, they’re tied together like a cat’s cradle, connected like a see-saw, push one end, other goes up, whatever Millat sees, Magid saw and vice versa! And Alsana only knew the incidentals: similar illnesses, simultaneous accidents, pets dying continents apart. She did not know that while Magid watched the 1985 cyclone shake things from high places, Millat was pushing his luck along the towering wall of the cemetery in Fortune Green; that on February 10, 1988, as Magid worked his way through the violent crowds of Dhaka, ducking the random blows of those busy settling an election with knives and fists, Millat held his own against three sotted, furious, quick-footed Irishmen outside Biddy Mulligan’s notorious Kilburn public house. Ah, but you are not convinced by coincidence? You want fact fact fact? You want brushes with the Big Man with black hood and scythe? OK: on April 28, 1989, a tornado whisked the Chittagong kitchen up into the sky, taking everything with it except Magid, left miraculously curled up in a ball on the floor. Now, segue to Millat, five thousand miles away, lowering himself down upon legendary sixth-former Natalia Cavendish (whose body is keeping a dark secret from her); the condoms are unopened in a box in his back pocket; but somehow he will not catch it; even though he is moving rhythmically now, up and in, deeper and sideways, dancing with death.

Let’s talk about White Teeth

1. Zadie Smith is good at writing various dialects. Here is an example of how Hortense, from Jamaica, speaks:
 
“Well, don’ look so shock. It a very satisfactory arrangement. Women need a man ‘bout de house, udderwise ting an’ ting get messy.” You get the idea. I can’t help but read it in her accent, and it’s great. It sounds as though she actually knows people who speak like this; not like she’s just trying to copy what she THINKS it should sound like.
 
2. I don’t know what to call this rambling-ass prose, but I like it (Hortense is a crazy-ass Jehovah’s Witness):
 
“But Clara needn’t have feared. Irie’s atheism was robust. It was Chalfenist in its confidence, and she approached her stay with Hortense with detached amusement. She was intrigued by the Bowden household. It was a place of endgames and aftertimes, fullstops and finales; where to count on the arrival of tomorrow was an indulgence, and every service in the house, from the milkman to the electricity, was paid for on a strictly daily basis so as not to spend money on utilities or goods that would be wasted should God turn up in all his holy vengeance the very next day. Bowdenism gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “hand to mouth.” This was living in the eternal instant, ceaselessly teetering on the precipice of total annihilation; there are people who take a great deal of drugs simply to experience something comparable to eighty-four-year-old Hortense Bowden’s day-to-day existence.”
 
3. I just love this paragraph:
 
“‘Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He didn’t love me. He just couldn’t deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me.’ Now, how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll – then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.”

4.

“He’s gassing himself, Abba.”
“What?”
Arshad shrugged. “I shouted through the car window and told the guy to move on and he says, ‘I am gassing myself, leave me alone.’ Like that.”
“No one gasses himself on my property,” Mo snapped as he marched downstairs. “We are not licensed.”
Once in the street, Mo advanced upon Archie’s car, pulled out the towels that were sealing the gap in the driver’s window, and pushed it down five inches with brute, bullish force.
“Do you hear that, mister? We’re not licensed for suicides around here. This place halal. Kosher, understand? If you’re going to die round here, my friend, I’m afraid you’ve got to be thoroughly bled first.”

“Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 06.27 hours on 1 January 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate face down on the steering wheel, hoping the judgement would not be too heavy upon him. He lay forward in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed either side like some fallen angel; scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage license (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him. A little green light flashed in his eye, signaling a right turn he had resolved never to make. He was resigned to it. He was prepared for it. He had flipped a coin and stood staunchly by its conclusions. This was a decided-upon suicide. In fact it was a New Year’s resolution.”

“I’m a Muslim,” said Samad, pushing a plate of pork away. “And my Rita Hayworth leaves me only with my soul.”

“Why don’t you eat it?” said Archie, guzzling his two chops down like a madman. “Strange business, if you ask me.”

“I don’t eat it for the same reason you as an Englishman will never truly satisfy a woman.”

“Why’s that?” said Archie, pausing from his feast.

“It’s in our cultures, my friend.”

Samad is a testy fellow.