Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Zadie Smith's Hopelessly Misplaced Allusion

Just as good writing illuminates fine craftsmanship in storytelling, the same can be said for poor writing, or making bad word choices and allusions.

In James Wood's classic "Human, All To Inhuman", where he uncovers the absurdity of the "hysterical realism" of authors like Don Delillo, David Foster Wallace, and Thomas Pynchon, he shows how Zadie Smith's White Teeth enthusiasm to bring in every sort of allusion, reference, and zany detail into the narrative clouds her better judgment in letting the internal dialogue of the character come forth:
Forty pages later, Smith has a funny passage about Samad trying and failing to resist the temptation of masturbation. Samad becomes, for a while, an enthusiastic masturbator, on the arrangement (with Allah) that if he masturbates, he must fast, as recompense: "this in turn . . . led to the kind of masturbation that even a fifteen-year-old boy living in the Shetlands might find excessive. His only comfort was that he, like Roosevelt, had made a New Deal: he was going to beat but he wasn't going to eat." As in the passage about O'Connell's, the question is one of voice. Again, Smith is not writing from inside Samad's head here; the sophomoric comparison to a boy in the Shetlands is hers. So what is going on? The reference to the New Deal is hopelessly misplaced, and merely demonstrates the temptation that this kind of writing cannot resist, of binging in any kind of allusion. And what of that phrase, "he was going to beat but he wasn't going to eat"? "Beat" is not Samad's word; he would never use it. It is Smith's word, and in using it she not only speaks over her character, she reduces him, obliterates him.
Hopelessly misplaced. That's a fine way to put it. As a writer, I try to take care of those misplaced allusions in the second or third draft of the novel. I do my best to avoid them when writing the first draft, but there is so much tearing up of fresh ground (or breaking of white page after white page) that many obvious problems go unnoticed.

What could Smith have used instead of the New Deal and Roosevelt?  

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