I recently rediscovered a quote from English writer Zadie Smith’s debut novel White Teeth, whose tone is kindred to the Singer’s reflections on love and what “good” people deserve.
Smith’s sprawling multicultural novel follows two families — British Archie and his Jamaican-born wife Clara, their daughter Irie, and the Bengali Iqbals, Samad, Alsana, and English-Indian twins Millat and Magid — from the end of World War II through the 1970s when Archie meets the much-younger Clara to the present where the second generation struggles to make sense of their inheritance. Smith smashes real historical events into multiple points of view, time periods, and throws in bits of social theory and intertextuality, all to illustrate the absurdity of a world driven by chance but inhabited by people who believe that they can control what happens in their lives.
In the novel, Irie loses her virginity to Millat, with whom she is in love, but is rebuffed by him. In anger, Irie sets out to sleep with his twin, and Smith describes the scene:
“It’s a funny thing about the modern world. You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, ‘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.”
Horrible things happen every day — Zadie Smith might as well be echoing the singer’s friend Beth, whose words of comfort when the singer loses her father say that no one deserves immunity from anything. Life just happens.
Smith’s description of the value attached to love also seems to capture the journey of the singer as an agent in her own happiness; the singer tells us that after dating a series of alcoholics who insisted that they weren’t her boyfriend, she met Henry, whose defining quality is that he is nice to her. The singer reveals anxiety about whether or not she “deserves” a guy so great — she notes that her family is almost offensively impressed at her catch and structurally, her “perfect” relationship with Henry leads us to the story of overhearing her mother imply she loves the singer’s more popular and successful sister better. The song paired with the story contains an image of a sleeping Henry not supporting his girlfriend, though she insists that “still hav[ing] you” makes up in part for the hurt her mother inflicted. Our music director Steve made the brilliant catch that in “I Still Have You,” the singer uses an image of sitting up in bed in a panic, which later happens to her dying father. Later, the singer also uses imagery of a hospital to describe her break up with Henry — she got clingy, and Henry had to “pull the plug.”
In these instances, We’re Gonna Die places our ability to inspire love and be lovable as an indication of the good things we deserve, a public marker than we are good people who don’t deserve a lonely, premature, scary death like the singer’s father experienced. The end of the piece undercuts that, however. We may find love, or we may not. We will die anyway. Zadie Smith, too, refuses to give us a tidy ending. White Teeth ends by describing several endgames, some happy, some clinical, some ambiguous. None necessarily true.
She concludes in words that echo the singer’s description of comfort: “But surely to tell these tall tales and others like them would be to speed the myth, the wicked lie, that thepast is always tense and the future, perfect … it’s not like that. It’s never been like that.”