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Humor in Zadie Smith’s Novels Essay

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Updated: May 28th, 2021

Introduction

Zadie Smith’s novels describing the challenges of the contemporary multicultural and especially interracial dialogue are a rather refreshing change in the contemporary literature landscape (Nkwetisama and Fai 12). By incorporating elements of humor into her work, she manages to create stories that appeal to readers on an emotional level, thus, helping them build an immediate connection with lead characters. The resulting engagement with the lives of her characters makes readers experience the trials and tribulations that Zadie Smiths’ characters have. The emotional journey on which Smith’s novels take readers to challenge the contemporary cultural issues by reducing the gap between representatives of different cultures and making the opportunity for understanding and, therefore, a peaceful dialogue, a possibility.

Zadie Smith is a renowned British writer. She is known mainly for her novels, such as White Teeth, and her articles that scrutinize the nature of the social psyche, such as Generation Why. However, Smith’s novels also dive deep into the waters of social and intercultural relationships, which are becoming increasingly common in the modern diverse society. Therefore, Smith’s stories can be viewed as an attempt to study the associated issues through the prism of comedy, thus, developing an impartial attitude to them and locating the ways of resolving the specified concerns. The focus on comedy, which can be viewed as one of the essential characteristics of her writing, can be considered a coping mechanism that allows her to explore the depth of sociocultural issues.

Humor in Writing Style

The style in which Zadie Smith writes serves as a shorthand to introduce the reader to a situation that can be regarded as ethically or socially problematic and approached from the perspective of Zadie Smith’s sense of humor. When considering the characteristics that make Zadie Smith stand out as a writer, one must mention the inimitable writing style that sets her aside from the rest of contemporary novelists. A combination of realistic setting and characters and a humorous approach toward describing the situations in which her characters were defined by James Wood as “hysterical realism” (Zalewski). Remarkably, the specified epithet was not given to her body of work as an exclusive endeavor at pointing out its strengths; quite the contrary, Wood targeted the weaknesses of Smith’s creations. According to critics,

After Wood skewered Zadie Smith’s first novel, ”White Teeth,” as a prime example of hysterical realism, she publicly admitted that Wood had introduced a ”painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own.” (Zalewski)

Nevertheless, it was the overly exaggerated style, which made the comic elements of described situations completely out of proportion, that warranted Zadie Smith’s fame and recognition. Her readers related to the comedic scenarios described in White Teeth, as well as in Generation Why, thus, developing appreciation to the author for her ability to address complex social issues from a humorous perspective.

Because of the nonlinear nature of Smith’s narration, the structure of her stories is extremely complex. Following her characters and, thus, making them even more realistic, Smith does not try to force a traditional story structure into her novels; instead, she builds an experience in which she invites the readers to participate. The specified approach would have made the novel of any other writer very convoluted and practically unreadable, yet Zadie Smith knows that the plot of her novels is not what has to be in focus – or, at the very least, not all the time. The convoluted elements of the plot also serve their purpose since they provide the framing for the humorous outlook on a particular situation that would have been regarded as socially dubious or even conflicting. The combination of humorous elements and deep introspect into nature social conflicts can also be seen in her latest book, “Changing My Mind.” For instance, the importance of a deep insight into the nature of interracial relationships in the novel outweighs the necessity to introduce a clear plot:

I once overheard a young white man at a book festival say to his friend, “Have you read the new Kureishi? Same old thing—loads of Indian people.” To which you want to reply, “Have you read the new Franzen? Same old thing—loads of white people.” (Smith “Changing My Mind” 13)

The quote above shows that, in Smith’s writing, characters and plot are often discarded as the elements that the reader can construct on their own, whereas social concerns must be represented fully. Indeed, instead of hinting at some of the current racial biases, Smith points them out directly, yet she does so nonchalantly and humorously that has become the most easily recognizable characteristic of her writing. Smith’s ability to represent some of the most burning issues in a humorous light, at the same time refraining from diminishing them is truly worth appreciation.

Humor and Characters

Characters are the driving force behind the stories that Smith creates since these are the characters that are allowed to explore the convoluted nature of contemporary racial and social issues. Smith’s characters are the source of humor and, therefore, the key tool for the writer to provide a critical look at some of the modern social issues, at the same time retaining the humorous attitude which defines her writing: “She liked to yell ‘Culllaaaah Struck!’ when she entered a fancy party—almost everybody was. But Hurston herself was not” (Smith “Changing My Mind” 8-9). Thus, people in Smith’s books are the highlight of her story and the means of rendering the concept of hysterical realism, i.e., the idea of addressing complex social issues through humor and comedy.

One might argue that Zadie Smith’s characters are far too cartoonish to represent actual people with real problems. Indeed, in several cases, the people that inhabit the universe created by Smith can be seen as exaggerated versions of real-life people. The specified approach may be seen as far too distracting for some people to become invested in the lives of these characters, their dilemmas, and the trials and tribulations through which they are going. However, when reading Smith’s works, one must keep in mind that her writing contains a significant element of humor. Therefore, cartoonishly exaggerated character traits are not only inevitable; they are necessary to help readers explore their development and interactions without any complications. If the people described by Smith were portrayed as actual people, being just as vulnerable and tangible, the challenges that they were facing would make Smith’s stories far too dark. The element of humor is crucial to retain the lightheartedness of the narration and engage the reader without having to use the power of a shock value.

Therefore, the presence of cartoonishly exaggerated features and characteristics of the people that Zadie Smith describes in her works is essential to the effect that she intends her message to produce. By creating the people that are slightly less believable than the ones after which they were modeled, Smith enhances the believability of her imaginary universe, thus, making the message behind her novels extraordinarily powerful.

Humor and Scenarios

Even though the characters created by Zadie Smith are extraordinarily memorable and extremely relatable, the setting and plots of her novels also contribute to creating a sense of a unique experience that helps one gain a deeper insight into the nature of interpersonal and intercultural relationships. For instance, the fact that Smith’s stories are rarely bound by the rules of a three-act structure deserves to be mentioned. What seemed to be an indisputable law of storytelling has been turned into a rule that has worn out its welcome. Indeed, a closer look at White Teeth will reveal that even some of the traditionally structured novels written by Smith include rather frivolous and very inspiring experiments with the basic structure of narration. For instance, Zadie Smith’s stories can be characterized as a chain of events rather than the traditional combination of a setup, a rising action, and a resolution (Tew 38). For example, in White Teeth, the main plot of the story, while being represented, is rather difficult to place within the borders of a three-act structure. Instead, it can be regarded as a chain of events that represents a slice of life: Archie meets Clara, then he reunited with his childhood friend Samad, he meets the Chalfens, etc. (Smith “White Teeth” 26).

By using the specified technique, Smith manages to create the universe in which character development through interactions becomes the focus of the story. The situations in which people in Smith’s novels find themselves serve as the foil for their further evolution. As a result, the emphasis shifts from the story to the interactions between the characters, the social environment in which they live. The specified strategy helps reveal some of the most complex contemporary social issues, including the ones that are related to cross-cultural communication, at the same time retaining the humorous elements that make Smith’s writing so powerful and inspiring. However, Smith does not restrict herself to exploring solely racial issues; instead, she focuses on all aspects of multiculturalism, addressing the age gap, differences in social worldviews, etc.

For instance, in Generation Why, Smith points to the fact that an entire wall has been built between two generations that are seemingly close to each other in terms of their respective eras: “He doesn’t understand what’s happening as she tries to break up with him. (“Wait, wait, this is real?”)” (Smith “Generation Why”). Smith refers to the generations that she has discovered within the layer of a culture that was seemingly homogenous as 1.0 and 2.0. The not-so-subtle way of marking the effects that information technologies have made on the specified demographics, Smith’s approach toward defining the specified demographics, however, does not leave a sense of bitterness in her readers (Hadjetian 49). Instead, the ease with which she addresses some of the most controversial issues of the contemporary global environment, such as overdependence on technology and especially social media makes readers relate to the characters that she portrays and, therefore, explore the challenges of modern communication through the lens of these characters’ perspective.

Humor and Philosophy

On the one hand, the perspective from which Zadie Smith sees writing, in general, and creating a novel, in particular, is nothing new in the artistic world. According to Smith, writing is an experience that ultimately brings her some form of relief (Smith “generation Why”). The identified philosophy might seem as fairly basic, yet it gains unexpectedly much sense when viewed from a social perspective. Seeing that Zadie Smith addresses an array of socio-cultural issues in her novels, exploring her work through a social lens is essential to developing a better understanding of the rift between cultures (Chiu 14).

On the other hand, the specified approach creates an array of new possibilities. Although the smart and witty way in which Zadie Smith writes her novels also lends a way to a profound analysis of her writing and characters, the emotional aspect of her novels is also very relatable. As a result, her readers can connect to the characters immediately, whether because of the lighthearted fun that these characters share with readers or a caustic and profound remark about the contemporary society that certain scenes and dialogues imply (Tran 14).

The idea of using writing as a form of relief, which Zadie Smith also views as part and parcel of her philosophy, speaks of the necessity to explore complex sociocultural conflicts in the global society through literature. Indeed, in Generation Why, Smith insists that the contemporary sociocultural environment can be characterized by a range of cultural and subcultural levels: “Generation Facebook’s obsession with this type of ‘celebrity lifestyle’” (Smith “Generation Why”). Thus, the author points to the need for addressing cross-cultural conflicts that may occur in the process.

Apart from focusing on the confrontation between the needs of an individual and the standards that the society has built for its members, Zadie Smith also views the importance of the specified dichotomy as an integral part of an individual’s life. Thus, the combination of humorous situations and complex societal issues becomes especially poignant in Smith’s writing. “On Beauty” is, perhaps, the most graphic representation of the specified phenomenon. In the book, Smith states that “The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free” (Smith “On Beauty” 441). The quote creates a combination of wistful and humorous moods, thus, making readers contemplate the problems of interpersonal relationships.

The specified characteristic of Smith’s philosophy is what makes it remarkably subtle and poignant. Instead of switching to one of the extremes and heralding the importance of either an introversive or extroversive perspective, she makes it clear that both are intrinsically essential to one’s existence In White Teeth, she makes the following remark: “Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories” (Smith “White Teeth” 299). Although the specified remark is mentioned without particular emphasis being placed on it, it plays a crucial role in the novel since it stresses the importance of acknowledging one’s feelings to oneself and then discussing them with someone else. As a result, Smith creates a delicate balance between the internal and the social self of her characters, which appeals to the audience on a subconscious level.

Thus, it could be argued that Smith’s writing can be condensed to the search of the point in life where harmony between all of its elements can become a possibility. Smith wisely points out that the identified goal must not be viewed as a thing in itself, and that the search for the ultimate point at which people can reconcile and live in harmony can hardly be deemed as a possibility. Nevertheless, her writing stresses the importance of search or the specified utopia as the means of becoming complete and, therefore, reconciling with not only the people around but also with oneself. The identified motif can be tracked down in both “White Teeth” and “Generation Why,” the latter being, perhaps, somewhat more explicit in its message concerning the necessity to balance between the external and internal environment. A closer look at both works will reveal that, in “Generation Why,” the conflict comes primarily from the within (Shaw 190).

However, the problem of identity loss, which can be seen in “generation WHY,” is also fueled by the increasingly large drift between two generations of people that were supposed to represent a complete whole, yet were separated at some point. Nonetheless, a closer look at how the story in “White Teeth” is paced will reveal that the delicate balance between communication with society and the dialogue with one’s self is also viewed as essential (Brunn 21). Particularly, Smith renders the specified idea with the following line: “Not everybody deserves love all the time” (Smith 382). The specified statement is profound on several levels, including the societal (i.e., interactions with others) and personal (i.e., the search for and the ultimate reconciliation with ones’ self). Therefore, Smith points out the importance of both external and internal conflicts as the state of the unceasing search for one’s own identity and the means of relating to others. As a result, Smith’s writing leaves a bittersweet feeling of the lack of and the future hope for self-fulfillment from both personal and societal points of view.

Conclusion

Zadie Smith’s characters leap off the pages of her books, encouraging readers to connect with them emotionally and, thus, helping readers use humor as the means of confronting complex social and racial issues. Although it would be wrong to claim that Zadie Smith’s novels eliminate any differences between members of African American cultures and representatives of other ethnicities, her stories contribute to bridging the gap between different cultures. By portraying her characters in very relatable situations and placing them in familiar settings, she manages to help readers establish a connection to them, at the same time retaining the cultural and ethnic integrity of her characters. Zadie Smith depicts people in her novels from a humanistic perspective, thus, convincing audiences that they do not have to fully merge with them to sympathize with them and understand their motivations.

As a result, the scenarios in which the characters interact, as well as the humor that surrounds these interactions, become the highlight of Smith’s novels. Thus, the genre of hysterical realism truly shines through in Smith’s books. Therefore, when reviewing Smith’s style, one must mention her ability to incorporate the elements of realism into her novels, at the same time retaining the air of emotional tension that fuels the conflict in her stories. Since Smith refuses to use the traditional three-act structure in most of her works, these are the interactions between lead characters that are placed at the forefront of her stories. Thus, the reader is provided with an opportunity to explore complex societal, sociocultural, and ethical issues that can be located in the contemporary global environment. Offering their readers to embark on the adventure that will get them prepared for the challenges of the real world, Smith’s stories help their readers grow emotionally and socially.

Works Cited

Brunn, Stefanie. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth – Irie as an Example for 2nd Generation Immigrants’ Desperate Search for Their Place in a Multicultural Society. GRIN Verlag, 2013.

Chiu, Monika. Scrutinized!: Surveillance in Asian North American Literature. University of Hawaii Press, 2014.

Hadjetian, Sylvia. Multiculturalism and Magic Realism in Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth: Between Fiction and Reality. Anchor Academic Publishing, 2014.

Nkwetisama, Carlous Muluh, and Gilbert Tarka Fai. Decompartmentalisation of Knowledge: Interdisciplinary Essays on Language and Literature. Editions L’Harmattan, 2016.

Shaw, Kristian. Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction. Springer, 2017.

Smith, Zadie. Changing My Mind. Penguin, 2009.

NYbooks.com. 2010, Web.

On Beauty. Penguin, 2006.

White Teeth. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2003.

Tew, Philip. Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond. Bloomsbury, 2013.

Tran, Thu. Language and Gender in Society. A Literature Review. GRIN Verlag, 2017.

Zalewski, Daniel. The New York Times Magazine. 2002. Web.

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