If novels are to help us understand 21st century threats like terrorism, late 20th century masculinist realism will need to give way to hysterical realism
It’s easy to forget that White Teeth is about terrorism, even though Millat Iqubal’s botched jihadist plot ends the book. The novel has so much else going on in its raucous, multiethnic London. Zadie Smith, who took her critical lumps for the best seller, has long since moved on. But in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, Smith’s take on Millat — the second son of Bangladeshi immigrants, a beautiful teenage stoner, and a half-hearted fundamentalist — looks startling prescient, and not just because Jahar Tsarnaev too was a stoner, a heartbreaker, a Muslim, and a second son. The teenage girls who tweeted #FreeJahar could be the real-life incarnations of Smith’s fictional high schoolers, who “wanted to improve” Millat “until he justified the amount they wanted him.” Likewise, the maternal sympathy for Jahar that Slate columnist Hanna Rosin noticed in her “mom friends” — “reasonable, intelligent types” including “at least one expert on Middle Eastern extremist groups” who nonetheless sighed over goofy photos of “that poor kid” — sounds uncannily like that of Smith’s well-meaning, liberal über-mother Joyce Chalfen. “We’re so close to a breakthrough,” a pained and in-denial Joyce insists late in the novel, when Millat blows off the psychiatrist appointment she’s arranged so he can attend a meeting of the fundamentalist group that has radicalized him.