by Zadie Smith
In White Teeth, Ryan Topps goes from Clara's not-so-attractive boyfriend to her mother's live-in helper. Huh? Allow us to explain.
We first meet Ryan as the young man that young Clara is in love with. At that time, Ryan rides a Vespa, smokes marijuana, and hangs out at a commune. He's not exactly the kind of guy who seems to be going anywhere fast. But then he starts hanging around Clara's house when she isn't there. Why does this matter?
Well, as Ryan and Hortense spend more and more time together, Hortense is able to persuade Ryan to become a Jehovah's Witness. So he serves as a kind of literary counterpoint to Clara—Hortense's daughter who is not going to be converted.
Many years later, when Clara's daughter, Irie, runs away from home to stay with Hortense, Irie finds Ryan Topps living with her grandmother. He acts as a kind of companion, both religious and domestic, for Hortense.
You probably didn't see Ryan's conversion—and reemergence in the novel—coming. We sure didn't. It's pretty hard to predict what people are going to do, and it can be even harder to figure out exactly why they do it. See, Ryan and Clara both want to be saved. But Ryan's purpose in the novel seems to be to show that "being saved" can mean different things to different people.
Neena is Alsana's niece, also known as Niece-of-Shame. Which is not a very nice nickname, in our opinion. But it stems from Alsana's and others' disapproval of her sexual preference—she's gay—and comparatively liberal opinions. We can always count on her to be strong and straightforward; not many characters in this novel tell it like they see it, but she does.
Importantly, Neena and Alsana have the same background and they are almost exactly the same age. But they live completely different lives. And their personalities are very different too.
So, as Neena herself says, this character is around to remind us that where you come from doesn't necessarily determine who you'll be. Plus, she's pretty hilarious.
Mangal Pande is Samad's great-grandfather, and he's a thorn in pretty much everyone's side. The characters of White Teeth sure do spend a lot of time fighting about this dude.
Samad, in particular, has a lot invested in him being the hero of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. But most historical evidence suggests that he wasn't much of a hero. According to most accounts, on March 29, 1857, Mangal Pande was drunk on bhang when he tried to incite a rebellion over the fact that the English had started coating bullets in pig fat and cow fat (repulsive to Hindus and Muslims).
In his sloshed state, Mangal decided to take a shot at his lieutenant and missed. He then tried to stab him in the back, which is considered very cowardly. Hence the expression to stab someone in the back.
Finally, Mangal tried to shoot himself. But he missed then too. Later, he was put on trial for murder, found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged.
Samad refuses to believe this account of the story, though, and insists history doesn't always get things right. In fact, he clings to the belief that Mangal is a hero; Samad's version of Mangal's story is sometimes all he has.
Recorded history doesn't always get things right, of course. Samad's right on that account. But it's not why he cares about Mangal.
Samad fights for a flattering version of the Mangal Pande story because he needs it—he needs some connection to fame and glory. So Mangal's character pushes us to question what stories we tell ourselves about the world, and the role these stories play in our lives.
The KEVIN Brothers
KEVIN is a really bad acronym, because it sounds like the cute guy in your English class or some bad garage band. But it really stands for Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation—it's a radical Islamic organization.
These brothers take their beliefs very seriously. Hifan, for one, is always trying to keep Millat in line with leaflets and stern looks. Plus, KEVIN plans to stand up in the middle of Marcus Chalfen's talk at the Perret Institute and interrupt him to recite passages from the Qur'an as a form of protest. They believe Marcus is playing God by messing with mice's DNA.
We think KEVIN is important because its group members' beliefs and actions push the limits of what's rational or justifiable. KEVIN focuses our attention to how identity and ideology can drive people a little batty. So they bring us to question if and when we might be taking things a little too far in our own lives.
Joely, Crispin, and the Members of FATE
FATE tries to control the fate of animals (wait, is it still fate if you try to control it?). Joely and Crispin are the husband-and-wife founders of FATE, which stands for Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation.
The group is radical, just like KEVIN. Its members often end up in dangerous situations and in jail. And FATE shows up to protest at the Perret Institute when Marcus Chalfen is introducing FutureMouse, just like KEVIN. This group, too, pushes us to question what means really justify which ends.
Pay no attention to the man behind the… bar. Mickey is the owner and operator of O'Connell's, and a kind of friend to Archie and Samad since they spend so much time there. He even agrees to hang Samad's portrait of Mangal Pande in O'Connell's despite the fact that he finds Mangal to be extremely ugly.
Mickey is sometimes a referee and sometimes a friend. But mostly, Mickey is important because he is the most consistent man ever. Nothing ever changes at O'Connell's, and that's because of Mickey. Samad and Archie would be lost without this constant.
Poppy causes a whole lot of trouble. But, then, it's not really her fault. Poppy is Magid and Millat's music teacher and the woman Samad has an affair with. For no reason Samad can figure out, she seems to actually like him and is not at all pleased when he puts a stop to the affair.
One thing to remember about Poppy is that she's English. This is a big deal for Samad in the course of their affair. He seems to be continuously amazed that he's with a young woman and that she's English…
That is, until he freaks out about it. Then he tries to stop his sons from becoming as English as he has, which leads to all kinds of wacky consequences. And Poppy's the gal who sets it all in motion.
Horst is a pretty mysterious guy with some strange powers. He is an old acquaintance of Archie's from a bike race; they tied that race, way back in the day.
Horst sends Archie letters that always seem strangely, and maybe spookily, timely. It's like Horst knows what's happening before it happens, and he seems to know what should be done next. Or at least Archie thinks so.
Archie often reads these letters as signs as to what he should do. And we all know that Archie loves a sign, or really anything that makes it so he doesn't have to make a decision. Horst is one of those great decision-makers, or hands of fate, in Archie's world.