by Zadie Smith
Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Irony and Cynicism With a Side of Idiosyncrasy
You totally want to be friends with the narrator of this novel, right? The narrator is witty and often cynical, but can also be really funny (that's the idiosyncratic part). We're thinking a Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer type. But maybe that's just us. Let's look at a couple passages.
Once the car started to fill with gas, he has experienced the obligatory flashback of his life to date. It turned out to be a short unedifying viewing experience, low on entertainment value, the metaphysical equivalent of the Queen's Speech. A dull childhood, a bad marriage, a dead-end job—that classic triumvirate—they all flicked by quickly, silently, with little dialogue, feeling pretty much the same as they did the first time round. He was no great believer in destiny, Archie, but on reflection it did seem that a special effort of predestination had ensured his life had been picked out for him like a company Christmas present—early, and the same as everyone else's. (1.64)
This passage comes from the beginning of the novel when Archie is attempting suicide. The way that both Archie's impending death and the life he's trying to leave are presented gives you some insight into the cynical element of the narrator's tone. The suicide attempt seems almost boring, as does the "obligatory flashback."
The whole scene has an "oh, okay, fine, I'll tell this scene" sort of feeling to it. Not only is Archie's life boring and completely unremarkable, it is just like everyone else's. And, here's the kicker: the only thing that seems special to Archie about his life at all is that someone seems to have made a special effort to make sure his life was just as boring and predictable as a company Christmas present.
Don't worry Shmoopsters, there are some hilarious parts, too. This just isn't one of them. This next passage might not be hilarious, but we're getting warmer:
But Samad wasn't listening, he was already reciting in his head, repeating two English phrases that he tried hard to believe in, words he hoped could protect him from the abominable heat in his trousers
"To the pure all things are pure. To the pure all things are pure. To the pure all things are pure."
"Can't say fairer than that. Can't say fairer than that. Can't say fairer than that."
But let's rewind a little. (6)
There is some serious irony happening here. Samad is the character most obsessed with the past and with tradition; he is driven to borderline criminal acts (ahem, kidnapping) by his desire to preserve and pass on his Bangladeshi traditions.
But here he is reciting English phrases in the hope that they will save him from the religious and cultural fallout of having an affair with Poppy Burt-Jones. These phrases and their logic are, of course, not nearly strong enough to help him. But, as readers, we see this coming all along.
That last line there, "But let's rewind a little," is a good example of the idiosyncratic elements of the novel. Lines like that pop up here and there in the middle of, say, a Samad freak-out. They help remind us of the mixed-up nature of this novel.
The story is modern, but rooted in tradition. The characters are English, but they don't exactly fit into English society. We bet you can think of a whole bunch more ways this novel is mixed-up.