So the end of White Teeth, published in 2000 by a twenty-five-year-old Zadie Smith, ends exactly the way I would’ve ended it. Which is to say I’m left extremely nonplussed about what to do with my novel (unpublished but completed when I was 28), which I made one solid push over the course of about three months a year ago to find an agent for, and I didn’t get one and have since determined the book needs a new beginning and a new end.
Looking at the book for the first time since my last agent rejection, which prompted a furious rewriting of the first chapter and then, nothing else, I noticed the version I had turned into an e-book had an older draft of the first chapter in it, the draft I remember considering at the time to be my first reasonably successful opening. The rewrite, though, was atrocious to behold. Some idiot somewhere once said that the whole novel should exist in essence, in spirit, on that first page, in that first chapter, and that notion has been stuck in my head ever since. Every time I go back to that first chapter, now, I have the eight different characters and all the major plot lines and all the minor ones and every significant theme floating around in my dome like a clogged toilet and insisting they all need to go down the chute at once. Everybody insists they have the right to be here, in at the get-go, if they matter at all.
At the same time I think the beginning takes too long to get moving, to get the characters interacting in their most interesting ways. I’ve always had this problem with this book. I cut one character’s perspective completely out of the first half already, and if I ever work up the nerve I’m going to cut out a few more, because this book was inspired more than anything by As I Lay Dying (which I’m just now realizing is a past tense phrase, this is what happened as I lay there dying, unless he’s saying someone is copulating with Death, which is a bit colloquial in a modern sense, I think, and anyway not well enough supported by the plot in my opinion), which is a pretty short book all things considered and the sections each only serve their own narrator and the narrators only enter into the fray gradually if at all, and the only thing I’ve ever wanted to write is Vardaman’s section, the whole of which says “My mother is a fish.” That’s all, to write one sentence and make it punch the reader right in the goddamn face with every wrecking karat of humanity a punch can contain.
For whatever reason, I cannot keep the toilet from clogging. Even knowing as I know that trains carrying tons and tons of cargo still travel down the track only one car at a time. I tell myself, make it do more work! Multiple plot lines could start here! As if I could save myself fifty pages by an extra fifty well-placed words on page one. But it’s all just stacking cars, and what’s worse, you know exactly how they’re going to fall. Rereading it, all I hear in my head is a bad sitcom father saying, “Uh-oh!” meaning that situation set up perfectly has now come to pass. DJ did put the hair curlers (conspicuously left on the kitchen table) in her sister’s hair the very night her mother needed them most! Just like she wasn’t supposed to! All this contrived fuckery and faux-surprise.
Which is why I’ve been wanting to rewrite the ending, too. Because I do what Zadie Smith does in my ending. Or I try to. Some similar, some grand, and I mean fucking grande coincidence in her case, but an ending that ties up ends you didn’t even realize were loose but unseen they wiggle and dance in the back of the author’s mind and bother bother bother her until she puts them in the damn book someplace.
There was absolutely no reason for this coincidence to occur in White Teeth, because I would be surprised if one out of a thousand readers would remember this character, even if they had read it the ambiguous way she’d set it up earlier, or understood the importance of that ambiguity. And the only two characters whose dramatic situation it affects are by the end almost irrelevant because they’ve been stagnant characters for two hundred fifty pages (and forty years of story time). That their friendship is the basis for the families that are the novel, and that this friendship is based on false pretenses, certainly matters, but after forty years the sheer volume of threads woven between the families cannot be un-wove, so it barely fucking matters at all that this actually happened one way instead of the other. And the last two hundred-plus pages we do care about is treated with barely one page of resolution, which is probably fine because these characters’ stories were probably as predictable after the last scene as she implies on the last page, so we don’t need to hear much about them.
If this one coincidence is not just fuckery and faux-surprise and she can use it and get away with it, well, why can’t I let my ending satisfy my own little brain-tickling loose ends?
The ending and the beginning are both too long, I think. Really what I should be paying attention to is the resolution she gives for all the other characters. Which is to say almost none, because she did the work by this point to let us know what will probably happen when the spotlight is turned off, so why does she have to confirm that? I’ll do what I can to carpet bomb some sections right the hell out of there, but I don’t think I want to rewrite them anymore. In service to the novel, anyway. I’ll rewrite them for character if I need to. But if it must feel like a book to me, and I feel like I must make that final move which ties the first half of the book to the second, well I guess I just have to give myself permission to do that.
And anyway my book is only about a month of story time. So yeah. I’d say the shit is still relevant. But carpet bomb whatever else you can.