Monday, May. 08, 2006

Zadie Smith

Cultures don't clash in Zadie Smith's books. They arm wrestle, get in one another's faces and climb into one another's beds. Smith's precocious debut novel, White Teeth, published in 2000, just three years after she graduated from Cambridge, centers on two World War II buddies — a white working-class Brit married to a Jamaican Jehovah's Witness and a Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh who imports what he thinks will be a traditional wife from the old country. But it's also the story of their children, who grow up, as Smith did, in a post-postcolonial London where the old gentlemen's agreements about class and race are being shredded. The book earned lavish critical praise, was turned into a TV mini-series and established a model for how to make sense — and art — out of the complexity, diversity and pluck that have defined the beginning of this century.

Smith, 30, likes to work big. Her narratives sprawl with Dickensian swagger. Her cultural references leap the high-low divide from John Milton to Eminem. Plus she's funny. Refugees from the era of political correctness and others who are easily offended probably should stay clear. Last year Smith published On Beauty, a novel set in the hothouse of American academia and scheduled to be made into a movie produced by Scott Rudin, who has adapted such provocative works as The Hours and Closer for the screen. Like White Teeth and her second novel, The Autograph Man it is simultaneously intellectual and visceral, a panoramic view of the way we live now.