This article will feature in Issue 35: Fractured Nations (March 2020)
Zadie Smith has said that the writer’s job is not ‘to tell us how somebody felt about something, it’s to tell us how the world works.’ Her 2000 novel White Teeth takes three cultures and three families and shows us how they experience the world over three generations. Cultures, characters, and plot converge in 1990s London, and among the novel’s main takeaways is its discussion of the British government’s promotion of multiculturalism over the decade. David Simon takes a similar approach in his 2002-2008 television series The Wire, which he describes as ‘a vehicle for making statements about the American city and even the American experiment.’ Simon situates a wide-ranging cast of characters in 2000s Baltimore, and uses their diverse experiences to discuss, among other things, the federal government’s ‘War on Drugs’ and ‘No Child Left Behind’ policies. Two decades after their initial release, what do these texts tell us about how their worlds worked?
Key to the historical significance of both texts is the use of structure: the extraordinary pains which Smith and Simon take to construct (or, reconstruct) a comprehensive view of the world. White Teeth is divided and shaped by its characters, with each being given a section dedicated to their story, including their ancestry, childhood, and relationships. Millat Iqbal, for example, is many things – born in Britain to Bangladeshi parents, yes, but more importantly (to him, anyway), a young man, a mate, and a wannabe gangster. Having carefully detailed a character’s uniqueness, Smith jarringly emphasises the wider world’s inability to comprehend their complexity. Millat may be ‘a hybrid thing,’ but to police officers and schoolteachers he is simply ‘trouble.’ Spaces, too, are complicated by a history which is habitually overlooked; by invoking the histories of London’s high streets, hair salons, and schools, Smith states the enduring influence of Britain’s colonial past.
Similarly, each season of The Wire introduces a new player in the ‘game.’ Much like the characters and spaces inhabited in White Teeth, Simon demonstrates that every street corner, police department, port, school, and newsroom is a game board in its own right. Each site has its own history and its corresponding pawns, castles, and kings, whose gameplay is often at odds with their place in the world at large. Kings in the police department are mere pawns in city government, and celebrated journalists find themselves lost on the streets. Stringer Bell, a drug kingpin (or queen, ‘the go-get-shit-done piece’) who struggles to become a businessman, makes this sentiment explicit (and expletive): ‘There’s games beyond the fucking game.’ Simon suggests that these intricacies, overly concealed, enable the continuity of systemic injustice: the series finale’s montage shows several characters stepping into the shoes of those from similar socio-economic backgrounds who have died, retired, or been promoted.
State multiculturalism and the government-sponsored war on drugs were typically posited as solutions to the fractured state of Britain in the 1990s and the United States in the 2000s. Mindi McMann describes multiculturalism as part of a “rebranding” exercise intended to assuage fears surrounding the end of ‘traditional notions of Britishness,’ while David Bewley-Taylor notes that successive White House administrations used the media to generate a drug scare in order to legitimise military-style crackdown on ‘weak, immoral, or foolish’ addicts, dealers, and suppliers. At best, Smith and Simon render these policies, and other government initiatives, symptomatic of divided societies; at worst, multiculturalism and drug war appear as direct causes of social fragmentation. For Smith, the institutions of 1990s London are blinded by a preoccupation with difference which renders state multiculturalism not only ineffective, but inconsequential. For Simon, to deal with deviance (whether substance abuse, drug trafficking, or low test scores) after the fact, let alone via military-style crackdown, constitutes nothing other than ‘war on the underclass.’ To be sure, many academics in more recent years have reflected on the shortcomings of multiculturalism and drug war (while others continue to extol their benefits). However these cultural artifacts – a prize winning novel and critically acclaimed, long running television series – are evidence against what Paul Gilroy calls ‘systematic exclusion’ in contemporary cultural output. The subversive politics which imbues the social commentary of White Teeth and The Wire, and the positive initial reception of both texts, marks them as important primary historical sources – not just windows onto their respective worlds, rather functional pieces on the chessboard in their own right.Yet neither White Teeth nor The Wire (nor, indeed, any text) is purely descriptive. The attention to detail and the resulting lack of moral judgement which characterise these texts are strengths. Smith is simultaneously despairing and enamoured of such varied characters as Glenard Oak’s headmaster, a ‘bleeding-heart liberal,’ Hortense Bowden (‘Some people […] have done such a hol’ heap of sinning, it latefor dem to making eyes at Jehova.’), and the Chalfen family, who coin ‘Chalfenism’ after themselves. Likewise, The Wire, though variously hailed as Aristotelean, Shakespearean, and Dickensian, eschews archetypal binaries (good/bad, hero/villain, protagonist/antagonist) and story arcs (revenge, redemption, romance) for realism and investigation. Nevertheless, while the texts’ descriptive façades are uncommonly convincing, they remain just that: façades. Might there be some risks, too, associated with writers promising to tell us how the world works? James Wood, for whom Smith’s realism is ‘hysterical,’ at odds with her optimism and so befuddled by ‘a wanting it both ways,’ and Slavoj Žižek, who worries that Simon’s commitment to realism means that The Wire is not utopian enough, certainly seem to think so. I would argue that Smith and Simon do have it both ways – there is optimism and cynicism to be found in both White Teeth andThe Wire – but they cannot have it all ways. For writers, as for historians, the devil is in the details, or, in having to choose which details to include: What? Where? Who? For every inclusion, an exclusion.