Grand Entrance

When Zadie Smith published her first book in Britain earlier this year, the press and literati agreed: the novel and the novelist were "drop-dead cool." Her sweeping, multiracial satire, "White Teeth," became a best seller, and everybody cooed about her leather jacket, her glasses, her shoes, her deep, jazzy speaking voice. As The Daily Telegraph put it, "We all want to be Zadie Smith these days." Smith, 24, grew up in London; her father was a Brit who worked in direct mail, her mother a Jamaican model. She flirted with a career as a singer but abandoned the idea. "I didn't want to be a singing novelist," she's said. "That's just one down from a singing nun."

Smith may not sing, but her prose certainly does. "Teeth" is an epic, omnivorous comedy about London. It's about clashing cultures and generations, about people with too much history in their blood or none at all. The dim Archie Jones and the fervent Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal are old war buddies. Archie folds leaflets. (He used to be a cyclist: "Archie hadn't always folded paper.") Samad is a waiter who glows with regrets.

One day Samad learns that one of his sons has changed his name: "I give you a glorious name like Magid Mahfooz Murshed Mubtasim Iqbal! and you want to be called Mark Smith!" Without telling his hilariously severe wife, Samad sends Magid to Bangladesh to rediscover his roots. Years later, Magid returns. He's more English than ever and at odds with his twin, Millat, a pothead in the radical group Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation, or KEVIN. ("We are aware that we have an acronym problem.")

"White Teeth" has far too many characters, and its plot is tortured. But Smith has an astonishing intellect. She writes sharp dialogue for every age and race--and she's funny as hell. Smith reviewed her own novel for a literary magazine, and mocked her own giddy precociousness: " 'White Teeth' is the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing ten-year-old." True. But it is a dance everybody ought to see.