White Teeth by Zadie Smith (Random House, 462 pp., $25.95) A genre is hardening. It is becoming easy to describe the contemporary idea of the "big, ambitious novel." Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: he is Dickens. Such recent novels as The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Mason & Dixon, Underworld, Infinite Jest, and now White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges.
Marjorie Garber, Kenan Professor of English at Harvard, was lost in arcana. Squinting analytically, and fiercely puzzled, she began to split hairs. “May I add a transgressive note?” she asked the lecturer. “As somebody who has appeared on them, there does seem to me a difference between talk shows such as ‘Donahue’ and ‘Oprah’ and, say, shows like ‘Jenny Jones.’ It may only be the difference between modes of Protestant confession and Catholic confession, of course....” The two-day conference on “Dirt,” organized by Garber’s two Harvard departments, English Literature and the Center for Literar