Zadie Smith’s Swing Time

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of seeing Zadie Smith in person, reading from and discussing her latest novel, Swing Time, before a live audience in Montreal’s Rialto theatre. She was articulate and funny, passionate and spontaneous, but both her interlocutor – a young, Brooklyn-based writer – and her audience seemed to determined to engage only with the image of Smith they had in their minds, and not what she actually said. Her most conventional remarks drew the loudest applause, while her more original, more subversive insights were overlooked or downplayed. She spoke, for example, about the “absurdities of identity politics,” and her disdain, as an artist, for the term “cultural appropriation” (which she expounded upon, at greater length, in her Harper’s essay “Getting In and Out”), and the passages she read from in Swing Time presented us with a strong, independent black woman seeking to elevate herself through education – to the detriment of her daughter, the nameless narrator, whom she neglects. Smith almost certainly took the real-life relationship between black author and political activist Alice Walker and her daughter, Rebecca Walker, as inspiration, for Rebecca wrote a very public and very scathing indictment of her mother (“How My Mother’s Fanatical Views Tore Us Apart“) and her preference for activism over motherhood that reproduces some of the dynamics described in Swing Time.

The novel begins in its present day, when our unnamed narrator has been exiled to her native London from New York in a state of “humiliation,” though what she’s done to cause her shame we do not know. She confines herself to her hotel, ignoring the many phone calls disturbing her silence, until she discovers the 1936 Fred Astaire musical Swing Time playing on television, which prompts both a key meditative insight into her character and a hint at the novel’s structure:

I’d lost my job, a certain version of my life, my privacy, yet all these things felt small and petty next to this joyful sense I had watching the dance, and following its precise rhythms in my own body. I felt I was losing track of my physical location, rising above my body, viewing my life from a very distant point, hovering over it. It reminded me of the way people describe hallucinogenic drug experiences. I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance – the opposite. A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.

We, too, will experience Smith’s first-person narrator as a shadow, for her name – in a book replete with characters meaningfully named – is withheld from us; we will likewise experience her life all at once, shifting backwards and forwards in time, giving new meaning to the novel’s title, for “swing” functions both as adjective and verb. Shortly after this passage, time swings us back to the narrator’s girlhood, when she meets Tracey, the only other non-white girl in their dance class, and we are treated to some of Smith’s best writing:

There were many other girls present but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and the differences, as girls will. Our shade of brown was exactly the same – as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both – and our freckles gathered in the same areas, we were of the same height. But my face was ponderous and melancholy, with a long, serious nose, and my eyes turned down, as did my mouth. Tracey’s face was perky and round, she looked like a darker Shirley Temple, except her nose was as problematic as mine, I could see that much at once, a ridiculous nose – it went straight up in the air like a little piglet. Cute, but also obscene: her nostrils were on permanent display. On noses you could call it a draw. On hair she won comprehensively. She had spiral curls, they reached to her backside and were gathered into two long plaits, glossy with some kind of oil, tied at their ends with satin yellow bows.

Readers of Smith will recognize familiar tropes: mixed-race characters, for one, and the questions of identity this heritage raises, as well as character pairings. Our protagonist is “ponderous and melancholy,” whereas Tracey is perky and upbeat. Both are products of interracial relationships, but Tracey’s father is black and largely absent from the home, whereas our narrator’s father is white and a loving, if somewhat ineffectual, parent. In dance class, Tracey excels, her natural talents and rhythm lending her a grace the narrator can only dream of, but the two seem fated to part ways: Tracey, for a career in dance, an early pregnancy, and a life on government assistance; the narrator for university – the first in her family to attend – and the kind of independence her mother wished for herself.

The novel then takes a significant leap in time, into our narrator’s late 20s, when she lands a job as a personal assistant to Aimee, a bonafide rockstar of global renown, whose reputation is eclipsed only by her ego (phonetically, Aimee becomes “aim: me”). Like any good celebrity, Aimee needs a cause to champion, something to ennoble her in the public eye, and she ends up settling on the creation of a state-of-the-art school for young girls in a poor African village. Most of the funds donated to this cause end up in the sinkhole of government corruption that has swallowed so much international aid to Africa over the past half-century, but those that do make it to their intended destination do not necessarily improve the lives of their intended beneficiaries. What good are laptops to students without electricity? Or a school curriculum in English, when the majority of the students are not literate in English? Aimee has an air of unreality about her, in the way all celebrities do, that makes her an excellent stand-in for every kind of unthinking political stance or personal narcissism – at one point, in a conversation about single mothers, she opines that motherhood had never held her back, as if her army of personal assistants and nannies were available to single mothers everywhere – but a terrible character, too thin to warrant more than our enmity.

To return to the Smith talk I witnessed earlier: one thing she said, in particular, seemed to speak to so much of her fiction. She claimed the right, as a writer and as a person, to be contradictory, to change her mind. Swing Time dramatizes this changing of opinions in almost every character. The narrator’s mother, for example, is a strong, independent woman, and this is to be praised – but as a mother, she’s unsympathetic at best, neglectful at worst. And she offers a vision of black identity that the narrator ultimately finds absurd. Here, for example, is the narrator meditating on a prior conversation she’s had with her mother and her activist boyfriend, a “Noted Activist”:

Our people, our people. I thought of how readily we’d all used the phrase, a few weeks earlier, on that beautiful June night at the Noted Activist’s, sitting drinking rum, admiring families of fat ducks, their heads turned inwards, their bills nestled into the feathers of their own bodies, roosting along the bank of the pond. Our people! Our people! And now, lying in the funk of my father’s bed, turning the phrase over in my mind – for lack of anything better to do – it reminded me of the overlapping quack and babble of those birds, repeating over and over the same curious message, delivered from their own bills into their own feathers: “I am a duck!” “I am a duck!”

We hear that phrase “our people” increasingly often, these days, from identitarians of the left and the right, but in either guise it means the same thing: death to the individual. Smith recognizes it for what it is, an inward-looking, narcissistic creed, an animal’s bleating, instinctual cry. Another character, her college boyfriend, Rakim, offers her an education – “dropping science,” he calls it – in black nationalism and numerology (that occult creed that reads extraordinary significance into ordinary numbers); he has anchored his entire identity on the colour of his skin, and taken a combative stance against a world he views as oppressive to him. He makes his final appearance at the narrator’s college graduation, hiding, childlike, behind his white mother.

If there is an ideal in Smith’s mind, some harmonizing identity that can encompass the many contradictions of the human spirit, it’s embodied by dance. “I always wanted life – movement,” she tells us at one point, and only dance has the kinetic energy to incorporate the old and the new, the black and the white. Dance can look to the past – insists on it, in fact – but likewise does not allow itself to get stuck in the past; it is endlessly inventive, as spontaneous as the human heart. And this, Smith’s latest and most ambitious novel, is an ode to contradiction.