A paradox lurks in the heart of the novelist’s vocation. Human beings are what most novels are about, the stuff that fiction is made of. Yet writing books is a solitary activity, one that tends to attract introverts and loners. The work might be brilliant, but it will have a shard of ice in its heart.
Zadie Smith has always been an exception to this rule, from her exhilarating debut, White Teeth, published when she was only 24, to her fifth and latest novel, Swing Time. A brimming love of humanity in all its mad and perplexing forms animates her fiction, along with a lifelong infatuation with the city of London. It’s a love that expresses itself primarily through curiosity and portrayals of the random chemistry of urban life. She adores the clamor, the fantastical, infinite tribal variations on a panoply of classic themes.
Swing Time takes us from 1982 to the present, tracing, like the Smith novel that preceded it, NW, two girlhood friends from a working-class neighborhood and the disparity between the paths they take in life. The similarities between the two novels end there. The formal and stylistic experimentation of NW had a muted, penitential air, as if Smith had become a bit embarrassed by the exuberant, old-fashioned pleasures her earlier novels afforded. It was published four years after she wrote an essay for the New York Review of Books, “Two Paths for the Novel,” in which she advocated austere, cryptic modernism over the “lyrical realism” of a novel like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland—or, for that matter, like her own third and best novel, On Beauty, which was frankly patterned after the work of E.M. Forster. Swing Time can rightly be called a return to the kind of fiction Smith does best and seems to enjoy most, whatever her concerns about its significance.
To take just one small example: a sparkling six or so pages in the middle of Swing Time that could be a movie in themselves, reminiscent of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, say, less caustic but with the same affection for how motley city-dwellers behave in small groups. The novel’s narrator, never named, has discovered that her fancy degree in media studies isn’t going to instantly translate into a career, and she ends up taking the sort of crap job at a pizza parlor she could have gotten just as easily without it. The narrator is the mixed-race daughter of a fiercely self-educated Jamaican mother and an unambitious white dad. Her boss is a “ridiculous Iranian called Bahram, very tall and thin, who considered himself, despite his surroundings, to be a man of quality.” He swans around with a long coat draped over his shoulders “like an Italian baron” and treats the narrator warmly until he realizes that she’s not, in fact, Persian herself. Bahram has very definite, obnoxious ideas about black people, ideas that come up often that summer, as the entire parlor, from the Somali delivery boy to the Congolese cleaning lady, gets caught up in the black American tennis player Bryan Shelton’s 1994 run at Wimbledon. But the narrator, charged with tending Bahram’s lovingly maintained list of banned customers, finds his perpetual “flamboyant, comic” rage “not so much offensive as poignantly self-defeating.” It has, after all, cost him countless customers, employees, and friends, and besides, “it was the only entertainment on offer.”
This isn’t the only time the narrator of Swing Time recognizes that she might or even ought to be taking offense and yet doesn’t. She can’t muster the appropriate tone of pious horror or indignant melodrama in the face of these pint-size villains because she’s constantly distracted by the intricacies and absurdities of human behavior, the way they elude easy summary. Swing Time takes its title from a 1936 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film whose dance scenes the narrator (and, I’m guessing, Smith herself) adores. The narrator loves a number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” that is Astaire’s tribute to black tap dancers; it makes her feel “a wonderful lightness in my body, a ridiculous happiness.” But when she shows a clip of it to an African friend, she’s abashed to notice for (implausibly) the first time that Astaire wears blackface for the performance.
Both the narrator and her BFF Tracey are biracial, and both love dancing, but while the narrator’s gifts are modest, Tracey has the glimmer of an exceptional talent and the prima donna personality to go with it. The narrator knows that if life were fair, Tracey would rise to the top while she herself would be allowed to drift to somewhere in the middle. But the narrator has an intact family, including a mother determined to provide her daughter a way out of the old neighborhood, while Tracey has a vulgar, overly indulgent mom and an absent, criminal father. Tracey herself seethes with both ambition and a slowly curdling resentment as money troubles, babies, and a lack of opportunities for brown girls in West End musical theater slowly strangle her dancing career. Meanwhile, the narrator gets a job at an MTV-like channel at the peak of its flush, pre-internet heyday, and then as the personal assistant to a pop star called Aimee, who bears a strong resemblance to Madonna. The narrator travels the world, flies first-class, and has all of her daily needs lavishly supplied, but her own life becomes subsumed in Aimee’s.
Some of the best chapters in the novel describe this weirdly subsidiary existence, tending to someone who inhabits a customized reality, who is both ridiculous and (unlike Bahram) impressive. “The ebb and flow of her restlessness became the shape of my working day,” the narrator laments. Aimee is prone to spouting oblivious nonsense, comparing, for example, her own nanny-assisted parenting to the struggles of the narrator’s mother, because as Aimee sees it, the differences between people “were never structural or economic but always essentially differences of personality.” Yet the narrator can’t help but marvel at the power of Aimee’s will, which “came to seem to me effectively a form of energy in itself, a force capable of creating a dilation in time, as if she really were moving at the speed of light, away from the rest of us.”
With Bono-ish grandiosity, Aimee turns her attention to a village in Gambia where she decides to bypass the philanthropic establishment to build a girls’ school. The narrator is assigned the task of implementing the project, and the latter half of the novel is given over to her halting attempts to translate the pop star’s fantasy into a functioning institution. At one point, Aimee likens the difference between celebrity life and the Gambian village to the parallel worlds of The Matrix, an observation that at first gets presented as fatuous, but, like a lot of Aimee’s remarks, ultimately turns out to be on point. In the village, New York and London seem like stage shows, but “as soon as we were back inside them they not only seemed real but the only possible reality.” The decisions they make there about the village seem entirely plausible, and only once they are back in the village again does “the potential absurdity of whatever it was become clear.” Yet the two worlds do have one thing in common: What’s a city after all, if not a patchwork of villages? Smith’s Gambian scenes have all the bursting vitality, all the deftly yet deeply sketched characters, of her beloved London.
There’s always a gap, in Swing Time, between the plan and the execution, between the way we think or believe things ought to be and the way they turn out—just as there’s often a gap between theories of what the novel should be accomplishing and the books we actually enjoy reading and writing. Our ideals and our imperatives are forever failing to account for the complexity and unpredictability of the people and experiences we impose them on. Smith isn’t repudiating those ideals, any more than she’s using her narrator to condone Astaire’s blackface. At that same time, the sublimity of that dance number can’t be denied. To live in the syncopation between what ought to be and what is, in swing time, is to know that the latter, for all its unruliness, is always more human and often more interesting. Every once in a while, it can even be more beautiful.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Penguin Press.
Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.