by Zadie Smith
Penguin Press, 2016, 464 pp.
Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s fifth novel, opens on the type of ecstatic insight that more often ends a work of fiction. Viewing a Fred Astaire routine in which the central figure’s projected silhouettes, triple and towering, dance at his back, the novel’s unnamed narrator grasps “that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own.” Like the umbral tap troupe onscreen, she muses, “I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”
As in the Astaire clip, Swing Time’s supporting player dwarfs its main act. Abandoning the arch omniscience of her previous novels in favor of a first-person voice allows Smith to inhabit a character her earlier narrators might have regarded from an amused distance. Smith casts her protagonist in a succession of sidekick roles, relationships in which she acquiesces to the outsized personalities of four formidable women: the radical chic of her mother, an autodidact intellectual; the scene-stealing charisma of Tracey, her girlhood friend; the pop-diva superstardom of Aimee, her employer; and the irreverent effervescence of Hawa, a West-African woman with whom she bonds over their mutual childlessness. Yet the novel’s first-person narration centers the periphery, drawing its retiring heroine out of the wings she prefers and into the spotlight of a narrative “I.”
Of these pairings, Smith foregrounds her narrator’s relationship with Tracey; their meeting, in a neighborhood dance class, sparks an inventory of comparison. Both girls are biracial, “as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both,” but there their resemblance, and that of their families, ends. Tracey has been raised by her overindulgent white mother in an atmosphere of sugar-cereal capitalism; she mythologizes her intermittently absent black father—in reality a rakish ex-con from whom she has inherited her charisma and physical grace—as one of Michael Jackson’s backup dancers. Smith’s protagonist, for her part, lives with both parents, absorbing the high-minded minimalism of her politically ambitious mother, a Jamaican-born black feminist, as well as the nurturing attention of her more domestically-inclined white father. Her friendship with Tracey unfolds against the backdrop of a shared passion for dance, which finds expression in VHS screenings of vintage “Fred and Ginger” films—one of which shares the novel’s name—and at the Saturday morning classes where Tracey excels.
Swing Time savors the full palate of women’s intimacy: not solely sweet but briny, bitter, tart by turns. Friendship, whether the wartime camaraderie of Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal in White Teeth or the girlhood bond of Natalie Blake and Leah Hanwell in NW, has often occupied the ground ceded by other interpersonal associations in Smith’s fiction. Her latest novel, however, explores friendship’s outer bounds: its protagonist speaks of Tracey in infatuation’s idiom, “besotted” with her almost at once, and eagerly recounts each “cooling-off,” slight, and hiatus their relationship endures. After adolescence they lose track of one another, Tracey pursuing a stage career while the narrator enters Aimee’s employ. Despite their estrangement, Smith’s protagonist continues to keep tabs on Tracey, identifying her online contributions to comment threads and message boards years after they have lost touch. Describing Tracey to a date nonplusses the man, who remarks that “in guy world we’d call that an ‘ex-friend,’ or better still: ‘a stranger.’”
The narrator’s recherche of her attachment to Tracey prompts the novel’s temporal play. As if tracing the contours of an accordion fold, Swing Time zigzags between their 1980s childhood and the present day, in which its narrator heads the cortege of personal assistants who attend to Aimee, an agelessly au courant and parthenogenically global pop star. Smith’s narrator frames these elements of nonlinear storytelling—the novel’s cutting-room splicing of narrative time, the pause-play caesurae that suspend its account of her sporadic intimacy with Tracey—as both product and prerogative of the technological moment they share. “We were the first generation,” she reflects, “to have, in our own homes, the means to re- and forward-wind reality: even very small children could press their fingers against those clunky buttons and see what-has-been become what-is or what-will-be.”
The narrator’s power to “swing time” in storytelling offers subtle tribute to—and vies, even more subtly, with—Tracey’s own. “Other girls had rhythm in their limbs, some had it in their hips or their little backsides,” Smith’s protagonist observes, “but she had rhythm in individual ligaments, probably in individual cells.” Tracey’s uncanny ability to “align . . . with any time signature, no matter how intricate,” endows her with artistic agency and with another, still rarer, gift. Time is her element, as water is a swimmer’s; she moves at will through the current in which other mortals flail. “She knew the right time to do everything,” her friend, awed and wistful, recalls.
Dominion over time isn’t the dancer’s sole purview, however. During her rare stints onstage, the narrator herself relishes—even as she shies from—her own Nina Simone-esque ability, in singing, to parse or prolong the seconds themselves: “I could turn time into musical phrases, into beats and notes, slowing it down and speeding it up, controlling the time of my life.” She concedes supremacy to Tracey as if by default, unable to embrace her own musical gift.
For Smith’s protagonist, this mastery over the moment frees a dancer from her era. “A great dancer,” she believes, “has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any age may recognize him. Picasso would be incomprehensible to Rembrandt, but Nijinsky would understand Michael Jackson.” An anecdote about Fred Astaire “coming as a kind of disciple” to Jackson, pleading with the younger dancer “to teach him the moonwalk,” captivates her. She conceives of dance as a democratic, ahistorical art, in which, as in fashion, innovation often consists of reviving and recombining forgotten styles on the body’s canvas. Watching Tracey soft-shoe in a stage production of Showboat, “I was stuck in London, in the year 2005, but Tracey was in Chicago in 1893, and Dahomey a hundred years before that, and anywhere and any time that people have moved their feet like that.” Tracey’s performances provide her friend a route toward, or portal into, “kinetic joy,” the pursuit of which draws Smith’s protagonist onward as professional ambition or personal desire otherwise might.
Swing Time accentuates a joyward turn in Smith’s recent work. Her essays have defined joy in sublime terms, as “the recognition of an almost intolerable beauty” and “that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight” discontinuous from—yet essential to—everyday existence. Her version of this state calls old-school ekstasis by a marginally more secular name, yet retains “the feeling—once one is ‘in’ joy—that the experiencing subject has somehow ‘entered’ the emotion, and disappeared.” One has pleasure, as Smith puts it, but is, however fleetingly, joy.
Yet her pursuit of “kinetic joy,” especially her affection for vintage song-and-dance acts, acquaints Smith’s protagonist with racist tropes and performance practices: music-hall minstrels, blackface routines by Astaire and Eddie Cantor, “tragic mulatto” melodrama plots, depictions of Africans as primitive and plantations as genteel. Like Smith’s essays, collected in the aptly titled volume Changing My Mind and appearing regularly in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere, Swing Time dramatizes its protagonist’s process of testing her longstanding aesthetic allegiances against evolving ideological commitments.
Swing Time surrounds its protagonist with characters of varying political views—on race, feminism, and class—which she weighs and works through at quiet, contemplative length. Her parents’ marriage fractures along an ideological fault line as central to their divorce as the less-than-equitable distribution of domestic chores in their flat: “the importance of labor,” she says of her father, “was a view he held as strongly as my mother held her belief that the definitions that really mattered were culture and color.” Her college boyfriend, Rakim, dwells on the debt certain canonical works of European art owe to the unsung women of color who inspired them. “Why did he think it so important for me to know that Beethoven dedicated a sonata to a mulatto violinist, or that Shakespeare’s dark lady really was dark,” she wonders, “as if without the scaffolding of the European fact everything African might turn to dust in my hands.” Even Aimee’s apparently apolitical perception of “the differences between people” as “never structural or economic but always essentially differences of personality” stems from her privilege as a white woman of means.
A preternaturally savvy taxonomist, Tracey excels at dividing their shared world into dichotomies. She effortlessly sorts a socioeconomically diverse schoolroom into “Cabbage Patch Kids” and “Garbage Pail Kids,” upending liberal pieties in her conviction that “there could be no real friendship between Cabbage Patch and Garbage Pail, not right now, not in England.” While Tracey dismisses the classical repertoire that accompanies their dance classes as “white music,” Smith’s narrator demurs: “I knew there was something not quite right about her rigid notions—black music, white music—that there must be a world somewhere in which the two combined.”
The narrator’s mother cautions her that, whatever Tracey’s charms, “she’s been raised in a certain way, and the present is all she has,” while “you’ve been raised in another way,” to “know where you came from and where you’re going.” Swing Time employs the sankofa bird, an emblem of the African diaspora, as shorthand for this matrilineal consciousness of history: as the bird turns its head to gaze backward, so the narrator receives from her mother a powerful awareness of her African heritage that, though she resists it at times, profoundly informs her own sensibility. Her mother’s attempts to tie film and dance to watershed historical developments or high-culture literary movements, however, leave Smith’s protagonist cold. “My mother’s political and literary ideas,” she reflects, “did not interest me as much as arms and legs, as rhythm and song.”
Her ambivalent response to these firmer convictions, and her doggedness in discerning her own, qualifies the novel’s protagonist for its central role. Smith prefaces Changing My Mind with the statement that “ideological inconsistency is, for me, practically an article of faith,” a tenet Swing Time’s protagonist also espouses. Over the novel’s length, we watch as she sharpens her several spections: retro-, intro-, and circum-. She traces a slalom course between poles of opinion, resisting the stronger positions of those closest to her and wending her way toward her own with a nuance she and Smith share. This isn’t to conflate Smith’s own life experiences—or aesthetic preferences—with those of her heroine, or to efface the formal distinction between essayistic persona and fictional narrator, but to observe a more complex affinity between this novel and Smith’s criticism than the first-person voice they share. Like Smith’s essays, Swing Time takes as its central form of maturation the development of a critical consciousness, and its narrator’s exploration of her racial identity unfolds in conversation with these persuasive interlocutors and with her personal canon of dance, film, and popular music.
As a child, Smith’s protagonist prides herself on colorblind preferences in dance, revering Astaire above all and—though she admires many black performers, among them Michael Jackson, the Nicholas Brothers, and Jeni LeGon—rejecting the notion that she should feel special allegiance to them. “To me,” she later reflects, “a dancer was a man from nowhere, without parents or siblings, without a nation or a people, without obligations of any kind, and this was exactly the quality I loved.” Indeed, the refinement of silver-screen dance routines at first affords her an aesthetic refuge from the awareness of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and ongoing forms of structural oppression her mother seeks to instill. In a dream, she sings for an audience of Harlem Renaissance luminaries, accessing a world where “we were all elegant and none of us knew pain, we had never graced the sad pages of the history books my mother bought for me, never been called ugly or stupid, never entered theatres by the back door, drunk from separate water fountains or taken our seats at the back of any bus. None of our people ever swung by their necks from a tree, or found themselves suddenly thrown overboard, shackled, in dark water.”
In adolescence, Smith’s protagonist goes in search of “a different kind of history from my mother’s, the kind that is barely written down,” but rather embodied in dancers and “passed down over centuries, through generations,” leaving little textual residue of the type her mother thrives on. Her apolitical, formal appreciation of technical skill gives way to a historicist point of view; she delights in tracing the genealogies of distinctive dance moves, identifying, in a Michael Jackson split Tracey adapts, Jackson’s reworking of a much older Nicholas Brothers routine. Nor does she flinch from slavery’s role in the creation of her cherished steps: “what I found beautiful about the origins of tap dancing,” she comes to understand, was “the Irish crew and the African slaves, beating out time with their feet on the wooden decks of those ships, exchanging steps, creating a hybrid form.”
Travel to West Africa, where she assists with the opening of a girls’ school on behalf of Aimee’s charitable fund, tests “even the simplest ideas I’d brought with me” about her own racial identity—and about dance. Primed by her mother’s sankofa-bird consciousness to feel kinship and sisterhood “with my extended tribe, with my fellow black women,” she finds that “here there was no such category. There were only the Sere women, the Wolof, and the Mandinka, the Serahuli, the Fula and the Jola.” At a monument marking an embarkation point of slave ships bound for Jamaica, she encounters the site “not as an exceptional place but as an example of a general rule. Power had preyed on weakness here: all kinds of power—local, racial, tribal, royal, national, global, economic—on all kinds of weakness, stopping at nothing, not even the smallest girl child. But power does that everywhere,” she rues. Yet she also encounters, during her African sojourn, a sui generis dance form that defies her hard-won historical timeline and genealogies of dance technique. Watching the kankurang, a Mandinka coming-of-age ritual, she finally spies “the joy I’ve been looking for all my life.”
Over the course of the novel, Smith’s narrator comes to acknowledge that her historical perspective and her mother’s are not, ultimately, separable, but entwined. Reading about Jeni LeGon, Tracey’s doppelganger and a childhood idol of both girls, she registers “how fundamentally naïve I had been about almost every aspect of her life,” relinquishing “a whole narrative of friendship and respect between LeGon and the people she worked with.” LeGon, confined by her race to roles as a servant or stereotypical “tragic mulatto,” spent her working life not within the narrator’s egalitarian pantheon of great performers but in an intractably hierarchical Hollywood where discriminatory hiring practices and industry-wide racism were—and, in many respects, continue to be—the norm. “Astaire never spoke to LeGon on set,” she realizes, “in his mind she not only played a maid, she was in actuality little different from the help.” Only in later life, in Paris, did the dancer begin to “feel like a person,” rendering the LeGon of Hollywood films, in retrospect, “not really a person at all,” but “a shadow.” Her insight into LeGon’s life at once recalls and foresees—given the novel’s circular form—her own dawning awareness that she has, like “a kind of shadow,” lived in “the light of other people.”
As the novel’s opening pages delivered a finale’s climactic resolution, so its ending opens out into auspicious yet unspecified prospects. Acknowledging the “shadow life”—or lives—she has led paves the protagonist’s way for a future of her own devising, a middle course “between my mother’s idea of salvation and nothing at all.” Her scenes of singing linger, raising but never resolving the possibility that the narrator’s fascination with the stage personae of Tracey and Aimee has concealed a prehistory of her own musical career, tracing her path from spectator to performer, out of time and toward—into—joy.
L. Gibson (he/they) is a poet and critic whose publications include Misherit and Freedom Reread.