Sunday Morning! “Swing Time” by Zadie Smith
How does fiction work? How does it convince us that we’re reading about real people and trick us into caring about what happens to these people? How does it seduce us into reading long into the night to find out how things turn out for these fictional people? And is it harder when their lives are nothing like ours? Or does this give us a world in which to escape our more humdrum and dissatisfying lives?
I can say I was fully enthralled by Zadie Smith’s most recent novel Swing Time, staying up late to read the “last” 300 pages of it in one night, in spite of the fact that it’s not really about the sort of things that generally interest me: pop stars, poverty tourism, dance, and female friendships. I was unfamiliar with Ms. Smith’s work, aside from one story in the New Yorker, but found it easy to slide into this story about the ways that people better themselves in the world, or fail to, which is a classic theme after all.
The story centers on a nameless narrator from the housing estates of London, or more specifically she fades into the background as it focuses on the three strong women that she seeks to please: her mother, who studies voraciously and moves from local activism to governmental politics; her best friend from childhood, Tracey, a remarkably talented dancer who can’t quite escape the fate of her class; and Aimee (love that name!) an Australian pop star with hopes of schooling a village in a West African nation with a tyrant at the top.
Along the way, the narrator climbs out from the shadow of her judgmental, deeply troubled friend and under the shadow of the pompous pop star to whom she serves as a personal assistant. Her work has brought her out of social housing and around the world, but she has no identity of her own- probably why she’s never named in the story, I believe. As the book begins, however, we are informed that the narrator has done something to break all ties with her employer, attracted all sorts of scorn and opprobrium from the Internet masses, and received a nasty email from her former friend “Now everyone knows who you really are?” But, does our narrator know who she really is? After reading the book, I had the distinct feeling that her story begins after this one ends.
Just on a surface level, the book works because the plot is interesting, the prose is fluid and easy-to-read (admittedly, I could have used more descriptions, even if that would have meant more of those dreaded adjectives), and the central mystery draws us in. We’d like to know what the narrator could have done to bring such shame upon herself and what went wrong in her childhood friendship, and the book eventually explains all. At its root, it’s a story about a character’s relationship with her best friend and, secondarily, her relationships with her mentors. These are easily understandable human concerns. I’m also aware that it’s about a female friendship. As a male reader, I often times thought that I would have told the judgmental, ill-tempered Tracey to go dance straight to hell, but our narrator can’t fully rid herself of this friend who is, in so many ways, the flip side of herself.
On a slightly deeper level, it’s about the ways that we grow out of the soil into which we were planted. The narrator escapes the housing estate, while Tracey’s flight is more like Icarus’s, but it’s not clear who’s wound up better. Neither one seems especially happy. There’s an irony too that our narrator rejects her mother’s demands that she study hard for an entrance exam because she wants to be her own person; and then goes on to be a personal assistant for an egocentric pop singer (the weakest-drawn character in the book, in my opinion). The issue of class hovers in the background, aside from one passage in which a villager tells the narrator that social roles are understood in Africa, but without the bewildering scorn for poor people we have in the west.
At the top, you have the issue of how wealthy westerners interact with the “undeveloped” world. I think the pop singer’s intentions are a little transparently vacuous- the character is a bit of a stereotype of the work-hard-and-stay-positive-and-it-will-all-work-out mentality too- but she is trying to fulfill some social role to better the lot for girls. We quickly understand that she has no real sense of Africa, but I don’t know that the reader comes out with one either.
So, on one hand, this is an “issue” novel, touching on: race, class, cultural appropriation, post-colonialism, and the legacies of all these issues. Yet, I didn’t find it didactic or like doing homework. I think this is because Smith doesn’t offer easy answers of clear-cut villains. Tracey turns out bitter and paranoid (and the conspiracy-mindedness of the lower classes definitely rings true) and she’s probably the closest thing to an antagonist, but she’s not exactly wrong. The mother does get out of the council estate and into parliament, but at the expense, one thinks, of her relationship with her husband and daughter. Finally, there’s a village girl, Hawa, one of the most interesting minor characters, who marries a religious fanatic and seemingly loses her personality, but by so doing gets to see much more of the world than she would have otherwise. In other words, the issues are complicated and the characters are complicated and really they’re just doing the best they can to make sense of it all, like the rest of us.
In the end, I found the book compelling because at the core of it is an apt depiction of something most of us have experienced at some point- a friendship ended that neither party can quite get over, because no one was completely blameless or totally at fault.
So what are YOU reading, watching, pondering, or playing this weekend?