In Zadie Smith’s new novel ‘Swing Time’, identity is always under construction
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Names matter to Zadie Smith. She changed her own from Sadie when she was 14. Yet the narrator of Swing Time (Hamish Hamilton; $32.99) negotiates all 453 pages of the novel without disclosing her name. The other characters are carefully, wittily named, none more so than Aimee, the Australian-born superstar, whose lineage is Kylie and Madonna with a nod to Angelina. One name alone is sufficient for this global life, but if you want evidence of global, consider Zadie from north-west London sitting in New York writing about a bogan from Bendigo.
Zadie from London is as erudite about patois as she is about pop culture. She uses “bogan” so casually that you know she assumes that you, global you, will get it.
Zadie Smith is 41, the age her revered Kafka was when he died. Her acclaimed debut novel, White Teeth, is now 17 years old. In between there have been three other novels, The Autograph Man, On Beauty and NW, and a book of essays, Changing My Mind. These lively essays are particularly relevant because they provide intimate liaison with her fiction, able to be read as footnotes in the way David Foster Wallace recommended. The essays are also endearing because they take you through much of what is happening inside Zadie Smith’s head.
Being Zadie Smith is an ongoing project, as she notes in the foreword to Changing My Mind: “I’m forced to recognize that ideological inconsistency is, for me, practically an article of faith … I don’t think I’m going to grow out of it.” Smith’s project in her creative life is to construct meaning from experience. Or, as Wallace, the writer for whom she has the most tender feelings, expressed it, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”
Changing My Mind was dedicated to the memory of Smith’s father, whose life gave the rough arc for her character Archie Jones in White Teeth. Swing Time is dedicated to her mother. Smith has never hidden that she uses autobiographical material in her books, and Swing Time is questioning and eloquent about mothers and daughters, constantly shifting sides but fundamentally tolerant. Questioning, eloquence, tolerance are Smith’s modus operandi. Swing Time is quite like sitting in bed looking at a giant splashy wallpaper. Creativity like this is Dickensian rather than streamlined.
In 1982 two little girls, accompanied by their mothers, meet at the Saturday dance class run by Miss Isabel in a Victorian sandstone church opposite high-rise estates in north-west London. One is the narrator, the other is the name-perfect Tracey. On that morning each girl silently claims the other because they are exactly the same shade of brown. Their racial heritage is a neat reversal: the narrator has a black mother and white father; Tracey has a white mother and black father. Crucially, the narrator responds to what Tracey calls “black” music. Tracey can respond to the “white” music they dance to in ballet class. But the mothers set the tone. The narrator’s mother is aspirational with “a terrific instinct for middle-class mores”. Not only does she adopt a posh phone voice but she is pared back in every way: simple clothes, makeup-free face, driven and impatient with her daughter. Tracey’s mother is the opposite, “white, obese, afflicted with acne”. Her thin blonde hair is dragged back tightly into what the narrator’s mother calls a “Kilburn facelift”. If the mother is unprepossessing, the daughter isn’t. Tracey is her defeated mother’s constant and glamorous avatar.
Dancing is more than just dancing to both girls, and they become not friends but companions in something deeper, more treacherous than friendship. Their relationship is not about love or even loyalty, because they are excluded from the leisured graces of middle-class life. As specks of brown in the white swirl of life their impulse is to get on. So, unlike their kind and innocent white friend, Lily Bingham, who knows who she is and feels secure, the two brown girls invent themselves – mainly by watching Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Michael Jackson and copying the routines.
Astaire and Rogers’ 1936 film Swing Time is legendary. In the most sensational number – there are several – they perform an intricate, cutting-edge dance, a waltz in swing time. Rogers is dazzling in white, Astaire just as dazzling in black. They are unworldly and exist as a couple only in the dance. “To me,” says the narrator, “a dancer was a man from nowhere, without parents or siblings, without a nation or people, without obligations of any kind, and this was exactly the quality I loved.” A black line reconfiguring gravity, Astaire is pure dance.
On Saturday afternoons in Tracey’s estate flat the girls obsess over their routines. But the narrator, despite her ardent affair with it, has no gift for dance. What she does have is a voice that causes people to stop what they are doing and listen when she sings along with Mr Booth, the piano player at the dance class. “This was not a technical gift … It had to do with emotion.” She imagines herself as one of those girls in films she’s seen, leaning on the piano and singing the old soulful and melodic songs. Tracey, with her extraordinary rhythm and perfect technique, has a gift for dance, as her mother’s kitchen corkboard, heaving with gold medals, testifies. But she has no emotion.
And in her contained, furious way, Tracey understands that her friend has a charisma that comes from emotion fused with technique. Art. No amount of human drill will deliver Tracey this essential thing.
The narrator chooses not to use her voice, and in doing so dismisses her truest aspect, her creativity. If there is something in her nature that is too watchful she is also too eager to please, too desperate to be liked. And she never understands friendship. She goes to university and in her early 20s falls into a job as personal assistant to Aimee, becoming the superstar’s curator in every large and small way. For the decade she works for Aimee, living in hotels all over the world, in and out of planes, she is a shadow in her own life. She belongs to Aimee, along with the various other personal assistants who keep Aimee’s two-dimensional life in the air. The narrator is flattered, lulled, spun into believing that she is not only an indispensible help to Aimee but also her friend. Aimee has bursts of genuine intimacy but she doesn’t have friends; she has acolytes and handmaidens. The opening line in the prologue – “It was the first day of my humiliation” – indicates that something catastrophic happens between superstar and handmaiden. The novel is the backstory of the narrator’s life so far.
It all starts falling apart when Aimee, who has a generous heart, impulsively decides to change the lives of girls in an unnamed African country (shades of Angelina and Madonna). Then her eye falls upon a beautiful, earnest young man working as a teacher and translator. Then she decides to adopt a baby. And then … And so on. Aimee’s life is a progression of the work involved in the performance of being Aimee onstage and off, because her one true lover can only be the adulation of her audience. The projection becomes the reality. Artists need to be exceptional, and Aimee, no longer the bogan from Bendigo, becomes her own myth.
And the mirror to that myth is Tracey, the chav from the housing estates, just as talented, just as obsessive, just as hardworking. What makes only one a superstar?
But Aimee and her life in not-real-life is just a blot on the landscape as the narrator comes to terms with her own life. As is her time in Africa: an unreal world for those, like her, who fly in and out at will. For those who live there it is a very different reality, but it is their own. The narrator, a woman of hotels and planes, is uncertain if she has any reality at all. Like the dancer of genius, she comes from nowhere and exists in a linear movement only when the music starts. Whoever she is, she’s moved way beyond her mother’s aspirations, and there is no one she loves or who loves her who might ground her. Except, of course, that oldest witness to her life, Tracey. A witness, though, might be shaped by the clarity of hate quite as much as the blindness of love.
Being inside Zadie Smith’s head is interesting, alarming, funny and often satisfying. She has an old-fashioned, grand quality of humanity and humility. Her imagination has been formed by something particularly English: Shakespeare, Dickens, Forster. These writers understood the tragic contradictory mess of life but contained it by their moral vision.
The narrator ends up in the house of two men she scarcely knows but knows she loves. And they seem, astonishingly, to love her uncritically. In cadences reminiscent of George Eliot she describes James and Darryl and her own sense of being with them: “Each time I visited I was moved: how happy they were together, after so many years! I didn’t have many other models of that idea. Two people creating the time of their own lives, protected somehow by love, not ignorant of history but not deformed by it, either.”
As a footnote to this fictional nonfiction, it turns out that James is James Fenton the poet and Darryl is Darryl Pinckney the writer. A perfect biracial relationship, real people with real names. For authorial comment, go no further.