(Penguin Press, 2016)
The baggy monster as masterpiece confounded Henry James—he was left cold-cocked by Dostoevsky, doing great work with such “loose baggy monsters”—so why shouldn’t it give me fits? I can’t deny the spell cast by Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s latest. I can’t hold back from declaring it first a career peak, one she’ll be hard-pressed to top, and beyond that a steep challenge for any novelist out there. Smith might well have left a whole host of her contemporaries cold-cocked, and she’s done it with a construction of quite monstrous bagginess.
Swing Time swings back and forth across the past three or four decades, swapping brief chapters of the narrator’s childhood and teen experience with those more, shall we say, adult-contempo. The language of old FM programming rings entirely true, in this case. The novel’s title may derive from an Astaire-Rodgers classic, but its own rhythms are up to date. The plot seems to encompass all the ways in which, over those same few decades, pop music became a global currency; on three different continents, it’s forever checking what’s on the radio, TV, or streaming over the web. Along the way, no matter the tune or technology, Time maintains the sensitivity of a cat’s whisker concerning the playlist’s effect on its narrator—a London-born woman of mixed race who, in yet another miracle, details both her listening and her growth without once mentioning her name.
With a mother born out of a Kingston slum and a father from London’s poor-white East End, perhaps it’s inevitable that, for Smith’s protagonist, dance music tends to bridge both social and racial divides. Her first great description presents Astaire in the eponymous 1936 musical, but Astaire as most audiences never saw him: in blackface, dancing a tribute to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Thereafter, the minstrel-show effect crops up everywhere. In the narrator’s early teens, running with the Goths requires her to whiten her face; when she gets to college and gets “too stoned,” she claims to find something “beautiful” in “the origins of tap-dancing” during the slave trade: “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 […]”
The girl’s effusions, as you might expect, have nasty consequences (she breaks up with a boyfriend), but there’s no denying their intelligence, or their implication of crossing the color line. Everywhere, indeed, she gets off observations far too sharp for Pollyanna, yet so upbeat in sheer oomph as to suggest transcendence. Consider this spontaneous dance break among rural schoolchildren, in a country something like Senegal:
There were two modes. The dominant dance was an ironic imitation of their mothers: bent at the knees, hunched backs, backside out, watching their own feet as they stomped the rhythm into the ground. But every now and then—especially if they spotted me watching them—the moves jumped to other times and places, more familiar to me, through hip-hop and reggae, through Atlanta and Kingston, and I saw jerking, popping, sliding, grinding.
Such passages wind up nudging every least jerk and pop towards broader freedoms—even as their craftsmanship takes us back to Henry James.
This author is “one of those people on whom nothing is lost,” as James recommended in The Art of Fiction. In Swing Time, the Corinthian excess of rhythm and fashion may delight, but it can’t hide the sturdiness of the basic model—the social novel—the foundation beneath all its stages. The story unfolds like a vast trans-millennial map; even the prologue roves strangely, with a narrator of about thirty-five first in hiding, off the grid in London, then inviting up a lover from Africa. After that, each of the novel’s eight sections corresponds roughly to some stage in this woman’s growth. The titles sometimes have special significance, the puberty chapters for instance are grouped as “Middle Passage,” but more distinctive is the pervading narrative syncopation. Smith’s storytelling shuttles between past and present, reliably if not rigidly (when events demand, consecutive chapters are set in the same time period). A typical sequence comes in the first two chapters of “Middle Passage,” which opens with more African dance, a Mandinka “Kankurang,” stopping traffic on a country road sometime about 2005, and then a few pages later flashes back twenty years, to a London middle school in a sketchy neighborhood. In both settings, details keep a reader oriented, but the narrator suffers similar pangs and complications. Even as an adult, upon finding herself out in the bush beyond internet reach, she can feel like the girl she was, in a family of threadbare means, with parents talking past each other. Yet by the beginning of the “Passage” section, this still-young woman’s pendulum has swung to success. People in her home country may consider her “black,” but she’s come to Africa like some white-bread missionary, on a pro-bono project with a pop star.
For the star, Aimee, a decent comparison would be Madonna. She shares the Material Girl’s dedication to dance, so that her workout prompts one of Smith’s outstanding character thumbnails, cold-eyed yet celebrational. Aimee’s exercises appear no less than an “ecstatic revelation of a woman’s will,” the batteries of her Big Self powerful enough to drive the narrator as well—though I ought to clarify, there’s no sex involved. Densely populated as the novel is, it has only two gay characters, both secondary male figures. Another critic might take issue with so hetero a portrayal of life onstage, but myself, I spent far less time thinking about that than about the way Aimee mirrored another crucial girlfriend.
This is Tracey, a schoolmate, her “shade of brown exactly the same.” The girl dominates the childhood episodes, thanks to her talent for dance and a charisma that can shine on through the turbulence of a father in and out of jail. In the tug-of-war between wildly different parents—the narrator’s father is sympathetically drawn, but her mother is a breathtaking invention, no less than Obamaesque—Tracey lends essential aid. By the same token, to be sure, she also threatens to smother, and, altogether, she prepares her less flamboyant friend for the larger-than-life performer who eventually waltzes her into the high life. At the same time, more poignantly, the former schoolmate stands in for all those who never caught such a break. Tracey’s gifts only get her so far: she takes on the unhappy role in the novel’s recurring nightmare, in which two young people start across a bridge over the Thames and only one makes it to the other side. As Swing Time illuminates how this could happen, it calculates economic leverage shrewdly, but also honors the irrational, acknowledging that “all relations […] involve this discreet and mysterious exchange.” As the novel claims this mystery, it expands; Tracey and the narrator join with mother and daughter, and with pop start and assistant as well, together becoming “timeless symbols of girlhood […] of friendship.”
Since White Teeth, her 2000 début, Smith has come across at times like a hip-hop Proust, her observations at once keen and au courant. In her hands, the social novel proves sturdy, yet never stodgy, and her criticism, collected in Changing My Mind (2009), reflects this same open-mindedness and intelligence—not to say brilliance, in a piece like “Two Paths for the Novel.” Still, for some of us her fiction, though excellent, never got much beyond what Hanif Kureishi accomplished back in 1985 with the screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette. That and the subsequent Sammy & Rosie Get Laid (1987) went all gee-whiz over the multicultural urban West, and set the template for Smith’s volatile theory of evolution. Therefore, till now, I’d have picked On Beauty (2005) as her best novel, one in which she went outside her usual crowd, working with American academics, and, in several scenes, with outright farce. But then, she’s always been good for a laugh, and is again in Swing Time; my review provides at best a meager sample of the book’s pleasures. What matters more is the fresh risk those pleasures required, this time out. The changing time signature is something new for this author, and so are the canny, close-up portraits of East African men and women. The latter were anticipated by Fatou, the protagonist of the 2013 story “The Embassy of Cambodia,” but now the fiction’s gone deeper into the layers, the contradictions, of such personalities. If anyone’s delivering reliable intel from the frontiers of the 21st century cosmopolis, it’s Zadie Smith.