Zadie Smith’s new novel Swing Time (Hamish Hamilton) begins with humiliation. The unnamed narrator is looking back on her career so far, as a personal assistant to an international pop star. Now consigned to a lonely hotel room, she has fallen from this seemingly privileged position, cut off from a world she has known for almost a decade. Her existence was public and acrimonious, with tabloid spreads and a brief encounter with homelessness. Swing Time is partially removed from the locality and ordinariness of her other novels, such as White Teeth, where testimony is given to the lives of rotten teenagers and disillusioned parents. It’s not that these expertly drawn characters and places are missing – the central plot hinges on the relationship between two girls from North-West London – but Swing Time is offset by the hyper-reality of celebrity and PR. It detracts from the locality and ethnographic quality that has largely defined Smith’s previous novels. But she is writing in a different world, one that can’t be sustained by attention to a single area of London. No, this novel requires – and provides – a more cynical tone, fragmented narrative, and unsteady voice.
As a young girl, the narrator dreamed of becoming a dancer. She attended dance classes at the local church, where the talented Tracey – brown like her – commanded every move with poise and elegance, a standard that the narrator was unable to even remotely reach with her flat and arch-less feet. Their tanned likeness unconsciously drew them together, and they became entangled as friends and rivals, brought to the same church every Saturday to dance to ‘white’ music. Their mothers were not of a likeness. Tracey’s mother paraded her daughter around like an accessory in ‘satin yellow bows’, whereas the young narrator was ‘an accessory only in the sense that [her] plainness signified admirable maternal restraint, it being considered bad taste – in the circles to which [her] mother aspired – to dress your daughter like a little whore’. In such passages of simple social observation, Smith identifies class as the fundamental determinant in a person’s freedom. As much as race and ethnicity are integral to her work, the problems her characters are lumbered with are essentially structural and rooted in a system driven by capital. The possibilities presented by human talent and human capabilities are limited by institutions, policy, a warped education system. A system which fails to make a star – or even an accredited professional – out of the supremely gifted. A system which fails Tracey.
The star in this novel is Bendigo-born Aimee (think Madonna or Kylie Minogue). It is pop star Aimee that gives the novel its geographical scope – moving the narrative between London, New York, and West Africa. Aimee, a humanitarian, wants to make her dream of building a school for girls in a rural village a reality. In the name of PR and logistics the narrator is therefore repeatedly packed off to (it seems) Gambia. In keeping the precise country obscure, Smith taps into the conception of Africa as an homogenous cultural (chaotic) bloc, a manner of thinking that our narrator is susceptible to. She befriends Hawa, a young spirited girl from the compound; and falls for Lamin, translator, guide, and love interest of Aimee. Suddenly, the narrator is in a culture imbued with rhythm and dance, a place where the body responds instinctively, without mediation. Here, there is a sense of community, where each person in relation to another, dependent on the other; making the assertion of a pre-figured identity futile, even laughable. This is what attracts her to dance: “But to me 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.” It’s a freedom beyond identity.
The question of identity and Aimee’s fame also aligns the novel with our cultural predilections, one of which is the crazed obsession – fuelled by every media outlet imaginable – with celebrity. The bejeweled figure unflinchingly followed by a mass of mini-celebrities, clutching their portable life sources, at the ready to amass on a chipped nail, or the dodgy stage graphics making universal claims at the concert of a pop star. It’s tempting to place the novel alongside popularised critiques of social media, if only because Smith captures the experience of living in a digitalised world, and finely renders that 90s moment before it all hit. Under her optic, our ‘energized’ social lives are blatantly performative, identities propped up and running on steam that cannot be indefinitely recycled. Soon or later someone’s going to have a meltdown.
Talk of Zadie Smith’s novels has largely focused on personal identity – the expression of it and search for it. This is a reading she eloquently resists in this most recent novel. Swing Time as bearer of the search for identity is more pronounced as Smith uses the first person for the first time. Yet the narrator is shockingly without a recognisable and clear-cut performative identity. She is confused, ambivalent, and unsure of everything she says and does. Initially, her benign identity is oppressed by her mother’s desperate urge to educate herself, in the hope of an identity achieved. Their house is full of books on sociology and political science, mobilising her to champion black women and the working class. Having the uncertain narrator as the novel’s guide warps these ambitions in a comic, and tragic, sense. She is unable to carry these identity-bound causes around with her, and cultivate a closeness with her mother’s history, her history. Everything is distant and out of reach. There’s sense of existential bleakness about this novel. The narrator’s experience in real time – her movements, touch, taste, smell – are not related to the reader with any sense of knowing. Her physical situation and sense of perception is essentially hindered. I felt uneasy following her through the city, her apartment, and through the dust to the compound. These details remain glazed over, missed, forgotten, unattainable – this is a person emptied out and drifting. She is without a concrete identity to cling to, thrown into the world, a person who slips through human discourse. The result is an existential text embedded in modern world of a young woman. It borrows and departs from literature on the lonely artist (mostly a man), uprooted and scavenging for meaning. Arguably, Smith reworks this literary archetype to engage with what it’s like to be our unnamed narrator.
Words by Ryan Suckling
This article first appeared in volume 88 edition 2 STOP