The Mother of Woman
By Zadie Smith
Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s fifth novel, shares its title with a 1936 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film. The novel’s unnamed narrator rediscovers the movie, her childhood favorite, in the depths of the profound professional and personal humiliation with which the book begins. Alone in a dark art house theater she watches:
On the huge screen before me Fred Astaire danced with three silhouetted figures. They can’t keep up with him, they begin to lose their rhythm. Finally, they throw in the towel, making that very American “oh phooey” gesture with their three left hands, walking off stage. Astaire danced on alone. I understood all three of the shadows were also Fred Astaire. Had I known that, as a child? . . . I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance—the opposite. A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.
Swing Time chases its narrator through her first 30-something years of life as a sidekick. Lacking a strong identity, she’s drawn to those who are forcefully themselves: a severe autodidact mother with political dreams; a domineering college boyfriend who literally believes himself an African king; an international pop star named Aimee (standing in for Angelina Jolie or Madonna) with a multinational brood; a charismatic African villager. Mainly, it tracks the narrator’s relationship with a childhood best friend from the neighborhood.
The neighborhood is Northwest London in 1982, a “social experiment” of a housing development with “Pakistani Muslims in the house next door, Indian Hindus downstairs, and Latvian Jews across the street.” In the classroom, “[t]he dinner lady’s daughter shared a desk with the son of an art critic, a boy whose father was presently in prison shared a desk with the son of a policeman.”
The best friend is Tracey. The two meet in a church-basement dance class taught by a Miss Isabel. They’re instantly attracted, “two iron filings drawn to a magnet.” Each has a black parent and a white parent, and they immediately take note of physical similarities: “Our shade of brown was exactly the same—as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both—and our freckles gathered in the same areas.”
Their differences are revealed more slowly to them, and are rooted in their parents’ contentment with the neighborhood and social caste. The narrator’s mother is “a feminist. . . She dressed for a future not yet with us but which she expected to arrive. . . One day we would ‘get out of here.’” The family believes cultural complexity to be a virtue, to the extent that the narrator thinks, “I sometimes felt the whole purpose of my childhood was to demonstrate to the less enlightened that I was not confused. ‘Life is confusing!’—my mother’s imperious rebuff.” Tracey’s family is less ambitious and more satisfied. Like the narrator, Tracey’s family does not receive government benefits. But while this is a point of pride for the narrator’s mother, Tracey’s mother had “tried many times—and failed—to ‘get on the disability.’” They aren’t going anywhere.
They grow up. Tracey’s life is at once simpler (in contrast to the narrator, who has her inevitable frozen-pizza supper only after her mother has burned an involved and aspirational recipe, Tracey’s mother sets out to make frozen pizza) and more devastatingly complex (Tracey has an imprisoned father with a second family in an adjacent neighborhood). They often play with dolls. The narrator prefers to organize her Barbie’s clothes and belongings, while Tracey upbraids her own avatars with home-learned phrases (“You slag—she ain’t even my kid! Is it my fault she pisses ‘erself? Go on your turn!”) Still, the two remain close through a shared love of dance, and through their shared status as variables in the neighborhood’s social experiment.
The girls succeed in their childhood paths, Tracey wildly so. The narrator does well in her studies, halfheartedly joins and quits the Goth scene, experiments a bit sexually, and goes off to a university on a lake. She eventually falls into a job as a personal assistant to the massively famous Aimee and begins a jet-setting life of subservience. Raised to embrace the contradictions between cultures, she moves to pile on experiences. Tracey excels in dance and attends a series of art schools, eventually landing a role on the West End. But she never moves out of her mum’s flat, and thrills most in her neighborhood status. For all her successes, she’s most triumphant as she returns to Miss Isabel’s dance class and is fawned over by the young students.
The book’s device is to repeat this pattern—lost, servile narrator attaches herself to a comfortable-in-own-skin native—in a series of increasingly fraught relationships and locations. With all her ideals of multiculturalism and travel, she fails to establish an identity and remains a tentative child, her light hidden. And so a shadow of a girl in a ballet class becomes a shadow of a boyfriend at uni becomes a shadow of a celebrity on a Learjet. She spends nine years with Aimee, and gives up her own needs entirely. Most dramatically, we spend the back half of the book in a nameless African country (it appears to be the Gambia), where the narrator is on an advance team tasked with opening a girls’ school through her boss’s largesse. Even there, she immediately falls in behind a charming young woman named Hawa.
Hawa refers to her school friends as “age-mates,” and the novel is replete with references to locals. They’re “townies” at university, “homegirls” in the neighborhood. These are the people who know who they are, and it’s plain that that narrator isn’t among them. In one cutting instance, the African villagers compliment her dancing: “Even though you are a white girl, you dance like you are black!” The narrator spends 400 pages running from her neighborhood, and can’t escape. But neither has she invested enough energy there to belong. She ends her journey (and begins the book) in a room “in which everything had been designed to be perfectly neutral, with all significant corners rounded, like an iPhone.”
The message here is that identity isn’t an accrued thing. Who you are is who you were as a child. Life thereafter either nurtures that child or builds a buffer around them. The book’s expression for the inner-child’s insistence on being with you at all times is “time travel,” and Smith neatly (sometimes preciously) plays with this concept throughout. At one point the narrator remembers her childhood, “[t]he whole history of us, the chronology sliding woozily back and forth in time and vodka”; when the girls get a chance to buy a video, they choose Back to the Future; feeling her old maths anxiety while in a classroom as an adult, the narrator notes, “[i]t was like time travel.”
Tracey spends her life developing that seven-year-old from dance class. She expands her dance skills, and also her capacities for jealousy and joy and tribalism. When Tracey reaches out to rub salt in the narrator’s wound, she does so with “the kind of note you might get from a spiteful seven-year-old girl with a firm idea of justice. And of course that—if you can ignore the passage of time—is exactly what it was.” The narrator spends her life putting up a cultural barricade between herself and her inner seven-year-old. Millions of miles of air travel, life on many continents. But she can’t escape herself forever.
It’s depressing stuff, and well observed. Swing Time is Zadie Smith’s most accomplished book, but not yet her masterpiece. She can write, and she’s better here than ever. Her trademark is punctuating sharp character observations with a character’s own telling dialogue. So she describes Tracey wearing “expensive trainers of the kind my mother refused to recognize as a reality in the world—‘Those aren’t shoes.’”; she notes that “Most e-mails sent in the mid-nineties tended to be long and letter-like: they were keen to describe the surrounding scene, as if the new medium had made of everybody a writer. (‘I’m typing this just by the window, looking out to blue-gray sea, where three gulls are diving into the water.’)”; describing the bright Hawa: “she took an equal interest in everybody, wanted to hear all news, no matter how apparently quotidian or banal (‘You were just in the market? Oh, so tell me! Who was there? And was the fish man there?’)” There are pleasures everywhere.
And Tracey is worth the price of admission alone. She’s funny and furious and frustrating and free. She incites a classroom crusade pitting Garbage Pail Kids against Cabbage Patch Kids. She writes ballerina stories as a child that end with lines like Tiffany jumped up high to kiss her prince and pointed her toes oh she looked so sexy but that’s when the bullet went right up her thigh. She’s a worthy addition to the literary canon of louche picaras. She fascinates. Becky Sharp would be proud (and jealous).
What precludes Swing Time from greatness is the narrator, a drippy bore. Yes, that’s the point, but it doesn’t make her any more fun to spend time with. It astounds how little she contributes to any situation she’s in. Smith almost always writes in the third-person, and she is better suited to that register. She cedes power by filtering her own voice through this character’s diffidence.
And like White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, and NW, Swing Time is either fifty pages too long or a hundred pages too short. A promising subplot with a pre-schizophrenic college boyfriend abruptly begins and ends. The mother’s late-life love affairs read like unconvincing tack-ons. The narrator’s teenage experimentation with the Goth subculture is disappointingly underexplored (though it occasioned some fascinating Wikipedia rabbit-holing). Worst, the specter of childhood sexual abuse is repeatedly hinted at but never identified. That’s vulgar in a book so otherwise sensitive. In contrast to the zany White Teeth, or the winking pomposity of On Beauty, the bloat is less forgivable in this book, which trades on its lean storytelling.
Above all, Smith’s novels explore the possibilities and limits of multiculturalism. Seventeen years have passed since Smith’s first book, White Teeth, was published. That debut was a sunshiney, almost-slapstick ode to multiculturalism. Its hero is a middle-aged Englishman with an Italian wife, a Bengali Muslim war buddy, and a Jamaican lover. White Teeth’s charm puts its reader in good humor about its rookie prolixity. If it is long, uneven, and implausible, well, that’s just life in London at the turn of the Millennium. Swing Time is decidedly more ambivalent about multiculturalism’s prospects.
But for all its talk of shadows, Swing Time does not anticipate an event that would eclipse its sun the week of its November 15 release. Two days after the U.S. Presidential Election, Smith was compelled to accept a literary award in Berlin and to give a speech. She made clear that she felt the election as a personal rebuke to the multicultural milieu of her childhood and novels, “a specific historical social experiment, now discredited.” Citing a study that 7 in 10 Republicans would prefer an America as it was in the 1950’s, a time when a person like her “could not vote, marry my husband, have children, work in the university I work in, or live in my neighborhood,” Smith said that “[t]ime travel is a discretionary art; a pleasure for some and a horror story for others.” But she was quick to point out that unlike individuals, societies cannot travel freely in time:
But neither do I believe in time travel. I believe in human limitation, not out of any sense of fatalism but out of a learned caution, gleaned from both recent and distant history. We will never be perfect: that is our limitation. But we can have, and have had, moments in which we can take genuine pride. I took pride in my neighborhood, in my childhood, back in 1999. It was not perfect but it was filled with possibility. If the clouds have rolled in over my fiction it is not because what was perfect has been proved empty but because what was becoming possible—and is still experienced as possible by millions—is now denied as if it never did and never could exist.
This contrast, lasting societies built by time-traveling children, calls to mind a surreal and elaborate set piece embedded in Swing Time. After years of preparation, the girls’ school opens with a ceremony. It is rumored that the country’s president will attend along with other domestic and foreign dignitaries. The villagers wait for hours in the hot sun. Then horns blow and the spectacle begins:
A parade of children walked into the square in costume, all of about seven or eight years old, dressed as the leaders of African nations. They came in kente-cloth and dashikis and Nehru collars and safari suits, and each had their own entourage made of other children who’d been done up as security guards: dark suits and dark glasses, speaking into fake walkie-talkies. Many of the little leaders had little wives by their side, dangling little handbags, though Lady Liberia walked alone, and South Africa came with three wives, who linked arms with each other as they walked behind him. . . . Then the band stopped blaring welcome horns and began a very loud brass rendition of the national anthem. Our chairs vibrated. I turned and saw two massive vehicles rumbling into the yard over the sandy ground . . . In the first car, standing up through the sun roof, was an eight-year-old version of the President himself, in his white grand boubou and white kufi cap, holding his cane. A real stab at verisimilitude had been attempted: he was as dark as the President and had the same frog face.
. . .
At last, the vehicles parked, the miniature President alighted and walked to the podium and gave a short speech I couldn’t hear a word of due to the feedback from the speakers. No one else could hear it either but we all laughed and applauded once it was done. I had the thought that if the President himself had come the effect would not have been so very different. A show of power is a show of power.
Smith’s powerful figuration is deepened by the circumstance that the leader of the free world is now so plainly childish. Not in generations has the world been ruled by those so proudly nurturing of their time-traveling children, so cocksure of their identities. And real life’s unwitting epilogue provides some redemption for the narrator. After all, there are worse things than distancing yourself from base childhood instincts. There are worse things than not knowing where you’re from.
David Culberg is a lawyer in Chicago. He reads books on the train.