Whomph!

Joanna Biggs

  • Swing Time by Zadie Smith
    Hamish Hamilton, 453 pp, £18.99, November 2016, ISBN 978 0 241 14415 2

‘The ends of great fiction do not change, much,’ Zadie Smith wrote eight years ago in an essay about David Foster Wallace. ‘But the means do.’ She was between novels: three years had passed since her most traditional, On Beauty, was published; NW, her most experimental, wouldn’t appear for another four. But, as sometimes happens, the changes on the surface only served to emphasise what was already there. James Wood coined the term ‘hysterical realism’ to describe her first novel, White Teeth, but it only really applied to what was most on display – the foisonning, punning, teasing, literary surface. The surface changed for each of Smith’s novels, but the underlying message, about compassion, warmth, strength, forgiveness, the Forsterian-by-way-of-the-Beatles one about love being all you need, persisted, and even grew louder. It was a message with considerable political force, especially coming from someone who has crossed the boundaries Smith has crossed (Willesden-Cambridge-Rome-Greenwich Village), but it wasn’t necessarily original or grown-up. I think of a moment from one of her more recent personal essays in the New York Review of Books, when she is trying to define joy by thinking about pleasure:

The persistent anxiety that fills the rest of my life is calmed for as long as I have the flavour of something good in my mouth. And though it’s true that when the flavour is finished the anxiety returns, we do not have so many reliable sources of pleasure in this life as to turn our nose up at one that is so readily available, especially here in America. A pineapple popsicle. Even the great anxiety of writing can be stilled for the eight minutes it takes to eat a pineapple popsicle.

Pleasure comes of the smaller things in life, Smith tells us. Something about the linguistic liveliness of the alliterative object of desire, the plosive ‘p’s along with the imagined high-vis yellow of the wooden-sticked ice lolly, is too rhetorically effective, too reminiscent of childhood summers and the sound of the approaching ice-cream van. The personal essays, unlike her sharp and funny pieces on literature, have an undergraduate feel to them, often following the formula: difficult philosophy + anecdote with cute children + contemporary cultural artefact = consoling insight. But perhaps that’s no accident: Smith told the FT recently that her essays – ‘very English, quite heavily constructed’ – are a legacy of her training at Cambridge. In Smith’s writing, it often seems like even the most specific detail will be elevated into proof of some great, essentially comic truth.

No other British writer of Smith’s generation (or since) has had her early, extreme fame. This has meant both that she has had to serve her novelistic apprenticeship in public, trying out ideas and seeing them fail or succeed in front of everyone, and that she has been protected from the hard knocks of a writing life, and so allowed to retain a certain childlike freshness in her relationship to the world. There is also a sense that we must protect her: we feel her anxiety in her movement among styles, and we sense that she is trying to say the right good thing, and as she holds out her hand, we grip it and carry her on. I am invested in Zadie’s story, susceptible to the Bildung in all this: White Teeth came out the year I went up to Oxford, and became a symbol of all that a nerdy girl from a state school might do under meritocracy; The Autograph Man was given to me by my mother when I was on my year abroad in Paris, and reminded me of the importance of going beyond oneself even at the price of failure; On Beauty appeared the year I came to London and began working for the LRB, and I bought it in hardback and discussed it at a book group and even stole a placard of its very pretty cover from a Booker Prize party I snuck into; NW I read in a proof passed around the LRB office, and I tried out my thoughts on her experimental turn with colleagues in the same tentative way that she played with numbered paragraphs and their juxtaposition. This is just my story, but others of my generation have similar ones, and it’s a problem: we want her to pay back our emotional investment. With each new novel, the hope rises: is this finally the great book that was always coming? The handsome mustard-yellow proof of Swing Time arrived on my desk in the summer, but I put off opening it until October.

We don’t know the name of the character telling us her story in Swing Time, but she is telling it to us and that in itself is new: Smith has never used the first person to narrate a novel before. She has tended to use many voices in her fiction, overseen by a benevolent intelligence that both mocks and indulges her characters. Now that she has chosen a single voice, what might it be possible to say? But Smith’s narrator, it turns out, isn’t as interested in her own story as in telling those of others, primarily that of her childhood friend Tracey, but also those of her mother and her boss.

The narrator meets Tracey at dance lessons in a sweaty-floored church hall in Willesden in 1982. They are both seven. Tracey’s ballet shoes are made of impractical satin and are tied to the ankle with ribbons, and hers are of ‘pale pink, piggy leather’, fastened to her foot with a thick strip of elastic. They notice each other, not least because their ‘shade of brown was exactly the same – as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both.’ So here is difference despite sameness, and a twinning effect. Many critics have linked this to Lila and Lenù in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, but from the Iqbal twins of White Teeth onwards, Smith’s thinking has been of the on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other sort, a very English kind of equivocation. (Perhaps another Cambridge legacy.) Often it has been a way of asking the question: ‘Why me and not them?’ In ‘Sweet Charity’, a tiny piece of memoir Smith wrote for the New Yorker about Christine, the other ‘female viola-playing black nerd’ in the Brent Youth Orchestra, she describes her friend as ‘one of the many people to whom I am always surreptitiously apologising for my obscene luck. Why do I have money when so many of my friends and family – all of whom work harder than I – do not?’ (Smith lends her money, Christine disappears, Smith begins questioning Christine’s character via email, until Smith’s assistant opens a letter with a cheque for the first repayment. ‘Then Christine did me one more charity,’ Smith writes. ‘She forgave me.’)

It is a way women have of thinking about themselves to harm themselves, and not an irrelevant question if you grew up in Willesden’s Athelstan Gardens Estate but find yourself at Vanity Fair’s Oscars party. The question is also posed in the contrast between the two girls’ mothers: Tracey’s mother is ‘white, obese, afflicted with acne’, with diamanté studding her hooped earrings; the narrator’s mother is in espadrilles, Breton stripes and an afro, with a copy of The Black Jacobins under her arm. But even the mothers converge: they both live on the same estate, and don’t claim benefits (though not from Tracey’s mother’s want of trying).

The girls begin spending all their time together. At Tracey’s, playing is about wanting: ‘The Argos catalogue, from whose pages I was allowed to choose three inexpensive items at Christmas, and one item for my birthday, was, to Tracey, an everyday bible, she read it religiously, circling her choices, often while in my company, with a little red pen she kept for the purpose.’ You can hear the whomph as side by side they turn a clump of pages to reach the toy section at the back. In the narrator’s flat, they play by writing stories of a Ballet Shoes type: ‘Almost all our stories concerned a cruel, posh prima ballerina from “Oxford Street” breaking her leg at the last minute, which allowed our plucky heroine – often a lowly costume fitter, or a humble theatre-toilet cleaner – to step in and save the day.’ In Noel Streatfeild’s novel, the threat to Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil is their absent parents, but in these stories there is something more sinister still: ‘In several stories, African men “lurked in the shadows” with iron bars to break the knees of lily-white dancers; in one, the prima had a terrible secret: she was “half-caste”, a word I trembled to write down, as I knew from experience how completely it enraged my mother.’ The humour and the danger in these sentences doesn’t come from the narrator: it is smuggled in via quotation marks, from the jointly authored stories or the narrator’s mother. It’s curious that the first first-person narrator Smith has created speaks in the least memorable way in the book, and sounds much like the third-person narrators of her previous novels. One might imagine that Smith would have been tempted by a zanier, Nabokovian narrator, although the neutral tone leaves the way open to another sort of writing Smith tries out here, the seemingly non-fictional sort seen in the novels of Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti, and in Smith’s own essays.

As the title On Beauty had been already used by Elaine Scarry, so Swing Time has been borrowed from the title of the 1936 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicle, a black and white musical of waltzes and tap dances and a Fred and piano rendition of ‘The Way You Look Tonight’. The novel begins at its chronological end with the narrator wandering into a talk at the Royal Festival Hall. An Austrian film director shows a clip from Swing Time, which the narrator had watched ‘over and over’ as a child: Astaire taps with three huge shadow Astaires who give up when they realise that the real Astaire will always out-tap them. The director tries to intellectualise this moment – it shows, he contends, the ‘interplay of light and dark, expressed as a kind of rhythm, over time’, which isn’t a bad description of the aims of Swing Time the novel – and although the narrator finds the speaker boring she feels unexpectedly light as she follows Astaire’s tapping on the seat in front of her:

I felt I was losing track of my physical location, rising above my body, viewing my life from a very distant point, hovering over it. It reminded me of the way people describe hallucinogenic drug experiences. 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 never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.

When she shows the YouTube clip to an African friend she discovers a further shadow: she had forgotten that Astaire was in blackface.

Throughout the book, there are moments when the narrator pauses the story and tells us instead about the Nietzschean moral of the Zong case or the wedding of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Queen Victoria’s black goddaughter. History is no longer one thing after another but available to all of us, all the time. These passages add up to a strand of thought about the ways black history has been forgotten and the ways it can be remembered. And one of the ways of remembering, the novel seems to argue, is through dance. The narrator shows Tracey the 1937 movie Ali Baba Goes to Town because there is a girl in it (the first black woman tap dancer, Jeni LeGon) who looks just like her, a young woman in the age of rewindable VHS, and because there is a move in the finale that is ‘back from the future’, the impossible-looking 45 degree forward lean that Michael Jackson would popularise in his ‘Smooth Criminal’ video. In the movie, the Africans in their grass skirts and the Americans in blackface dance because they can’t talk. The dance ‘seemed to swing time itself, flashing far ahead, to a moment when these Africans would no longer be as they were presently, a time a thousand years in the future when they would set the tempo the world wants to dance to, in a place called Harlem’. Dance seems to make all time available at once, in order to help us forget something or remember something or do both together. It is a way of saying X and Y, this and that, me and her. And it is another way of emphasising Smith’s universal, recurring message: our differences are less important than our similarities.

Swing Time is divided into seven numbered parts, like the seven ages of man, with a Prologue and Epilogue. The name of each part marks a passage of time – ‘Early Days’, ‘Middle Passage’, ‘Intermission’ and ‘Late Days’ – or a swinging between the two as past surges into present: ‘Early and Late’, ‘Night and Day’ and ‘Day and Night’. And so it follows that the narrator’s relationship with Tracey waxes and wanes: after the Argos catalogue, and the prima ballerina stories, and the joint watching of old musicals, the girls disgrace themselves at a birthday party for a middle-class friend from their dance class and are kept apart for years. The narrator becomes a Goth, loses her virginity with liberating nonchalance (‘It seemed wrong for Goths to kiss,’ she writes, ‘so we bit gently at each other’s necks like little vampires’), then discovers Black Power through a boyfriend at a Sussex-like university, before working for YTV, a music video channel. From there she is poached by Aimee, a world-famous pop star who is about to launch herself into African philanthropy. Tracey’s teens bring her to bubbling disarray then on to dance school and finally to the West End stage, where no private jet or backstage pass can rival the time travel of the fictional world created in the theatre: ‘I was stuck in London, in the year 2005, but Tracey was in Chicago in 1893, and Dahomey a hundred years before that, and anywhere and any time that people have moved their feet like that. I was so jealous I cried.’ At the stage door, the narrator glimpses Tracey’s mother at the wheel of a car with three sleeping children in the back seat, and realises that Tracey is tied to the requirements of bedtime, shared custody and lunch money in a way she may never be. Time swings, advantage changes hands, but comparison, as structuring force and engine of meaning, remains.

As Swing Time reached its climax, it began to remind me of the middle section of Smith’s last novel, NW, the part presented in numbered fragments. It tells the story of Keisha Blake, soon to become the respected black barrister Natalie Blake, and her best friend, Leah Hanwell, who meet when Blake tugs a floundering Hanwell out of the local pool by her russet pigtails. The elements of the story are the same: two girls from the same estate, inseparable until some sort of adolescent incident involving sex, grow apart. One is successful by the world’s standards, and one is not. One implodes and one does not. In Swing Time, the prose is continuous and loops back and forward in time; in NW, the fragments of prose, some as short as a sentence, jump forward, missing some things and dwelling on others, and occasionally glance proleptically at the future. And while Swing Time seems to exploit the possibilities of art, written and danced, to defy time, on a comparative rereading it becomes clearer that the prose shards of NW manage to tell us something about the way we tidy our lives into stories.

‘It is perhaps the profound way in which capitalism enters women’s minds and bodies that renders “ruthless comparison” the basic mode of their relationships with others,’ fragment 78 begins, looking forward to the first-person narrator of Swing Time in its essayistic mode. But here the energy is reversed: the quotation marks indicate a hackneyed phrase and the sentence itself holds the old idea up to the light, unafraid to begin the analysis with a broad, contested political term such as capitalism. This NW voice seems freer to deal with ideas, and doesn’t feel the need to call certain sorts of highfalutin thinking boring. And it shows off other of Smith’s virtues as a writer: although her jokes are Dad jokes (and perhaps deliberately, since she’s written of her father’s love of Hancock’s Half Hour and Fawlty Towers), they’re still pretty funny. In fragment 36, Blake’s mother spots a new boyfriend, Rodney, for her. ‘He’s like you,’ she says, ‘always reading’:

For precisely this reason Keisha had always been wary of Rodney and keen to avoid him – as much as that was possible in a place like Caldwell – on the principle that the last thing a drowning person needs is another drowning person clinging to them.

38. On the other hand
Beggars cannot be choosers.

In fragment 39, Blake is reading Camus with Rodney, in a mild riff on the moment in the Inferno when Paolo and Francesca share ‘a kiss both looked-for and unbidden’ (in Paul Batchelor’s translation) as they read. That’s another thing: Smith’s literariness comes through here as something more amusing; fragments with titles such as ‘Speak, radio’ and ‘Brideshead unvisited’ open up the story to give a parallel commentary you can buy into or not. Politics is allowed to sidle up to the story too. When Blake gets into a relationship with a public schoolboy, it is noted that ‘relative weakness’ in the face of living on her council estate ‘translated to impressive strength in the world’. And then, in the next fragment, Blake is reported to wonder ‘whether Frank’s boarding school might have done the same job for him’.

And yet there is still room in these recent novels for those Smithian pleasures, the pineapple popsicles of her prose, the perfect details from the near past you’re close to forgetting – circling things in the Argos catalogue in Swing Time; the way Blake and Hanwell in NW diverge in their music taste as teenagers until ‘they had only Prince left’ – and her ear for speech: ‘You are idiot, this we know,’ a minor character says in Swing Time, ‘but you are smart, and this makes you more idiot’; ‘I’m not Queen’s Park, love, I’m HARLESDEN,’ an argument goes in NW, ‘Why would you talk about yourself that way? Why would you talk about your area that way? Oh you just pissed me off, boy.’ The form of this section of NW allows Smith to play with time as she does in Swing Time, to some of the same ends, but instead of the reader simply putting the loops and lapses down to the workings of memory, we get to consider the operations of fate and chance, the way novel-reading might affect the way someone interprets the events of their life, the possibility of remembrance, repetition and working through, and, thank god, of humour.

Plath’s ‘Daddy’ can stand for all fathers because it is very specifically about hers: the ‘Frisco seal’ is in the poem because Otto Plath conducted his research in San Francisco Bay; the ‘ghastly statue with one grey toe’ refers to his gangrenous leg; the ‘Ach, du’ appears because he was born in in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Smith’s work is best when she stays specific, and lets us draw our own conclusions about our common humanity (or not). When she insists on how similar we all are, deep down, it makes me recoil, and that happened too often when reading Swing Time. But I can never stay disappointed for long. She’s good company, as I was reminded as I listened to the hour of music she recently chose and introduced for BBC Radio 6’s Paperback Writer slot, incredulous at herself for not liking Bowie sooner, teasing herself for doing the running man in a circle to Young MC’s ‘Know How’, and talking of the religious, political and personal importance to her of Otis Redding’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. She takes a good picture, gives a charming interview and you can somehow imagine her as the perfect writer for people who don’t read. But she is good to read, almost always. This morning, from the bus, I spotted a poster for Swing Time on a street corner in a nondescript part of South-East London – the same handsome mustard-yellow cover that lay unread on my desk for so long – and I was pleased. Imagine if there were no Zadie Smith! Or if the most famous living British novelist was, well, any of the others.