“Elegance attracted me,” Zadie Smith’s unnamed narrator says in her new novel, Swing Time. “I liked the way it hid pain.”
By that measure, she would approve of her own artfully constructed narrative. Flickering between the distant and more recent past, she chronicles her relationships with three women: Her activist-turned-backbench MP mother; her popstar-philanthropist boss, Aimee; and her childhood best friend, Tracey, whose preternatural tap dancing skills are subsumed by paternal absence and a foundering mother.
Swing Time is suffused with discomfiting illustrations of the dubious metrics by which we measure ourselves and others: sex, status, race, talent, and money. But its central concern is power — how it is acquired, what it can buy, and how it is spent. And in this way, Swing Time is a story about writing itself, and the inherent power play of telling other people’s stories without their consent.
Swing Time begins with the narrator camping out in a rental flat in London on the “first day of [her] humiliation,” which has played out, like so many modern humiliations, on the Internet. Curiosity thus piqued, the novel takes readers through the narrator’s life until age thirty.
She meets Tracey when they are the only black children taking tap dancing classes at their London estates’ community center. The narrator’s mother, an autodidact feminist dressed in linen trousers, Breton shirts, and espadrilles considers the class a diversion, and forces her daughter to focus on education. Tracey’s mother, festooned with “logos, tin bangles and hoops, diamanté everything” and perennially trying to “get on the disability” encourages Tracey’s considerable tap dancing skills along with her anomie from everything else.
By their late teens, the girls are uneasy with each other. Tracey is shooting speedballs in Camden and stealing cash from the community center, while the narrator is headed to her “second-choice university, to study media.” Tracey eventually facilitates a final rupture, and the two sever communication. Throughout their twenties, Tracey chases bit parts on the “West End stage” while the narrator works as a personal assistant for Aimee, a wildly successful pop star.
As Aimee’s personal assistant, the narrator “scheduled abortions, hired dog walkers, ordered flowers, wrote Mother’s Day cards, applied creams, administered injections, squeezed spots, and wiped very occasional break up tears.” In between albums, Aimee decides to build the Illuminated Academy for Girls in Gambia. “To Aimee,” the narrator says, “poverty was one of the world’s sloppy errors… which might be easily corrected if only people would bring to the problem the focus she brought to everything.”
While this privileged naïveté rankles the narrator, she envies Aimee’s ability to make the world move according to her whims. (Both Tracey and the Gambian villagers think Aimee is a member of the Illuminati.) But without the money that buys the influence that Aimee uses to be a “mother and lover, big sister, best friend, superstar and diplomat, billionaire and street kid, foolish girl and woman of substance,” the narrator feels unable to be as decisive or actualized. She becomes “the boys I’d known [growing up, who had] no passions [because] they couldn’t afford them.”
The narrator maintains a remote, obliging relationship with her mother, who made it out of the estates to become a backbench MP. She is emphatic and defined in all the ways the narrator is not. She dreams of being “spoken of in the same breath as Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem.” She defies zoning laws to plant community gardens. She looks “like Nefertiti.” Eventually, she is diagnosed with late-stage cancer, which her daughter fails to detect over their sporadic lunches.
In this vivid and engrossing world, Smith makes one departure from the dicta of writing good fiction — her narrator is eminently forgettable, an abject milquetoast who surrounds herself with stardust. Her thoughts and her voice have no particular inflections other than a profound diffidence and dissociation. But where this would ordinarily render a novel unreadable, it lends Swing Time a certain danger — our narrator has nothing to lose.
Swing Time could only be written in first-person. The solitary perspective of first-person affords the narrator her only agency as the authorial arbiter of her past and the people in it. She bares the secrets of the women she loves not because she feels wronged by them but because she believes only she can see them as the world should. Describing Tracey’s childhood “gift for seeing” intricacies in footwork, the narrator qualifies this observation by saying it was something “no teacher ever saw, and no exam ever managed to successfully register or even note, and of which, perhaps, these memories are the only true witness and record.” Tracey is powerless to assert this on her own — only the narrator can do it for her.
No matter how well Aimee’s PR team can spin, no matter how loud her mother’s megaphone is, no matter how well Tracey can dance, none of those platforms are as persuasive in defining others as fiction. The narrator alone has the power to define these women, although no one would be more surprised than she to realize how powerful her writing makes her. For more than Tracey’s talent or Aimee’s money or her mother’s influence, the narrator’s power is of an altogether different sort — it an attendant kind, a byproduct, inherent in authoring fiction.
“Novels are not about expressing yourself,” Smith once told an interviewer. “They’re about something beautiful and clever and organic. Self-expression? Go ring a bell in the yard if you want to express yourself.” Swing Time is beautiful and clever and organic precisely because it is a story about how people get to a place where they need to go ring a bell in the yard. That is how we leave the narrator, in an anonymous flat in London, aestheticizing her alienation by writing the elegant and painful stories of three women — ringing a bell, all alone.