Thursday, 1 December 2016
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
[London in the 1980s:The narrator’s father is always reading The Communist Manifesto]
‘Some people carry the bible,’ he told me proudly. ‘this is my bible.’ It sounded impressive – it was meant to impress my mother – but I had already noticed that he seemed to always be reading this book and not much else, he took it to every dance class, and yet never got any further than the first twenty pages.
Within the context of the marriage it was a romantic gesture: they’d first encountered each other at a meeting of the SWP, in Dollis Hill, but even this was a form of misunderstanding, for my father had gone to meet nice leftist girls in short skirts with no religion, while my mother really was there for Karl Marx. My childhood took plane in the widening gap. I watched my autodidact mother swiftly, easily, outstrip my father. The shelves in our lounge – which he built – filled up with second-hand books, Open University text books, political books, history books, books on race, books on gender, ‘All the “isms”,’ as my father liked to call them, whenever a neighbour happened to come by and spot the queer accumulation.
commentary: Swing Time jumps around all over the place (perhaps like someone dancing, as dance is such a major theme of the book?) It has an irritating triple time scheme: the framing device is that the unnamed narrator has done something terrible, is in disgrace, is watching out for the consequences. So she is looking back at her childhood as a mixed-race little girl in North London, taking dance lessons with her new friend Tracey. And then we get chunks of her life in her 20s, leading up to whatever-it-is that happened. Dancing is the connecting line throughout: Tracey is a terrific dancer, and hopes it will mean she gets on in life. The narrator’s mother wants the way out to be via education and political knowledge.
In paragraphs and in pages, in lines and sentences and chunks of dialogue I enjoyed a lot of this book: Smith is such a very good writer, and can be entrancing. But overall I thought it was a mess, because none of the sections linked up. The two girls’ friendship was seen as a key element of their lives, but actually it wasn’t. The only really important incident seemed to be when Tracey told the narrator a bad story about her (ie the narrator’s – can you see how irritating this namelessness becomes?) father, which is instantly and undoubtingly believed by the narrator and acted on in a completely unconvincing manner. We are told portentously how important the friendship is, but without evidence. Tracey pops in and out of the later parts, but there is no connection, no reality about it. Her affair with another actor is never fully explained or given any closure.
The narrator goes to work for a world-renowned music star – one who resembles Madonna in some ways – and the description of those years is very convincing, completely believable, rather like an insider tell-all story. There is a whole section in Africa, a country unnamed but apparently the Gambia, where the popstar, Aimee, wants to do good. Again, these sections seem very real.
The scandal, the bad thing the narrator did, is ridiculous when it finally turns up: I can’t explain why I think that without spoilers, but it seemed not serious enough, and the way it played out didn’t seem likely at all.
There were so many enjoyable parts to the book – the narrators’ parents’ relationship, as indicated above; the scenes describing dancing and films and various entertainments; the consideration of black culture and black contributions to dance; and the many excellent jokes and witty lines.
But to me there was a great yawning hole in the middle, where the separate parts just didn’t link up. I kept thinking Zadie Smith was going to pull it all together, make more sense of it, but it didn’t happen for me.
I had a similar conflicted reaction to Smith’s last book, NW, here on the blog.
The top picture is a 1970s fashion advert. The other two are entertainers Sammy Davis Jr and Pearl Bailey.