“When you are first published at a young age, your writing grows with you—and in public,” the novelist Zadie Smith once wrote. She was referring to her nonfiction collected in the 2009 anthology Changing My Mind. Growing up on the record means making mistakes on the record, and for Smith, who became a household name at 24, the odds of self-contradiction are high. “Reading through these pieces, though,” she added, “I’m forced to recognize that ideological inconsistency is, for me, practically an article of faith.”
It’s true that Smith is inconsistent, but rarely ideologically, and rarely in her nonfiction. Where she varies is in her fiction, and the change is a matter of style. Smith has published four novels since her debut, White Teeth, in 2000, and each one is a departure from the last. White Teeth, a Dickensian whirlwind of third-person omniscience, was the poster child for a turn-of-the-century genre the critic James Wood called “hysterical realism.” Her fourth novel, NW (2012), was a concise experiment in polyphony. Told in three styles, each for a different character’s consciousness, it embodied Smith’s belief that “flexibility of voice leads to a flexibility in all things,” an idea she once expressed in a speech about Barack Obama and code-switching. Four years later, she has changed her mind again. Swing Time, her latest, is rooted in the first person—a new turn in Smith’s novels.
Swing Time tells the story of an unnamed narrator, cut in the rough shape of the author: a woman born and raised in the public-housing estates in Northwest London in the 1970s and ’80s, the child of a black mother and a white father. But strict autobiographical resemblance ends there. In a prologue set in 2008, the narrator finds herself holed up in a condo, disgraced and out of a job. She has been fired, for reasons undisclosed, from her position as the longtime personal assistant to an age-defying pop star named Aimee, this fictional universe’s Madonna. In the muted solitude of her upscale padded cell (“neutral, with all significant corners rounded, like an iPhone”), the narrator is left to reflect and, possibly, repent. One afternoon, she leaves the condo and goes to a lecture, where a clip from the Fred Astaire musical Swing Time plays. As the film rolls, she has an epiphany:
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.
The story of self that follows is told through stories of others, as befits a shadow. Memories of four women—her mother, Aimee, and two friends, Tracey and Hawa—mark the path from her past to her present. At the beginning stands Tracey, a fellow child of the estates whom the narrator meets in dance class. Brown like her, “as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both,” Tracey shares the narrator’s love of tap and provides the light to which she is drawn. The narrator’s mother, a feminist autodidact who lacks “the fundamental skill of all mothers—the management of time,” believes “all that matters in this world … is what’s written down,” and promptly identifies Tracey as a bad influence. She discourages her daughter from dancing, from being a mere black body in a world that doesn’t respect them. (“That will never matter, not in this culture,” she says, gesturing at her daughter’s body.)
She needn’t worry: The narrator has no talent for dance. Tracey, however, does.
Every movement was as sharp and precise as any child could hope to make it, her body could align itself with any time signature, no matter how intricate … I was—I am—in awe of Tracey’s technique. She knew the right time to do everything.
Smith links the dancer’s gift of knowing the right time to do everything to the storyteller’s gift of knowing the right time to say everything. Tracey, from a young age, possesses both. At Tracey’s flat, the girls watch soap operas and play a videotape of Top Hat on loop. At the narrator’s, they lie belly-down on the floor and write stories about “ballet dancers in peril,” which Tracey dictates and the narrator transcribes. Tracey is a master of narrative manipulation, and her specialty is thwarted conclusions. “Just as you thought the happy ending had arrived,” the narrator recalls, “Tracey found some wonderful new way to destroy or divert it, so that the moment of consummation … never seemed to arrive.” Long after their friendship has ended, when Tracey reappears in the narrator’s life, this skill becomes her means of revenge.
In the meantime, the narrator leaves Tracey behind. As Tracey’s life follows the script her mother warned of (“Catch a load of babies, never leave these streets, and be another one of these sisters who might as well not exist”), the narrator goes off to college, gets a job at YTV (a kind of MTV), and lucks into the gig as Aimee’s assistant. But Aimee may as well be a load of babies: Like a mother, the narrator suspends her life to manage another’s—her boss’s. When Aimee decides to open a girls’ school in a rural West African village, in a country whose GDP is less than her net worth, the narrator is sent to “iron out details.” There she meets Hawa, her host, whose future, like many women’s in Swing Time, is threatened by the imminent burden of children.
Smith manages agile shifts in time, swinging between the near and distant past as the narrator probes her memory. Smith’s persistent withholding keeps the pages turning, and the I lends a new ease to her prose. But in describing her relationships with the women in her life, and with the men who come between them, the narrator reveals less about her character than about the contours of her mind. Interpersonal tensions give rise to smart observations—about identity, dance, women’s work, and cultural appropriation, and about two themes that have long been central to Smith’s work: blackness, and the fantasy of pure and discernible roots.
In the past, Smith has made a point of approaching both with an active reticence. She once defined blackness as “the ancient buildup of cultural residue” given a name “for convenience’s sake.” In her speech about Obama, she embraced Keats’s concept of negative capability, the readiness to be “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Both views suggest a skepticism toward the coherence of racial identity. But the quest for an authentic encounter with blackness—its origins and culture—feels more urgent in Swing Time.
As a child, the narrator resists Tracey’s “rigid notions” of race and class (“black music, white music—[I knew] that there must be a world somewhere in which the two combined”). She is ambivalent, too, about her mother’s pious reference to the sankofa—the West African symbol of a bird that “looks back over itself” to retrieve what’s been lost to the past. Enraptured watching Fred Astaire, the narrator yearns to transcend history and its baggage: “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.” At the same time, she shares her mother’s desire for precedents. Even after Tracey’s interest drifts from old musicals to pop, the narrator dreams of performing at the Cotton Club with Cab Calloway. Poring over The History of Dance, she traces the origins of Michael Jackson’s movements to the Nicholas brothers, the prodigious tap duo who headlined with the best performers of the Harlem Renaissance.
One day, she spots a dancer in the 1937 musical Ali Baba Goes to Town who looks just like Tracey—Jeni LeGon, one of the first black women to have a solo career in tap—and races to show her friend the scene. Only on replaying the tape does she notice what she overlooked in her excitement: the blackface performance of the lead, Eddie Cantor, right before Tracey’s look-alike appears.
Years later, in college, she has a parallel experience with her boyfriend, Rakim, an ardent black radical:
Too stoned in company once, I made the mistake of trying to explain what I found beautiful about the origins of tap dancing—the Irish crew and the African slaves, beating out time with their feet on the wooden decks of those ships, exchanging steps, creating a hybrid form—but Rakim, also stoned and in a cruel mood, stood up, rolled his eyes, stuck his lips out, shook his hands like a minstrel, and said: Oh massa, I’s so happy on this here slave ship I be dancing for joy. Cut his eyes at me, sat back down. Our friends looked at the floor. The mortification was intense: for months afterwards just the thought of it could bring the heat back to my cheeks.
The narrator wants to recover black art—and “kinetic joy,” a phrase she uses often—even as it appears in compromised or perverted forms; without Ali Baba, there is no Jeni LeGon. But these moments are chastening, and history belies dance’s supposed ability to cut across barriers. Cantor in blackface, Fred Astaire in blackface—how had the narrator failed to register them before?
Still, she clings to the possibility that dance is a universal language, one that can transcend race, sex, class, and even time. She is fond of a story of Fred Astaire begging Michael Jackson to teach him to moonwalk, musing that “a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any age may recognize him.” But if dance is so transcendent, why did Michael bleach his skin? The narrator catches him on Oprah, confronted with the question. He looks down. “So I’m a slave to the rhythm,” he says, and the narrator takes this as a kind of answer. Dance lives outside of time, but the dancer, tragically, does not.
Into this ideological quagmire struts Aimee, the white woman who belongs to a tribe of one (her name itself is a Nabokovian pun: not Amy but Aimee, as in aim = me). With the blinkered view of the ultraprivileged, Aimee perceives differences as “never structural or economic but always essentially differences of personality.” Like many pop stars, she is a casual and repeat appropriator. Other people’s ideas “end up, in a flattened and vulgar form, in one video or song or another.” Proclamations about universal experience sound dubious—pernicious, even—in her mouth. Her naive philanthropy is one thing, her crass appropriation of West African dance another. When she adopts a black child from the village, however—naming her, perversely, Sankofa—Aimee crosses a line. The narrator, in turn, crosses her.
It’s significant that Smith, who throughout her fictional experiments has mostly adhered to a third-person point of view and polyvocal style, has chosen a first-person narrator to guide this novel about group identity. The choice raises the inevitable questions (Can this narrator be trusted? What is her relationship to the author?), but these are dwarfed by another. Why has Smith given her narrator no name? Its absence leaves a hole at the center of the novel, for what do we know about the narrator, in the end? Like her mother, she is unfulfilled by her supporting role; unlike her mother, she has yet to find her path. We experience the narrator as she experiences herself, as a shadow.
In search of the light source, one might look outside the text for answers, to Smith’s most notable first-person writing: her criticism. There, in Changing My Mind, the reader will find Swing Time’s origins. Not just the school in “One Week in Liberia,” or the ideas about blackness in “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?,” but the voice itself, the keen and perceptive I that anchors the novel. Smith is one of our best living critics, and she has transposed the instructive, contagious voice of her essays into Swing Time. Like Smith the critic, Smith the novelist encourages us to explore what has so enchanted her. Following the narrator, we too can be mesmerized by clips of LeGon, by the feats of the Nicholas brothers, and retrieve what risks being lost to the past. Swing Time is criticism set to fiction, like dance is set to music. One complements—and animates—the other.