Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This is my first experience of Zadie Smith. She is a British novelist, born to a Jamaican mother and a white father. From the first page, her British background was obvious. (It took me a minute to remember that “estates” are what we Americans call “apartment complexes.”) Although I certainly have read a lot of British literature over the years, I haven’t really read modern ones. (Unless Waugh counts as “modern”) Although I did read Black Swan Green a few years back, that one was rural. Certainly, I haven’t read any modern British literature with an urban setting. One of those weird gaps, I guess. 

 Zadie Smith

Anyway, Swing Time is set mostly in London and Africa, with a few episodes in New York and other big cities. While the novel is not autobiographical, the unnamed narrator is very similar to the author in biographical details. The black mother, white father, a love for tap dancing, and a complex set of half-siblings are the most obvious. The narrator’s childhood friend, Tracey, is also a bit of Ms. Smith. Although the colors of her parents are switched, she looks a lot like the narrator. Except she is actually talented at dancing, while the narrator is mediocre. While the narrator’s mom is literate and socially ambitious, her father is a plodder, content to work for the postal service. Tracey’s dad is not in the picture (and it is implied that when he does show up, he sexually abuses her.) Her mom is what we would call “white trash” here in the United States: vulgar, overweight, uneducated, tacky - and looks down on the narrator’s parents as much as they look down on her.

The book is written in such a way that you have to piece the timeline together as you go. It keeps switching between the narrator’s childhood and her adult life, and the prologue starts near the end of the story, and isn’t actually explained until near the end. It is a bit disorienting, and you really have to pay attention to narrative details or you miss how things tie together. I think this contributes to the feeling I had that the book was more of a series of episodes than a narrative with an arc and direction. This isn’t meant to be a criticism. If anything, life itself tends to be episodic rather than fit a neat arc. I was reminded a bit of David Copperfield, which also followed a character through his youth in a series of related, yet disconnected episodes. In a way, this very style is an assertion that life isn’t neat, people aren’t simple categories, and events take their own directions, not the ones dictated by artistic considerations.

The basic plot is as follows (spoilers, so skip if you prefer):

The narrator becomes friends with Tracey after they meet at a dance class. They don’t have that much in common, but are the only non-white kids there, and they at least share a love for dance. Later, they drift apart after Tracey gets into a dance-oriented school on scholarship, and the narrator takes a more academic route. They reconnect a few times, but find they have less in common than they thought. Tracey gets some professional dance roles, but never makes it big. Instead, she ends up a lot like her mother, with some kids with different fathers and no real direction to her life.

The narrator, on the other hand, disappoints her mother with mediocre results in school, and a low paying job at the fictional equivalent of MTV Britain. Then, she happens to meet Aimee, an Australian pop megastar (probably patterned after Madonna), who hires the narrator as a personal assistant. She spends the next decade plus at this job, before events cause a shattering break near the end of the book, and the narrator finds herself without a job, having essentially devoted all her time to Aimee. During their time together, Aimee decides to build a girls school in Africa (the place isn’t named, but is probably Gambia.) This turns out to be a bit of a failure because of Aimee’s failure to listen or understand the real needs of the community. As I said, it kind of meanders, just like the narrator tends to drift without a purpose.

The strong point of the book, on the other hand, was the well-drawn characters. The narrator is at the center, obviously. It is odd that her name is never given, even by the other characters. But perhaps not knowing makes it easier to imagine oneself in that place. The narrator’s parents were recognizable people - I’ve met a few like them. I suspect there might be a bit of Smith’s parents in them. They certainly explain how the narrator came to be who she is. The psychological interplay of the characters is quite true to life.

I also thought that Tracey and her family were intriguing. There are a lot of people like them in my part of the world too. I thought the author was perceptive about a couple of things. First, she gives a rather positive picture of a loving (if not always put together) single mother. Tracey’s home is challenging, but her mother is actually a better mother on balance than the narrator’s distant ice-queen mother. Poverty and occasionally questionable decision-making do not overwhelm what is essentially a happy home. In my work in juvenile dependency proceedings, I see the dynamic that Tracey and her mom face. Poverty leaves one with a low margin for error, and thus there is social worker involvement, and more judgment than assistance.

The other thing, though, that the author also gets right is a kind of defensive superiority complex - a defense mechanism against feelings of inadequacy. We all fight our insecurities in our own way, and Tracey’s mom does it by lording what she feels is her superiority over others. It is the flip side of the coin of the narrator’s mom, who goes full on Tiger Mom on the narrator.

There are a few great lines in the book that I want to mention. One is a description by the narrator of her time at the TV station. She doesn’t fit in culturally, both because of her race and because of her background. She is into the old dance musicals, not her own era of music.

In the great piles of glossy magazines, also freebies, left around the office, we now read that Britannia was cool -- or some version of it that struck even me as intensely uncool -- and after a while began to understand that it must be on precisely this optimistic wave that the company surfed. Optimism infused with nostalgia: the boys in our office looked like rebooted Mods -- with Kinks haircuts from thirty years earlier -- and the girls were Julie Christie bottle-blondes in short skirts with smudgy black eyes. Everybody rode a Vespa to work, everybody’s cubicle seemed to feature a picture of Michael Caine in Alfie or The Italian Job. It was nostalgia for an era and a culture that had meant nothing to me in the first place, and perhaps because of this I was, in the eyes of my colleagues, cool, by virtue of not being like them.

The narrator’s taste, throughout, is always toward an older period.

            But elegance attracted me. I liked the way it hid pain.

Another great line comes from Fern, one of the guys who makes Aimee’s Africa project work as well as it does. He is a sympathetic character, as one of the genuinely good-intentioned people in the book. He is also more perceptive than most of the others.

“No one is more ingenious than the poor, wherever you find them. When you are poor every stage has to be thought through. Wealth is the opposite. With wealth you get to be thoughtless.”

This one is so true. Aimee’s biggest problem is her wealth, which allows her to both dictate her life, and assume that everyone else can do so too. In her view, differences in outcomes “were never structural or economic but always essentially differences of personality.” This attitude, too, permeates a lot of middle to upper class whites I know. It is darkly amusing when they complain that poor people can’t budget - when they themselves have far greater incomes and piles of debt. The margin for error is just greater for them…

There is another perceptive observation, this one by the narrator, about her experience in Africa, while visiting the site of a slaving prison.  

All paths lead back there, my mother had always told me, but now that I was here, in this storied corner of the continent, I experienced it not as an exceptional place but as an example of a general rule. Power had preyed on weakness here: all kinds of power -- local, racial, tribal, national, global, economic -- on all kinds of weakness, stopping at nothing, not even at the smallest girl child. But power does that everywhere. The world is saturated in blood. Every tribe has their blood-soaked legacy: here was mine.

Sad, but undeniably true. And true in our time, where children are sacrificed to power and tribalism.

One final quote is on the topic of the narrator’s mother. After a lifetime of trying to make her daughter into the sort of world-conquering superwoman that she envisioned, she is obviously disappointed.

I wondered if some similarly chilly epigraph existed for me: She was not the best daughter, but she was a perfectly adequate dinner date.

It’s the little bon mots like that which add sparkle to this book. Overall, I found that it was hard to put this book down. Good writing, human characters, and a tendency to bestow grace on even the most flawed people in the story.

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