Madonna? Beyoncé? Angelina Jolie?
Which pop star inspired Zadie Smith to create the celebrity who bends the universe to her will in “Swing Time”?
But that’s hardly the most interesting question raised by this thoughtful new novel, which moves across the years and oceans — from London and New York to West Africa. This is a story at once intimate and global, as much about childhood friendship as international aid, as fascinated by the fate of an unemployed single mother as it is by the omnipotence of a world-class singer.
Smith, who rocked the literary establishment while still in college with a partial manuscript for “White Teeth,” opens her fifth novel to the toe-tapping tunes of Fred Astaire’s 1936 musical comedy “Swing Time.” But a darker bass line thrums beneath that happy melody. In the prologue, the narrator, a young woman recently fired from her job, seeks solace by Googling an old video clip of Astaire performing “Bojangles of Harlem” — and quickly discovers that memory can be just as flexible as the great dancer. “I hardly understood what we were looking at,” she says. There’s Fred Astaire outdancing his shadows just as she remembers from when she first watched the number as a child. But now she notices with disgust that he’s in blackface: “the rolling eyes, the white gloves, the Bojangles grin.” Astaire’s magical performance suddenly seems stained by racist exaggerations.
That jarring realization serves as the overture for this complicated story that delivers a series of unsettling revelations as it moves along two alternating timelines. One takes us back to the narrator’s childhood in 1982 when she lived in northwest London, where the author also grew up. She’s the daughter of an unambitious white father and a strident, emotionally unavailable mother from Jamaica who’s determined to get her degree and champion the cause of social justice. The narrator’s best friend is Tracey, a girl she meets at dance class. “Our shade of brown was exactly the same,” she remembers, “as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both. . . . Tracey and I lined up next to each other, every time, it was almost unconscious, two iron filings drawn to a magnet.”
Smith records that attraction, which persists for years, with mingled strains of nostalgia, humor and pathos. The grade school scenes are small masterworks of storytelling in which the child’s innocence is delicately threaded with the adult’s irony. If the style of “Swing Time” is less exuberant than her previous work, Smith’s attention to the grace notes of friendship is as precise as ever. While the narrator slogs along through high school and college, Tracey — the talented one, the daring one — clings to her star-struck dream with corrosive determination. She and the narrator drift apart for long periods, but each new sighting rekindles that disorienting sense that no time has passed. Their old feelings of affection grow knotted up with jealousy and even disdain.
Spliced between these memories appears a more recent story about the narrator’s work as a personal assistant to Aimee, one of those internationally ubiquitous celebrities “uncontained by space and time.” Of course, the shelf of novels — romantic and satiric — about the super-rich is already crowded, but “Swing Time” may be the most perceptive one I’ve read about the distortion field created by fame and wealth. Surrounded by handlers who sweep before her, clearing away every obstacle, Aimee is a kind of child, accustomed to having every desire sated, every action praised, every idea celebrated.
Although you’ll recognize flashes of Aimee from grocery store tabloids, this is no roman à clef. Smith, writing with a cool wit that always maintains its deniability, is more interested in the outsize influence such entertainers exercise on our culture. Invited into this celebrity’s inner circle, the young narrator feels the magnetism even while maintaining her critical judgment. She can’t help but wonder, with a balance of envy and condescension, “what it must be like to live in this world of shifting facts that move or disappear, depending on your mood.” For a biracial young woman with no money, the world is not nearly so malleable.
Much of “Swing Time” describes Aimee’s efforts to build a school for girls in a poor West African country — not unlike the site of Yaa Gyasi’s recent novel “Homegoing ,” the kind of place that should inspire the narrator to witness her roots. Although Smith never plays Aimee’s naive endeavor for laughs, the resulting project is a classic case of misguided altruism engorged on vanity. “To Aimee,” the narrator explains, “poverty was one of the world’s sloppy errors, one among many, which might be easily corrected if only people would bring to the problem the focus she brought to everything.” And if she can appropriate a few African dance moves along the way, well, that’s a win-win, right?
There’s a touch of Oprahism in Aimee, with “the spiritual epiphanies she was able somehow to experience spontaneously.” She isn’t intimidated about dropping in to help a poor Muslim village that she knows nothing about because “she found her own story universally applicable” — which may be the most deft articulation of Western arrogance ever written.
Smith never forces a connection between Aimee’s public glory and Tracey’s private despair; instead, she lets these two women’s stories play out on their own respective stages. But eventually the contrast between the boundless success that Aimee enjoys and the grinding failure that the narrator’s poor friend endures align as almost exact opposites, as different as white and black.
And yet Tracey’s disappointment as a dancer isn’t the only sorrow swelling up through this story. The narrator’s ambivalence about her own life gradually calcifies into something approaching despair, which only the novel’s playful treatment of time keeps suspended for a while. Yes, in African dance she finds the joy she’s always been looking for, but there is no place for her in Africa now — just as there seems to be no place for her in England or New York. And the identity politics that fuels her mother’s passion offers her no warmth at all. She is our Nick Carraway, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of wasted life. She’s burdened with superior insight that grants her nothing but a sharp sense of her own irrelevance — she never even tells us her name.
“Swing Time” uses its extraordinary breadth and its syncopated structure to turn the issues of race and class in every direction. As in the work of any great choreographer, movements that seem initially extraneous eventually prove essential. If there was something overwhelming about Smith’s previous fiction, something relentless about her storytelling, “Swing Time” is written in a different register. For one, it’s in the first person, but it’s also measured and elliptical, all the more engrossing for its gaps, more likely to omit detail than to engulf us with it. After several valiant near-misses over the last year, we finally have a big social novel nimble enough to keep all its diverse parts moving gracefully toward a vision of what really matters in this life when the music stops.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On Nov. 17 at 7 p.m., Zadie Smith will be in conversation with former NPR host Michele Norris at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I Street NW, Washington. For ticket information, call Politics & Prose at 202-364-1919.
Penguin Press. 464 pp, $27