By now, Zadie Smith has long ago come into her own as an author. Her largely autobiographical voice, which has always served her well (particularly with her debut, White Teeth–and, incidentally, Smith pulls a rather Bret Easton Ellis move in that her narrator references going to school with Irie Jones, who also has a Jamaican mother), reaches a more elevated, literary stride with her fifth novel, Swing Time. Once again, the narrative draws obvious comparisons between Smith’s own life as a tap dancer during her youth, at one point wanting to be a musical theater actress. However, like the nameless narrator (nameless because she herself is so malleable and muted), Smith never ended up pursuing this path as she had intended. Whatever the reason for this may have been, all we know is that, in Narrator’s case, fading into the background on a regular basis stems from an epic childhood friendship with another girl of her same shade of black, Tracey, who goes to the same tap class as her and lives in an estate nearby (for those Americans not aware, an estate in London is a project, not like a posh country home). It is, in fact, their distinct color, created from having a black mother and white father, that bonds them instantaneously. And this is the first moment in which Smith establishes one of the primary themes of Swing Time: can you truly forge a friendship based solely on race?
At first, the answer seems to be yes, but, over time, and as Narrator and Tracey grow apart primarily due to the latter’s belief that Narrator is trying to denounce her roots and be something she is not, it feels as though Smith is deliberately highlighting the notion that being the same color as someone does not a friendship make. It can be the initial foundation, sure, but certainly not the sole quality that allows the “alliance” to last in a symbiotic way. And then there’s that word, “symbiosis.” It’s the thing that keeps many relationships in Swing Time hanging together by a thin thread. As it pertains to her and Tracey’s mutual obsession with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the film after which the book is named, Narrator questions whether any relationship can ever be pure in the sense of not expecting anything in return from the other person, stating, “I became fixated, too, upon Katharine Hepburn’s famous Fred and Ginger theory: He gives her class, she gives him sex. Was this a general rule? Did all friendships–all relations–involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of qualities, this exchange of power?”
With the narrative structure alternating back and forth between different moments in time, we see how this query changes in Narrator’s mind throughout each phase of her life. For instance, as a child, she sees her mother as a perfect, though unattainable creature–in spite of the fact that she always seems to be busy reading and studying, for what Narrator can’t exactly ascertain. It is only later, when she’s in her twenties, that she fully understands her resentment toward her mother, and that the marriage she had to her father was advantageous primarily to her moving on to a higher step on the staircase of life. Her mother’s devotion to the cause of the collective rather than the individual colors Narrator’s sense of abandonment and unidentified sense of self. Narrator reflects, “What do we want from our mothers when we are children? Complete submission. Oh, it’s very nice and rational and respectable to say that a woman has every right to her life, to her ambitions, to her needs, and so on–it’s what I’ve always demanded myself–but as a child, no, the truth is it’s a war of attrition, rationality doesn’t come into it, not one bit, all you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit…that her battle with the rest of her life is over.”
Bearing this sentiment in mind, what Narrator gets in contrast is a mother who is so determined to pull herself up by the bootstraps with an education that will get her to a powerful station in life (ultimately Parliament) so as to enable her to aid those who could not help her in her own era of need. It is nothing short of ironic that the person who needs her care and attention most, Narrator, gets lost in the shuffle of this pursuit. And this, too, is one of the many revisited motifs of Smith’s work: is someone able to thrive in life more easily because of what they have or because of the natural drive within themselves to succeed–to be better? In Narrator’s case, all the tools she has–an intact home, education that’s at least more adequate than what her parents had and adamant encouragement from her mother (whenever she lifts her head from a book)–do not seem to be any match for what Tracey possesses congenitally: talent.
Despite Tracey’s overt gift for dancing, her brash attitude is what holds her back often times. Conversely, Narrator is more accepted and well-received by those around her quite simply for her tractability. Not particularly memorable or gifted, it is as Narrator says of herself upon going to a new school without Tracey at her side, “That autumn, in my first term at my new school, I found out what I was without my friend: a body without a distinct outline. The kind of girl who moved from group to group, neither welcomed nor despised, tolerated, and always eager to avoid confrontation. I felt I made no impression.”
Being this forgettable in personality is what makes Narrator so wayward in life, eventually landing a job with Australian pop star Aimee (she’s presumably supposed to be some sort of composite of Madonna and Kylie Minogue) by chance after encountering her at the youth-oriented MTV foil, YTV. Aimee, by now in her hippie-dippy phase of the 90s (what some cynics would liken to Madonna taking up Kabbalah), has chalked up their encounter to fate, and soon after reaches out to her to fulfill her personal assistant’s position. Quickly thereafter, Aimee’s life becomes Narrator’s life, which is just as well when considering that Narrator has always preferred finding solace in the shadows of someone else’s spotlight.
Her mother makes no bones about her disapproval of Narrator’s so-called “profession,” which essentially amounts to being glued to a phone and detaching herself from all sense of permanence. As her mother once told her when she was still a girl, “The sankofa is a bird that ‘looks back over itself, like this.’ She bent her beautiful head round as far as it could go. ‘From Africa. It looks backward, at the past, and it learns from what’s gone before. Some people never learn.'” Clearly warning her not to make the same mistakes as her forebears in catering to the demands of a white rich person simply because it’s easier than finding her own voice, Narrator, somewhere within, knows that she is nothing like the sankofa, never able to learn from the errors of her collective or personal history.
And, in truth, all the isms her mother once bandied to Narrator’s dismay suddenly begin to make sense to her, especially when Aimee makes it her priority du jour to funnel money into education and housing for a small village in West Africa. Among others involved in the project besides Narrator, so too, is a Brazilian architect/strategist named Fernando, who gradually begins to develop romantic interests in Narrator in the face of her near total callousness toward him. And then there are Lamin and Hawa, two villagers with feelings for one another that get misplaced among their need to escape from the town by any means necessary–proving one of the many aphorisms of the Narrator’s mother: “People are poor not because they’ve made bad choices… they make bad choices because they’re poor.”
The more frequently the African plotline is addressed, the more the topic of socioeconomic status as an inherited versus earned quality comes into play. Watching Lamin social climb his way out of Africa by glomming on to Aimee (age difference be damned–for the time being), Narrator muses, “Maybe luxury is the easiest matrix to pass through. Maybe nothing is easier to get used to than money. Though there were times I saw a haunted quality in him, like he was being stalked by something.” This idea of feeling shame over how one manages to claw his way out of an unfavorable financial and social standing is present in each of the characters of Swing Time.
Tracey, too, suffers from this perpetual, underlying humiliation–though in her case, it’s for not being able to ascend past her original “level.” In this regard, she does her best to explain why her kids have no father figure, sarcastically telling Narrator, “Well, as you can see, I tried vanilla, cafe au lait and chocolate, and you know what I figured out? On the inside, they’re all the fucking same: men.” The contempt Tracey feels for men in particular stems naturally from her simultaneous admiration and hatred for her own father, of whom she insists for many years is always absent because he’s a backup dancer for Michael Jackson. It is possibly for this reason that she may or may not be telling a lie when she informs Narrator of something foul she witnessed her father doing in the middle of the night one evening when they go back to her house together as adults. Though it could be entirely true, it’s hard to ever truly know with Tracey how much is embellished for effect and to achieve a sense of justice. But this flair for the dramatic is largely why Narrator respects Tracey so much–she has no fears or qualms about who she is. Narrator, on the other hand, wants so badly to find some sense of self–any sense of self at all. This point is emphasized while traveling with Aimee, Narrator ruminating, “I thought of all the singers and dancers and trumpet players and sculptors and scribblers who had claimed to feel like people, finally, here, in Paris, no longer shadows but people in their own right, an effect that possibly required more than twelve hours… and I wondered how these people were able to tell, so precisely, the moment that they began to feel like a person.”
Then again, Narrator has the luxury of being able to overthink her existence far more than most of those who orbit her. Even a cab driver she chats with while in New York, explains, “Twenty-eight years I’ve been here. Here is so stressful, you have to be so angry to survive here, you live off the anger…it’s too much.” Too much to leave time for self-reflection as well.
Meeting up with Fernando after rejecting him, the proverbial bubble that Narrator–and most people–live in is addressed with biting candor as he reminds her, “‘Well, we can say that Aimee lives in her bubble,’ he said, interrupting me, ‘and so does your friend and, by the way, so do you. It’s possible that it’s like this for everyone. The size of the bubble is different, this is all. And perhaps the thickness of the–what do you call this in English?–skin–film. The thin layer on a bubble.'”
Thus, though Narrator is a member of the oppressed, she doesn’t identify with those “less fortunate” than she is, like the villagers in Africa she seeks to help, or even Tracey for that matter. At the same time, she can’t find her place in white society with the likes of Aimee either. The person who most rudely yet succinctly sums up Narrator’s “problem” is her college boyfriend, Rakim, a militant type who only finds fault in Narrator’s love of Old Hollywood and reverence of actress/dancer Jeni Le Gon even though she was only ever given, at best, servant’s roles regardless of her dancing talent. She recounts, “He was repelled by the media I was supposed to be studying–the minstrels and the dancing mammies, the hoofers and the chorus girls–he saw no worth in any of it, even if my purpose was critique, the whole subject for him was empty, a product of ‘Jewish Hollywood,’ whom he included, en masse, in that deceitful ten percent.”
Rakim serves as yet another representation of a person she can’t quite fit with or impress because of her “level of blackness.” Or is it rather her “level of whiteness,” thanks to her father? She rehashes, “These deep faults Rakim traced back to the blood of my father, running through me like a poison. But it was also my own doing, my own mind, too busy in itself. A city mind, he called it, the kind that can never know peace, because it had nothing natural to meditate upon, only concrete and images, and images of images–‘simulacra,’ as we said back then.”
Even so, getting out of the city environment and “back to her roots,” as Africa is supposed to embody for all black people, Narrator can’t find her place there either. It is almost as though, regardless of “getting out” from under the shadows of the estates, she is worse off than Tracey, currently too old and overweight to dance and with four kids and no boyfriend or husband to help her take care of them. It makes one think back to when they were coming up together and Narrator meditates, “…the way they began to speak of Tracey took on a tragic dimension, for isn’t it only tragic heroes who have no choices before them, no alternative routes, only unavoidable fates?” It is only as the book comes to its end that we realize Narrator is the true tragic character, doomed to allow others to speak for her and drive her relative inaction as she wanders through life utterly confused about her place in it.
“Now everyone knows who you really are” is the phrase that gets dangled throughout the book by Tracey after she leaks a tape of her and Narrator dancing scandalously to a popular single of Aimee’s while at a ten-year-old classmate’s birthday party. And that’s what keeps Narrator going back to Tracey every time–no matter how little they relate to one another anymore. Because even if they have nothing in common other than color and past, at least someone knows who she is.