Saturday, December 17, 2016

Swing Time

I saw Zadie Smith speak, shortly after White Teeth came out, in front of a relatively small crowd in San Francisco.  We were both in our twenties then, she's one year younger than me, and I was full of jealousy and awe for what she had accomplished, and how sophisticated she was, and how beautiful.  Someone asked her what she was going to work on next and she said she wanted to write a book like a musical, where people break into song, inconceivably, as people do in musicals. I wonder if Swing Time is that book, but with singing replaced by dancing.

I remain in awe, many novels later, and I love how her books have become even more thoughtful and contemplative. Swing Time moves slowly, and I read it that way, over several weeks, allowing myself to enjoy her phrases.  As in a recently article by Smith in The Guardian, What Beyoncé Taught Me, it's impossible to read without stopping to look up YouTube videos of people dancing. The book is intensely beautiful, and I often stopped to think about what it would look like if I drew a sentence, or what the movie version would look like.

I suspect that the style, told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, is borrowed from some aspect of British literature, and, once again I curse my non-existent PhD in the same.  This perspective is distancing, and the reader feels closer to the narrator's best friend, Tracey, who's brilliant and talented and clever and mean.  She's Tracey's companion and dancing partner, the Ginger to Tracey's Fred Astaire, and they fall out as Tracey's star seems to rocket and she takes a more conventional turn, both of them more than a little jealous of the other's path.  The narrator works for a Madonna-like narcissistic mega-star later in life and her activities absorb the narrator's time and talents.  They make multiple trips to Africa, where the star funds a school for girls. Smith delves deeply into themes of racial identity in this area, where the black, British narrator of Jamaican descent is often considered white and American by her colleagues and friends there.

Our narrator considers herself a dancer and an actor (despite never really practicing those things beyond
her childhood) although not as good as Tracey, but she finally allows herself a little freedom near the end of the book.  At a drum circle at the school, everyone is dancing:
Eight drumming women later, even Mary-Beth had attempted a dance and it was my turn. I had a mother pulling each arm, dragging me up. Aimee had extemporized, Granger had historicized - mooonwalk, the robot, the running man - but I still had no ideas about dance, only instincts. I watched them for a minute, the two women, as they danced at me, teasing me, and I listened carefully to the multiple beats, and knew that what they were doing I, too, could do. I stood between them and matched them step for step. The kids went crazy. There were so many voices screaming at me I stopped being able to hear the drums, and the only way I could carry on was to respond to the movements of the women themselves, who never lost the beat, who heard it through everything. Five minutes later I was done and more tired than if I'd run six miles.
Like On Beauty, Smith ends Swing Time with deceptive simplicity, turning the final words in a book into, in fact, a world of possibilities - a beginning.

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