Penguin Press, 2016
464 pp., 27.00
When I was small, someone—maybe a librarian or maybe LeVar Burton—read me a story about an artist whose drawings came to life on their completion. The artist, though, wanted to keep his wild talent a secret. Which was, at first, easy. In drawing each picture, he simply left something out. He'd withhold a farmhand's Adam's apple, for instance, or rid a ship of an important cord in its rigging, and, sure enough, everything would keep still and two-dimensional. But then one day (of course) a bead of ink dropped from the artist's pen, landing in exactly the place where he had not drawn a bird's eye, and off the thing flew, blowing his cover.
I've long suspected Zadie Smith of possessing a similar magic.
And on reading her fifth novel, Swing Time, I'm sure she does. I'm sure, in other words, that it wouldn't take much more ink for the seven-year-old girls that appear on this book's first page—both brown, both British, and both in tap-shoes—to turn up incarnate in my living room. (Admittedly, it would be a long trip; Swing Time, like Smith's debut book, White Teeth, and her latest, NW, takes place in Kilburn and Willesden and their surrounds—in, that is, a working-class, immigrant-rich quadrant of London.)
As for these two girls, Tracey and the book's unnamed narrator, they throw in together thanks to a Saturday morning dance class. Apart from this shared activity, they are not likely friends. The only other circumstance in favor of their attachment is geographic proximity; the estates (read: lower-income housing complexes) in which they live sit kitty-corner. Much more works against their connection; they go to different grade schools and have mismatched dispositions.
Tracey is ringletted and foul-mouthed. She eats pink cereal for her tea (read: supper). She's a virtuoso of sass, of amelioration, of defensiveness. She slouches through school but is selectively keen. She can scan the choreography of a dance or the configuration of someone else's weaknesses without apparent effort—and can exploit such data, devastating rivals (and the occasional friend) and, yes, dancing. Exactly like the angel she is not.
Swing Time's narrator—flat-footed and enamored with the past, with Top Hat and Meet Me in St. Louis, with Bojangles and the Nicholas Brothers—cannot keep up. Not at Miss Isabel's middling dance school for girls and not in daring bad behavior. She has none of Tracey's imperviousness. On the contrary, everything sways her: songs, schoolyard fads, her mother's lectures, her father's shrugging, and whole species of silences. And Tracey, always Tracey.
Over the course of Swing Time, these two girls grow up and, fitfully, apart. By the time the novel ends, they are thirtysomethings. Tracey keeps her knack for mimicry and the narrator her bent for living vicariously, but both make compromises. Both, in fact, become compromised versions of their childhood selves, as I suppose we all do.
Swing Time's characterization, however, compromises nothing. I can imagine these grown women giving Smith's prose the slip and taking on flesh just as easily as I can imagine an incarnation for the asymmetric pair of girls with whom the book begins.
Yet here is an even more remarkable thing: it isn't just the two characters at the center of Swing Time that strike me as irreducibly themselves. It's also their parents. The narrator's mother, a woman prickly with aspiration, and her father, a kind sad sack, strike me as familiar yet unrepeatable. So does Tracey's mother, with her sloppy generosity, her sneer, her girlishness worse for the wear. And her volatile father, his long absences explained with an inspired lie (Tracey says he's one of Michael Jackson's backing dancers).
Likewise, the whole retinue of the narrator's eventual employer, the international pop sensation Aimee, hover very close to being itself, from crusty, trusty Judy to subtle, particular Lamin; from unsubtle Granger to leery, approachable Fern. And when a West African school teacher with "Disney-bright features" enters the narrative largely to give the narrator shelter in the village that Aimee has singled out for her patronage, even she cannot remain an extra. The lovely Hawa, too, comes across as ready to shake off her fictional existence in favor of the real thing.
Zadie Smith's dedicated readers, of course, will have already met, in her writing, characters who test the screen that separates art and life. I know because I am one of those readers. If you're not yet, let me point you to On Beauty's Kiki Belsey, who sweats and laughs more convincingly than some of my kin. Or toward Smith's short stories, toward Miss Adele (of "Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets"), and toward Fatou (of "The Embassy of Cambodia"). How easy it would be to mistake either of them, in memory, for folks who really did draw breath to waylay you with their stories.
Still, Swing Time outdoes Smith's earlier fictions. That it outdoes them is partly a matter of degree. Characters a hair's breadth—or a drop of ink—away from full human being appear in this writer's work from the beginning, to be sure, but they throng this novel.
Which I find all the more moving because, in the end, this novel is not about any of its characters, not really. Don't get me wrong: this story would founder without the figures that people it, and the fellow-feeling with which it tells their stories is a pleasure in itself.
Swing Time, though, is about what it means for us to embody ideas—to embody them in choreography, in change, in utero, in metastasis. It is about the ideas we swallow and the ideas we stomach, about the ideas we claim and those that claim us. And it is about this truth: to be a self (irreducible, unrepeatable) is certainly to muddy and maybe to sweeten any idea you embody. As it should be.
In this book, one of those ideas is the idea of blackness. Indeed, pressed to talk about Swing Time in the run-up to its completion, Zadie Smith described it as a fable, the moral of which had to do with "the feeling of blackness."
But fables do not brook complication. Fables are like the kankurang, whom the narrator of this book calls "the greatest dancer [she] ever saw." Anonymous and hidden in a mop of leaves, "of a man's height but without a man's face," the kankurang undoubtedly embodies an idea of blackness, but only an idea, and, in a matter of four pages, he comes and goes: a marvel, but that's all.
Everywhere else, though, Swing Time surpasses fable, so that the violet blinking of a baby born in the Gambia embodies an idea of blackness, and the man who in some easier world might have been one of Michael Jackson's backing dancers embodies an idea of blackness. And the brown woman who taps her feet in unison with the impeccable clatter of Fred Astaire, though he's performing in black face: she embodies an idea of blackness, too. As does the politician biting back her parents' patois. And so on.
What's more, the fraught idea of blackness that they, taken together, embody—so much less pure than that performed by the kankurang—approaches a truth as a limit, in the same way an agnostic who tries to meet God halfway once and then, from there, to meet God halfway again, and again, and again, will approach belief as a limit.
Swing Time, then, cannot compromise on its characters because, if it did, its ideas would flatten them. The beings in this novel need to be beautifully jointed so that ideas can work on them like dance or atrophy, and they need to be strongly rendered so they can dent and coil the ideas they bear. And if an artist withholds the ink that would turn her characters over to us, incarnate? Well, perhaps it is because we need to grow into more honest company for them first.
Jane Zwart teaches literature and writing at Calvin College and, with co-director Jennifer Holberg, leads the newly launched Calvin Center for Faith and Writing.
Copyright © 2016 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.