In a review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth published in 2000, James Wood used the book to open a discussion of the “big contemporary novel”, characterising this kind of work as “a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity”. These novels of “glamorous congestion” he called “hysterical realism”, one of the stickiest terms to have arisen from literary criticism in recent times – so well did it describe the operations of novels by authors as different as Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo.
Smith was 24 at the time, but perhaps it is a gift to have your debut novel held up –however negatively – as an exemplar of a modern style, because even as your work moves on through other sensibilities, it must give you just cause to think about your form. In Smith’s case, this has resulted in brilliant criticism of her own. She has often demolished evidence “that the imaginative novel is dead (with all its vulgar, sentimental, ‘bourgeois’ – and hard to think up – plots, characters and dialogue)” – asserting the fundamental strangeness of the especially novelly novel, the “well-made” book, which has never had a form conventional enough for anyone to overthrow. It can house many textures (classical, modern, postmodern or hysterical), it can be done well or poorly, but it can’t really be exhausted.
Swing Time delivers hard-to-think-up plots, characters and dialogue. It’s as good a novelly novel as any, on a par with On Beauty, her 2005 update of Howards End. At one stage, the narrator mentions her early love of dance films – how she loved the dance rather than the details. “The rest of it, all the detail, fell away. I ignored the ridiculous plots of those movies: the opera-like comings and goings, the reversals of fortune, the outrageous meet cutes and coincidences, the minstrels, maids and butlers. For me they were only roads leading to the dance. The story was the price you paid for the rhythm.” This novel has such rhythm, but makes it fun to pay the price. Although it does contain an actual plot, with coincidences and reversals, its gasps and turns mainly result from your growing understanding of the characters; the meaning of crucial events clicks not all at once but with continuing satisfaction, like pins in a picked lock.
We meet the unnamed narrator on “the first day of [her] humiliation”. She has been put on a plane and sent back to England from whereabouts unknown, and is hiding from the press in a temporary rental. At the end of this short prologue, she gets a message that reads: “Now everyone knows who you really are.”
From there, we wind back to 1982 and a tale about her adventures with two very different women – the fun is in trying to guess how and when their stories will collide. Tracey is a childhood friend the same brown as the narrator, “as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both”. Tracey is a bit wild and the narrator is a bit not, and while both are raised in North West London public housing, the narrator’s parents are more present and more grounding than Tracey’s, even as the narrator’s mother undergoes a political awakening and grows increasingly distant from her father. When her father speaks of vacuuming, her mother tends to veer into “the importance of having a revolutionary consciousness, or the relative insignificance of sexual love when placed beside the struggles of the people”.
Tracey and the narrator fall hard for a pop star named Aimee (who hails from, of all places, Bendigo, Australia) whose white-blonde pixie cut and androgynous face are causing her to climb the international charts. In fast-paced chapters, the novel soon starts to interleave the past, the distant past and the present. At 22, Tracey is a promising dancer, and the narrator, who has been schooled through the early days of media studies, is plucked from her unglamorous work at a music video channel to take up the semi-glorious mantle of Aimee’s personal assistant.
For most of the book, the narrator lives a version of a life that will be familiar to many modern people – dwelling deep within one’s iPhone, working precarious hours, fielding comments from colleagues and strangers that assume various things about one’s ambitions for children or relationships or security or art or dreams. But even as Smith narrates this life in all its grimness and glory, an extra queasy energy derives from its position at the edges of celebrity. Aimee has a deep belief in the narrator’s abilities, a perilous belief when it’s coming from a person for whom accomplishment arrives almost automatically. “What could she know about the waves of time that simply come at a person, one after the other?” the narrator wonders. “What could she know about life as the temporary, always partial, survival of that process?”
Soon, the narrator is in her 30s; she and Tracey are not friends, cause unknown. Just as ominously, Aimee is building a school for girls in rural West Africa, the Illuminated Academy for Girls, which the locals call the Loomy Academy, and where the local administrators have a good life all their own. Before long, one character has expedited an international adoption; another character is the recipient of constant, threatening emails; and the various threads are drawing towards the promised humiliation, which is as dark as the book has promised, but has more to say than you expect – about inequality, appropriation and the media, as befits the plot, but also about maturity, fortitude and personal character.
Smith is a good thinker about all kinds of topics; to build an incomplete (hysterical realist?) catalogue of what she covers here: there’s class, race, dance, friendship, love, singleness, work, technology, marriage, charity, motherhood, non-motherhood, art, history, travel, heritage, privilege. It’s a vital book with a structure that shapes its profusion of ideas into a sleek, often funny, very entertaining form; Swing Time is wise and good on matters large and small. CR
Hamish Hamilton, 464pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 19, 2016 as "Zadie Smith, Swing Time". Subscribe here.