Zadie Smith’s Swing Time

I liked, but did not love this book.

The book begins with failure. Or “my humiliation” as the narrator, a young woman, puts it. The young woman has been sent back to London by some unknown employer. She is hiding in considerable affluence and is tasked with avoiding the public, not to escalate a situation. From the beginning it is obvious that the narrating woman is familiar with London, affluence, the public, but not at home in these spaces. To distract herself from her predicament, she spontaneously attends an event at the Royal Festival Hall that includes a screening of the movie Swing Time, starring Fred Astaire. Watching her childhood favorite, she is transported back to a space she did feel at home in, and her love of dance. In this nostalgic moment she realizes that she has always defined herself through the “light of other people.” that her experience of herself is “a kind of shadow.” After the event, she returns to her doorman-secured-hideout and is joined by Lamin, a beautiful man from Senegal who is connected to the failure and someone for whom the narrator scandalously can’t have feelings. Still enthusiastic, she wants to share Swing Time with him. Lamin disapproves, for a reason our narrator only now realizes: Fred Astaire is dancing in black face. Her escapist space is based on a well-made minstrel show. This prologue ends with the narrator receiving an email from a childhood friend titled “WHORE.”.

The prologue is exemplary for the strengths and weaknesses of Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s 2016 novel about two biracial girls in North London. Beginning in their troubled childhood, both girls are in love with dance, and feel more at home in the studio than in the estates they grow up in. One of them has actual talent, and a dance mom; the other has more (non-financial) resources and becomes the longtime personal assistant of a Madonna-like pop superstar. The latter is our narrator, and the novel follows her to a village in a West African Nation where the superstar sets up a school for girls and influences the life in the village. The stories of the narrator’s job as a jet-setting gofer and her background in London are told in alternating chapters.

The strengths of Smith’s novel are obvious: Her prose is engulfing and almost flawless. The narrator’s observations, especially of the role of dance and body performativity in a girl’s coming-of-age process,  are insightful and absorbing. Smith’s treatment of race, class, and gender is smart and unique.

Unfortunately for a book over 400 pages long, the plot development is Swing Time’s biggest weakness. I couldn’t truly connect with the characters, but character development was okay. In comparison to the aforementioned insights and flawless prose, however, the plot was rather unimaginative. The big ““humiliation” hinted at in the prologue and the commentary and insights create high expectation in the first two thirds of the book, and the actual reveal in the end is then oddly banal. As a collection of observations and commentary I really enjoyed Zadie Smith’s book, but as a novel I was a bit disappointed.

Books I Read in August

August’s been a pretty good month reading-wise. I finished a novel and read another for the #2016classicschallenge – Ingrid Bachmann’s Malina and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon – and a wide range of other books:

Ingrid Bachmann: Malina

I picked up this book at my parent’s one weekend in July, and decided to read the novel as my July #2016classicschallenge. Malina is the first novel of Austrian poet and writer Ingrid Bachmann. It’s excellent, a love story of sorts and also an exploration of language, self, mental health, and the post-WWII generation told through the first-person narrator, a woman writer living in Vienna with her roommate Malina. The narration is so complex, intimate and intensive that it took me awhile to get into it and was hard to finish (for personal reasons) but I definitely recommend it.  

Dave Zirin: Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Struggle for Democracy 

Dave Zirin is maybe the most interesting sports writer today. His blend of sport reporting, class analysis and leftist politics here comes in form of a report on the impact of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics on the people of Rio. The book includes a brief, concise history of Brazil, and I was especially impressed by the way Zirin connected Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine to the sports sphere.

Jeannette Walls: The Glass Castle 

I can barely believe this memoir is true. The childhood story of journalist and writer Jeannette Walls is one of abject white poverty, both neglect and love by her parents. The layers abuse sometimes made me so mad that I could barely keep reading, but Walls prose is so enthralling that I stuck with it. Overall it’s a coming of age story of a future gossip journalist that could be the plot of a Toni Morrison novel. The role of reading as escape, escapism and as habitus marker alone is fascinating.

Toni Morrison: Song of Solomon

My August classic, and one of the novel mentioned by the Swedes when Morrison received her Nobel prize. I’m always awed how compact her narrative and prose is. In this comparatively brief novel, Morrison tells about a century of African-American history, posits questions of race, gender and family, the role of lineage, death and love in Black communities, and creates  complex, messy characters. Perfect.

Paul Beatty: The Sellout 

An odd book to follow Morrison for a number of reasons. Paul Beatty’s novel about a man in the agrarian hood of Dickens in LA county who wants to bring his town back on the map and in the process unintentionally becomes the master a slave and intentionally (faux) segregates the neighborhood is being hailed as one of the best satires of recent time. I don’t really agree.  I don’t think the book is that well written, the scorching snide side remarks and references are at times just packed to tightly, and the book does make a lot of use of the nword (always ending in -er. never in -a) and reproduces a lot of racism and sexism. I know that that’s the point, but sometimes he overdoes it. Also, I’m not so sure if it’s a satire at all. A lot of the book is hyperbolic and satirical, but I didn’t read it as hysterical or humerous as a many (also white) critics did. At first I thought it really was supposed to be “Swiftian satire” as one of the blurbs claims, but halfway through I started reading as more angry than entertaining. It does critique pretty much every contemporary aspect of U.S. society, both mainstream and Black, and once I understood it to be a extremely eloquent “Shit’s Fucked Up and Bullshit” sign, I connected to it more.