It was said later that I was a bad friend to Aimee, always had been, that I was only waiting for the right moment to hurt her, even to ruin her. Maybe she believes that. But it’s a good friend who wakes a friend from her dream.
White Teeth appeared in 1999 when Zadie Smith was 24. It seemed then — as it does even more so now — to be an astonishing feat, a debut novel of startling precocity. It convincingly echoed long-established greats like Martin Amis, Beryl Bainbridge, Graham Swift, and Muriel Spark. It also made the Booker shortlist that year as Swing Time surely will this year, and among contemporary novelists only Donna Tartt or Eleanor Catton have promised quite as much, exhibited such a freakish early level of fully-formed brilliance.
Swing Time, her fifth novel, is immaculate, involving, and utterly pleasurable. But that involvement is not investment, the central players are almost entirely enlarged types who bloom in focus and wither off-stage. They serve the story perfectly well in the moment, but not only do they only flourish under the spotlight they also leave no room for the narrator, who occupies a cold distance at the edge of a stage cleared for another solo performance. You can’t walk round a two-dimensional figure, or have it do too many convincingly unpredictable things — you can only really look at it. It’s as though the largely absent central character — a little in the way of Rachel Cusk’s similarly free-floating protagonist in Outline — is happy to cede all moments to her opposite (although in Cusk’s novel you always had the sense that judgement was being cultivated by two-way interpretation, rather than nursed).
Our narrator is a young girl in London, with a Jamaican mother and an Irish dad, the former desperate for a life of the mind, if only to escape her surroundings and to confirm her accurate sense of superiority, the latter infatuated and in awe with a woman who will quickly tire of him and leave him in her wake as she fulfills her dreams, in which he never really had a place.
My mother was a feminist. She wore her hair in a half-inch Afro, her skull was perfectly shaped, she never wore make-up and dressed us both as plainly as possible. Hair is not essential when you look like Nefertiti. She’d no need of make-up or products or jewelry or expensive clothes, and in this way her financial circumstances, her politics and her aesthetic were all perfectly — conveniently — matched. Accessories only cramped her style, including, or so I felt at the time, the horse-faced seven-year- old by her side. Looking across at Tracey I diagnosed the opposite problem: her mother was white, obese, afflicted with acne. She wore her thin blond hair pulled back very tightly in what I knew my mother would call a “Kilburn facelift.” But Tracey’s personal glamour was the solution: she was her own mother’s most striking accessory. The family look, though not to my mother’s taste, I found captivating: logos, tin bangles and hoops, diamanté everything, expensive trainers of the kind my mother refused to recognize as a reality in the world—“Those aren’t shoes.” Despite appearances, though, there was not much to choose between our two families. We were both from the estates, neither of us received benefits. (A matter of pride for my mother, an outrage to Tracey’s: she had tried many times—and failed—to “get on the disability.”) In my mother’s view it was exactly these superficial similarities that lent so much weight to questions of taste. She dressed for a future not yet with us but which she expected to arrive.
My childhood took place in the widening gap. I watched my autodidact mother swiftly, easily, outstrip my father. The shelves in our lounge — which he built — filled up with second-hand books, Open University textbooks, political books, history books, books on race, books on gender, “All the ‘isms,’” as my father liked to call them, whenever a neighbor happened to come by and spot the queer accumulation. Saturday was her “day off.”
There’s a local friend from dance class, Tracey, also mixed-race, who is a pretty paradox, haughtily assured and desperately insecure, eager to establish a role and inhabit it, and to tell everyone her absent dad is one of Michael Jackson’s dancing troupe. The two girls endlessly watch and re-watch musicals, vowing to emulate their objects of dazzled obsession, and we follow their stop-start friendship as they move through multiple fleeting teenage reinventions. Only one will in any way make it (and not for long); the protagonist will instead, after an unconvinced and unconvincing escape to university, get into (at her author’s attenuated behest) the music industry, from where she meets, befriends and eventually is employed by a plane-hopping pop superstar.
Aimee is a very obvious star: we can tell this as she often talks like the purveyor of quack tat on Goop!, Gwyneth Paltrow. She has nothing to say other than that which might enable her lifestyle, the type of flawlessly empty and aggressively sincere pedagogical stuff that’s soon replaced wholesale by another pop-philosophical fad.
You think what I’m saying doesn’t apply to you, but it does. The brain is connected to the heart and the eye — it’s all visualization, all of it. Want it, see it, take it. No apologies. I don’t apologize ever for what I want! But I see you — and I see that you spend your life apologizing! It’s like you’ve got survivor’s guilt or something! But we’re not in Bendigo any more! You’ve left Bendigo — right? Like Baldwin left Harlem. Like Dylan left . . . wherever the fuck it was he was from. Sometimes you gotta get out — get the fuck out of Bendigo! Thanks be to Christ we both have. Long ago. Bendigo’s behind us. You get what I’m saying, right?” I nodded many times over, though I had no idea what she was saying, really, apart from the strong sense I usually had with Aimee that she found her own story universally applicable, and never more so than when drunk, that in these moments we all of us came from Bendigo, and we all of us had fathers who had died when we were young, and we had all visualized our good fortune and pulled it down toward us. The border between Aimee and everybody else became obscure, hard to make out exactly.
Aimee eventually decides she wants to help build an all-girls school in an African village (from where she will take a baby, that being the kind of payoff she can tolerate) and our protagonist is tasked with arranging much of this altruistic opportunism, visiting on reconnaissance, staking out the territory along with another member of the entourage, Lamin. (Lamin, will eventually form part of a fairly predictable triangle.) This leads to some very obviously wrought comparisons; between Africa and the affluent West; between the lives of Aimee and the young women in a far more primitive and patriarchal society; between those who can, because they have no choice, live in the moment, and those who choose to live in a moment which is ultimately no more meaningful but far less restrictive or imperiled.
We move back and forth between time zones and plot preoccupations, and chronology is subservient to thematic emphasis. Smith cleverly juxtaposes her fractious relationship with Tracey against her equally fractious relationship with Aimee, showing both to be on initially similar but ultimately very different paths, neither of which she wants to follow. What she does finally want is left open-ended. After all that happens to her, there is no resolve to do X or Y, partly because she is none the wiser as to who she is.
When I reached the South Bank the first thing I saw was a poster advertising an afternoon event with an Austrian film director “in conversation,” it was starting in twenty minutes at the Royal Festival Hall. I decided on a whim to try to get a ticket. I walked over and was able to buy a seat in the gods, in the very back row. I didn’t expect much, I only wanted to be distracted from my own problems for a while, to sit in darkness, and hear a discussion of films I’d never seen, but in the middle of the program the director asked his interviewer to roll a clip from the movie Swing Time, a film I know very well, I only watched it over and over as a child. I sat up tall in my seat. On the huge screen before me Fred Astaire danced with three silhouetted figures. They can’t keep up with him, they begin to lose their rhythm. Finally they throw in the towel, making that very American “oh phooey” gesture with their three left hands, and walking off stage. Astaire danced on alone. I understood all three of the shadows were also Fred Astaire. Had I known that, as a child? No one else paws the air like that, no other dancer bends his knees in quite that way. Meanwhile the director spoke of a theory of his, about “pure cinema,” which he began to define as the “interplay of light and dark, expressed as a kind of rhythm, over time,” but I found this line of thought boring and hard to follow. Behind him the same clip, for some reason, played again, and my feet, in sympathy with the music, tapped at the seat in front of me. I felt a wonderful lightness in my body, a ridiculous happiness, it seemed to come from nowhere. I’d lost my job, a certain version of my life, my privacy, yet all these things felt small and petty next to this joyful sense I had watching the dance, and following its precise rhythms in my own body. I felt I was losing track of my physical location, rising above my body, viewing my life from a very distant point, hovering over it. It reminded me of the way people describe hallucinogenic drug experiences. I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance — the opposite. A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.
Stripped to its absolute essentials Swing Time is about four women, three of whom know what they want, and one who doesn’t. Yet nothing that unfolds — as all four intersect — tests the resolve of any of those convictions or uncertainties. Nothing, seemingly, is learned.
Perhaps the problem is simply that Zadie Smith is still writing the same novel. Swing Time is more polished, more impressive, tighter, more accomplished in many ways than her other work. But there’s little sense of daring or evolution; it’s more of the same. To be fair I’ll be reading whatever she does next. But there’s a sense, with each passing novel, of missed opportunity, of more familiar territory mapped and mined. You’d hope that, soon enough, she might have no option but to explore unfamiliar matters, as did Beryl Bainbridge, who tired of ransacking her life for fictional grist. She runs the risk of becoming a purveyor of sumptuous nothings.
Back in 1999 White Teeth, despite conscious deference to its channeled influences, was so impressive a debut, so successful a polyphonic mosaic, so convincing in its multiple voices, and so genuinely funny and optimistic that the bar was set formidably high. Most writers eventually eschew their largely unearned cynicism, or at least develop a more confident, lighter touch (see perhaps Smith’s closest peer and fellow Booker longlister George Saunders). Smith hasn’t done this. There’s a bitter tension to Swing Time that likewise pervaded NW, a hewing to exacting line and length that becomes oppressive. It gives the reader no opportunity to inhabit spaces in its world, nor weigh up any of the ethical matters tidily and efficiently presented, as there is no argument to be had. Goals are set and achieved with a right-headedness and sensibility that are impossible to defy.
For example, we understand that Aimee is driven to be as “fulfilled” as she possibly can and that she has the wealth and the PR team to suitably re-imagine any moral quibbles. Yet we are encouraged to ignore the biographical lacunae and accept Aimee as she is: a vacuum of perpetual “achievement.” If this is to help us understand, by dint of her reaction to Aimee’s behavior, our unnamed protagonist/narrator, it’s a fairly pointless exercise as we surely already share her perception, and thus learn nothing about either. All you can take from any section involving Aimee and her retinue is the facile affirmation that you’re not remotely like Madonna and couldn’t possibly live with wrenching an African child away like some deluxe Gucci handbag. You will ultimately like the protagonist for finding Aimee questionable and for becoming disillusioned (although you might wonder why it takes so long). But it’s an easy win, in which the patina of fame wears quickly thin to reveal next to nothing beneath.
Governments are useless, they can’t be trusted, Aimee explained to me, and charities have their own agendas, churches care more for souls than for bodies. And so if we want to see real change in this world, she continued, adjusting the incline on her running machine until I, who walked on a neighboring one, seemed to be watching her dash up the side of Kilimanjaro, well, then we ourselves have to be the ones to do it, yes, we have to be the change we want to see. By “we” she meant people like herself, of financial means and global reach, who happen to love freedom and equality, want justice, feel an obligation to do something good with their own good fortune. It was a moral category but also an economic one. And if you followed its logic all the way to the end of the revolving belt, then after a few miles you arrived at a new idea, that wealth and morality are in essence the same thing, for the more money a person had, then the more goodness — or potential for goodness — a person possessed.
The protagonist’s relationship with her mother is similarly problematic — here’s another driven role model for her to be ambivalent about. On the one hand, she’s admirably pulled herself out of a deprived and straitened situation to eventually become a powerful political agitator, but on the other, she regularly arranges meetings with her daughter not to check on her well-being but to try and lobby her to get Aimee’s support for various projects. People, it seems, are complex and often selfish.
There’s no doubt that, in getting a novel reliant on such thin polarities between which a narrator must (casually) wrestle with her conscience to work so well is testament to the author’s unquestioned brilliance. She can very quickly repel any doubts you might have about such caricatures by entertaining the hell out of you with pithy dialogue and wry characterisation. This doesn’t, however, make any of what unfolds surprising. Your level of work as a reader is minimal, which doesn’t limit involvement in this writer’s hands but, nonetheless, the book won’t linger. It runs the risk of meaning precisely the same thing to everyone.
The best passages, and the main interest in the novel, arrive in the mode of reverential or querulous discussions about old musicals, including the titular example, starring Fred Astaire in minstrel getup, or when the central character’s old frenemy Tracey is involved. The former highlights Smith’s critical acuity and her infectious enthusiasm for a clearly beloved art form. The latter delivers the only character in the novel who is at all mysterious, confounding, surprisingly mercurial, particularly interesting. Her portrayal asks serious and compelling questions, about fate, about the misuse of talent or attributes, about an evolving competitive friendship and so on. Tracy’s story does not end well (and she is finally a bit of a villain, given to blackmailing the central character’s very ill mother); only Aimee continues to get exactly what she wants. We’re meant to accept this as a fact of life and to not worry about it, to focus instead on the magic that was always there and which the likes of Aimee can never fully appreciate. But in their languished fates the two friends who took very different directions can easily be read as losers, wise after the event, but still bereft and disposed onlookers. At least give us a big song and dance sequence at the end, Zadie! We get it!
Swing Time doesn’t really suffer flaws, just absences. The dialogue quickly delivers a character up, but does not gesture beneath its surface and subsequently doesn’t gesture towards an enriching depth. Nothing odd or disconnected is referenced – only the story’s momentum is articulated. We know who these people are, but we need know no more about them. We can’t imagine anything about them and are told not to bother, such are their levels of vivid focus and attenuation. Characters like Lamin and Aimee, potentially fascinating, are simply unerring agents of a clockwork design, set in perfect orbit around the protagonist, impeccable fulfillers of designated roles.
Many of Zadie Smith’s peers, the vast majority of whom are lesser writers, lesser stylists, seem more defiant, more daring, more willing to deal in interesting imperfections. Being hopeful in such an age is difficult, but many writers have taken on that challenge. Swing Time fizzes and rolls and is often a joy to read but there’s an undeniable final sense of a backward step from someone so good, a sense of marking time, however impressively. On a sentence-to-sentence level there’s little else on the list to compare with it, and it should make the cut. But I hope a riskier, scruffier book wins.