The Dangerous Dance of Friendship
A Review of Swing Time, by Zadie Smith (Penguin Press, 2016. $27.00)
We are stuck in an age of dichotomy. So easily the haves are separated from the have nots; the black from white; the blue from red; the city from country. The novelist Zadie Smith is ill-inclined to let dichotomy have its day. Her latest work, Swing Time, sweeps across the supposed dividing lines between culture/race/class and obliterates difference in a cloud of confused dust.
Issues of race, gender and class are important to Smith (she doesn’t sweep the apparent difficulties under the rug of indifference), but she refuses the cliches of pigeon-holing any character to the cultural expectations of their race, gender or class. The two main characters (we meet them as young elementary school dancers) are both “brown”–daughters of white and black parents. Zadie Smith has used similarly parented characters in other novels and Smith herself is the daughter of a black Jamaican mother and white English father. Smith was also a young dancer and this novel–her first first-person work–has the sense of autobiography, however artfully employed.
And while I can’t know if a young Zadie Smith was a lover of Fred Astaire movies, it is interesting to find these two young dancing girls enthralled by the silky moves of Astaire. Their passion is so convincing that it pushed me to YouTube to look at some old Astaire clips, and wow, what a thrill. This clip from the 1936 film Swing Time shows Astaire and Ginger Rogers at the height of their powers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxPgplMujzQ.
Of course, Smith is fully aware of the racial history of dance and of the complications of cultural appropriation (especially around tap dance), but she lets that history play out within the confines of the awareness of two brown preteen girls growing up in lower class London public housing. And if you’re on YouTube already, Smith leads you to the great Nicholas Brothers https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBQOfyR75vY and the history of moonwalking https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZHS-JKRuzw .
Swing Time just won’t let the reader get comfortable with the dogmas of predetermined taste and aesthetics, or even with the predetermined notions of color. The unnamed main character is perceived as “black” in England, but is read as “white” when she travels to Africa as an aide to a pop culture icon–a one-named star reminiscent of Madonna. Race is malleable, it swings back and forth based on the uses and prerogatives of a dominant culture.
And the novel swings across time and travels back and forth between countries and the metaphor extends toward the sky and nearly breaks at the apex. The scenes in Togo with the naively do-gooding pop star are less effective than the superbly drawn English family lives and the exquisitely painful friendship between the two girls. But it is a big 452-page novel with lots of room for side trips and slippery slopes.
Zadie Smith always provides serious issues to ponder in her novels–from the immigration and colonization concerns of White Teeth to the aesthetics of On Beauty and the formal experiments of NW. But what lifts her fiction to the extraordinary is the complete range of love and resentment, hate and resilience that informs her depictions of friendships. In Swing Time, we watch the young friends Tracey and the unnamed narrator go through years of attachment and distance along with dependence and disdain. In Smith’s world, friendships are necessary and even a means of survival, but also life-threatening and soul-destroying. We glimpse moments of bonding between them and witness their understanding of being known like no other person can know you, but the fact of this knowing creates vulnerability and fear. Friends are dangerous, and Zadie Smith uses that danger to heighten the vibrating tension in all her novels.
Swing Time makes me think of the friendships of my grade school years–some of which have survived into my fifties. They’re all fraught with too much knowledge of each other, but also resilient in a way that makes no real logical sense. The two “brown” girls in Swing Time remain wary of each other even as Smith takes us through their adult years.
Swing Time is the next book in the WFDD/Scuppernong Book Club. We will meet on Saturday, May 13 at 2:00 at Scuppernong to discuss the book, listen to some Zadie Smith interviews and maybe even dance. All are welcome.