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Zadie Smith, captured in June 2008 | Courtesy of Sarahana Shrestha
Zadie Smith, captured in June 2008 | Courtesy of Sarahana Shrestha
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Forget 'White Teeth', 'Swing Time' Is Zadie Smith’s Masterpiece

Picture of Simon Leser
UK Literary Editor
Updated: 12 May 2017
Zadie Smith’s new novel Swing Time is a contemplative, nostalgic rumination on friendship, family, and heritage — the work of a writer whose talent is at its uninhibited best.
Swing Time, by Zadie Smith | Courtesy of Hamish Hamilton
Swing Time, by Zadie Smith | Courtesy of Hamish Hamilton

Hyperbole can be an issue for anyone writing about Zadie Smith, a problem made worse by the need, among the journalistic kind, to remind readers of how she made her entry into the writer’s circle. To say that no author quite compares to her isn’t as much of an overstatement as one should think: Smith was promised a great career before she even really had one, at the age of 22, when the first 80 pages of her first novel led publishers to compete for its rights in an auction. Upon its publication in 2000, White Teeth was both critically acclaimed and commercially successful, a triumph topped by its near-instantaneous acceptance into the Western canon—among the only works produced by her generation to be so universally celebrated. Rarely has the thrust of greatness happened so fast upon someone so young. (There, again, you see? Hyperboles come too easy.)

Her subsequent novel, The Autograph Man, was somewhat predictably savaged by critics. James Wood, in particular, after already using White Teeth as a springboard for his attack on ‘hysterical realism,’ lambasted this follow-up for its “anarchy of styles, […] cartoonishness and excess, […] misplaced ironies and grinning complicities.” Less predictable is the fact that those reproaches appear to have had a significant influence on the progression of Smith’s writing. There is a before and after The Autograph Man—not since its publication had the former prodigy ventured so brazenly into artistic expression, having become more concerned with ‘capturing’ life rather than letting style run freely.

And so with On Beauty Smith returned to the surer ground of White Teeth, albeit with a little inspiration from Forster’s Howards End—it is an expansive novel of social mores, built around its dialogue, written with clinical charm but deficient of sentiments. A problem which also affects the remarkable-yet-flawed NW, a work which unlike its predecessor played on overbearing form rather than underwhelming style, yet still suffered from a similar lack of emotional resonance.

It is a testament to Swing Time’s power that these previous works’ shortcomings weren’t fully recognizable until they could be measured against it. Putting aside her NYU professorship (where her performance is uncommonly inspiring, or so witnesses have assured me) and her erudite essay writing, it becomes clear that this novel represents the advent of a new, important facet of the artist. She has fused the stylistic sensibilities of The Autograph Man with the experimentation of NW, and the more formalistic prose of On Beauty. In other words, Zadie Smith has dropped the act, and is once again unafraid to make her writing express, more than anything else (though there is certainly plenty of else).

Lobby card from the American musical film Swing Time (1936) with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. | ©RKO / Wikimedia Commons
Lobby card from the American musical film Swing Time (1936) with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. | ©RKO / Wikimedia Commons

The novel’s mood, now its most important facet, oscillates between nostalgic contemplation and farce—a space Vladimir Nabokov used to dwell in as well. It begins with a short scene where our dejected narrator, unnamed, has just returned to London after losing her job. Wandering the city, she happens upon a public event in which a clip from the 1936 film Swing Time is shown; it is a film she is familiar with, one she watched “over and over as a child,” and which as such makes a fitting contribution to her existential hangover:

“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.”

One must suppose that this is a sequence Smith imagined before knowing precisely how she wanted the rest of her novel to play out—it is its emotional genesis, one so careful, so meticulous in presenting the atmosphere, and so unperturbed, apart from a few hints, by commonplace narrative concerns. The ensuing premise is more or less large enough to encompass anything, and can be summarized by a simple question: how did she get there? To which the answer, occupying the rest of the book, naturally begins at the beginning: “If all the Saturdays of 1982 can be thought of as one day, I met Tracey at ten a.m. on that Saturday.”

Her use of the first person, a point of view she introduced to her work in NW, can be deceptive. To take a Nabokovian line on this (him again), under no circumstances should one presume that the narrator is Zadie Smith, despite their similarities—her “Persian nose,” Kilburn upbringing, Jamaican-born mother and English father. This resemblance may mean nothing more than James Fenton and Darryl Pinckney’s cameos towards the end of the novel: it is, at best, a hint of the author’s intent, not a reflection of reality. And as a hint this particular use of the narratorial ‘I’ reveals something very important about her changed method. A writer—no, an artist—must always project part of themselves in their art (that is the root of expression); Smith is unafraid to show she’s resolved to let herself through, not be “a kind of shadow.”

And so for the first time in her writing, this story, and its inevitable build-up towards some sort of all-encompassing denouement, doesn’t really matter. The actual plot is as it should be: limited, an outline of life with no unreasonable tension, plan, or need for outlandish resolve. We follow the narrator as she grows up, loses touch, and occasionally renews contact with others: her best friend (the aforementioned Tracey), mother, father, long-term employer Aimee (a popstar fusion of Madonna and Kylie Minogue), etc… There are plenty of adventures, of course, including 100 pages or so in The Gambia—which help provide with the book’s most insightful socio-political commentary—and it’s clear Smith hasn’t lost her taste for the action-packed.

But none of this compares to the narrative’s wistful power, perhaps laid most prominently in the immense waste of talent associated with its two main characters. Tracey, the dancer, who was once able to spellbind audiences with “the pure vitality of her movements, truly cat-like, ultra-feminine,” and whose “body could align […] with any time signature, no matter how intricate”; and our narrator, the singer, who had performed to small, transfixed crowds in her childhood, and whose voice was endowed with the ability to express, purely, its owner’s feelings. Neither would make much use of these gifts—the first because she wasn’t allowed, the second because she didn’t try.

And it is that melancholy, present in various narrative touches—from a mother’s death to a father’s absence—that makes Swing Time darker than Smith’s previous novels. There may not be any murders, or extended family dramas (even the narrator’s mild romantic faux pas, with a Senegalese man, is devoid of passion), but the sentimental effect is relentless. Its is an elegiac tone, the product of little jollies and larger losses that make up a life in review. And in the prose’s contemplative mood at least a few things are made certain: life is an unfair and losing struggle; the personal is political; and Swing Time is Zadie Smith’s masterpiece.

by Zadie Smith
Penguin Press (US) | Hamish Hamilton (UK)
464pp. | $27 | £18.99