what i'm reading: swing time by zadie smith
Smith is no minimalist. If you like your novels plot-driven, you might wonder, why did I just read so many words just to go from A to B? I do love and admire minimal writing -- such as Kent Haruf's -- but I also love the lavish, textured tapestry that Smith lays down. Her writing is rich in detail, but not overburdened.
Swing Time is narrated by a woman looking back at different times in her life. The story cuts back and forth among three narratives, as time passes and the narratives move closer together chronologically. I knew the three threads would come together, but I didn't know how -- and when they did, the movement was so seamless that I barely realized the anticipation was over.
There's a lot going on in this book. In terms of plot, there's the narrator (she is never named) as a child, with a stridently intellectual and political mother of Jamaican descent, who is all about "our people," but not so much the individual person who is her daughter, and a laid-back, white, working-class dad. And there's her best friend Tracey, with whom the narrator takes dance lessons and obsessively watches old movie musicals. Tracey is talented, dominant, and perhaps unstable -- a constant but shifting presence in the narrator's life.
There's the narrator as a young woman, trying on different versions of herself, and finally falling into a job as personal assistant to a globally famous pop star. Working for Aimee -- who is drawn along the lines of Madonna in her heyday or Beyonce, but is neither of those -- brings the narrator into a world where there is no boundary between life and work, and where an entire universe revolves around one person.
And there's the narrator in west Africa, where Aimee wants to build a school for girls, where the brown British narrator and the white Australian pop star are referred to equally as "the Americans," where an entire village sees less money in one year than what Aimee's entourage spends on coffee in a week.
In each thread, we meet characters who are fully imagined, real people, and who carve out their own way of being in the world, their own space on a complex matrix of wealth, class, colour, family, belief, resistance, accommodation, compassion, and self-interest.
And more. Music, dance -- friendship, ambition -- class, colour -- ancestry, history -- all manner of parenting -- fame, charity, poverty -- altruism, narcissism, celebrity worship -- self-awareness, self-absorption -- all is woven into Swing Time. Smith creates a world where everything is relative. Fame and wealth, talent and invisibility, ambition and purpose are all constantly in flux, and only exist in relation to everything else. Including -- especially -- race, class, and power. In the world of Swing Time, there are no absolutes.
For me, nothing ruins a novel faster than a lot of exposition. Don't break your narrative to explain things to me; don't use your characters as dictionaries or billboards. Smith does the opposite: nothing is explained. Places in London and New York, cultural references of working-class Brits, Muslim practises in Africa, historical references -- Smith throws it out there, and it's up to the reader to catch on, whether from context or Google. Some readers might find this frustrating, but it keeps the pace upbeat and the narrative voice true.
Swing Time is what is sometimes called a Bildungsroman, a kind of coming-of-age story of an adult. It is a riveting and richly rewarding read.