Dancing on Tape
by Amber Medland
A review of Swing Time by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)
In the prologue to Zadie Smith’s new novel, the narrator – call her N, for lack of a name – searches for a clip from the 1936 film that gives the book its title: Swing Time, the classic musical comedy starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. What she sees is not what she expected. Fred Astaire – graceful, otherworldly, tapping away – appears in blackface. It comes as the first of many betrayals. N is stunned. How did she not notice? Was she complicit, or just wilfully blind? Did she ‘block the childhood image from [her] memory’ for love of Astaire? These are questions to which the existence of the clip demands answers, but Thelonious Monk’s line holds true: ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’. Dance is ephemeral, rhythmic, intuitive, can demonstrate conflict without the need to resolve or explain it away. But a moving image stilled, a dance recorded and taken out of its time, is no longer allowed to flee. Watching the video now, with its trio of shadows as Astaire’s backing dancers, reeling around larger than life, it’s hard for her not to double-take. The dance is fast, the visual effects are stark. Is what N sees a fault in the recording? (She tries to blame her glasses.) She somehow expected better of Astaire. Though he’s a product of his time, he’s also part of our common history, and we would hope he had evolved with us. But blackface is blackface. And so, reading Swing Time, we see the dance twice, first through the eyes of an excited child – this is Astaire in a bowler hat out-tapping his shadows – but then as time and history have come to teach us – this is also Astaire but with a ‘Bojangles grin’, indulging in minstrelsy, whether it’s parody or praise.
Swing, in musical terms, is the style that allows simple quavers to lilt and pulse and shudder. It can be notated approximately, but the actual rhythm, the degree of swing, is based on individual intuition and the style of play. To swing is to gain momentum and rhythmic coherence; a communion takes place between all those listening, in their minds and their bodies. It’s difficult, then, to recreate or even mimic swing without the old mesmerising voices or sounds. N loves to dance but she is flat-footed, doomed from the start to watch from the audience. Tracey, on the other hand, a childhood friend made at dance class, has ‘rhythm in individual ligaments’. Tracey understands swing. She has yellow satin bows and spiral curls, and in the first meeting we get the impression of a spoiled child, spoiled not despite a lack of family money but because of it. Hers is the first of many bodies in Swing Time to be treated as an object; she’s wrapped in gaudy frocks by her mother, framed as a mannequin for N, dressed as a chorus girl on stage – and worst of all, abused by her father then denied the opportunity to articulate her suffering. N, in turn, is drawn to Tracey’s family’s style, the unapologetic desire for tinny glamour, for ‘logos, tin bangles and hoops, diamanté everything’. In the playground, Tracey is the ‘kind of girl worth chasing’, and she knows to run just slowly enough. Unlike N, whose only rebellion is to deliberately fail her grammar-school exams, Tracey does whatever she wants to do.
Yet the two have an unspoken understanding – however grudging, jealous, competitive – that as the only ‘brown girls’ from the estate, they are responsible for each other. Take the scene in which N allows Tracey to tug her by the arm, over the road, and up to her bedroom, where they only ever watch videos and dance. For the first time Tracey asks N what she wants to do, and N is lost for words. Tracey turns on her: “Well, what’s the point of coming around if you don’t fucking know?” She mocks N’s inferior dancing and N sits down on the floor, cries, pities herself, feels stupid, and sets about folding Barbie’s clothes. Then Tracey joins her.
Halfway through this painstaking procedure Tracey’s heart mysteriously softened towards me: she slipped from the bed and joined me cross-legged on the floor. Together we got that tiny white woman’s life in order.
There is a complicity and tenderness here that N will not find again, in the silent peace-offering, the pause stretched with childish concentration, that joyful, determined, utterly contained ending: ‘together we got that tiny white woman’s life in order’. Though she travels onward, from London to New York to Africa, her engagement with the world and sensitivity to others will harden, and our hearts will stay here, in Tracey’s room.
Part of the delight of reading Smith’s first novel, White Teeth (2000), lay in watching her bounce points-of-view off each other until eventually they shattered. Swing Time, by contrast, is her debut first-person novel. She’s said that she drew N as an ‘empty vessel’, but this narrator is aware of her own hollowness, and so the use of the first-person becomes not just a means of literary orientation, but the centre of an existential crisis. N thinks of herself as a shadow: ‘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 any light of my own.’ As she moves through the world, she’s surrounded by individual cases of people searching for their identity. There’s Raj, N’s mother’s ex-boyfriend, a ‘noted activist’ in Hampstead who dumps her when she gets published first; Rakim, N’s first boyfriend, a bi-racial African in denial about his white mother; a seventy-year-old free spirit from Texas running a cafe on Kunta Kinteh Island – a slavery heritage-site – to be near her African toyboy; Hawa, a cheerful teacher who ends up marrying a Tablighi missionary and giving up all the pleasures she loves. These vignettes are captivating in their particularity, the places in which they’re set, but they mount up without accruing much deeper meaning for N. There’s an overabundance of rhetorical questions on the tip of her tongue, and at times they risk leading to faux-revelations more suited to Carrie Bradshaw: ‘I often wondered: Is it some kind of a trade-off? Do others have to lose so we can win?’ Although Swing Time revolves around three female characters – Tracey, N’s mother (a radical intellectual who looks like Nefertiti but spurns make-up and glitz), and Aimee (the richest and whitest pop princess imaginable) – it has little to say about female subjectivity. Comparisons have already been drawn between Swing Time and Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, but the similarities are only superficial and thematic. Both are written in the first person and both centre on a complicated female friendship between two girls who are from poor towns, who grow up through difficult childhoods, and who compete against each other. But My Brilliant Friend is a creative and psychic collaboration, the work of a narrator desperate to capture the fierceness, beauty and meanness of the best friend without whom she couldn’t have been a writer. Elena and Lila alter each other constantly for years, and everything Elena records of Naples, its politics and its history, is coloured by their friendship. Swing Time, by contrast, takes Tracey, N and the power-dynamics between them as a reference point, a place to which N is dragged back time and again, but somewhere she never goes willingly. The energy pulsing through Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels is generated by Elena’s need to stay near Lina, match her, break away. It is not so easy to say what N wants, or, in turn, what Swing Time wants either.
Being captivated by your own source of light will afford you few revelations. Smith uses N’s eyes and voice, but disregards her body, meaning her narrative becomes a recording device attached to a philosopher – one who jets around musing on the superficiality of celebrity, race, music, art. As with her youthful habit of staying in her room and reading about Africa rather than stepping outside, this makes the gathering of new experience difficult. For Aimee, meanwhile, the celebrity superstar, differences between people are all figured out already. They’re ‘never structural or economic but always essentially differences of personality’. Dazzled, she is unable to see beyond her own experience, meaning that for all her magnanimity, her capacity for imaginative sympathy is limited, and her interpretation of the world entirely self-reflexive. When comparing herself to others, she falls back on truisms like ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, rapidly progressing into the inane (if hilarious): ‘If my dad hadn’t died young? No way I’d be here. It’s the pain. Jews, gay, women, blacks – the bloody Irish. That’s our secret fucking strength.’ Aimee, with N in tow, goes to Africa to build ‘The Illuminated Academy’. The real-world analogy is with Madonna, who wrote ‘Ray of Light’ in 1998, adopted two children from Malawi, and in 2013 was accused by the country’s president, Joyce Banda, of ‘making the poor dance for her’. N has an opportunity to notice new sides of the individual characters in the village, their idiosyncrasies, even their strengths, but we see nothing beyond Live Aid images: white people building schools, children dancing, women cooking. Even Aimee’s refusal to call the rape crisis centre which she wants to open a ‘sexual-health clinic’ is laden with abstract weight. The singer, herself a survivor of rape, argues that ‘it’s not about your local context – this is everywhere’, upon which N drifts into a reverie on how there are ‘girls with secrets they can’t tell’ throughout history, all over the world. This may be true, but it will hardly help these particular children in this particular village. On a fact-finding trip, she asks a colleague what “Africa” is like. He replies, ‘If we were flying to Europe and you wanted to know what France was like, would it help if I described Germany?’ Context matters, as N will finally learn in the midst of a scandal enveloping herself and Aimee, when Tracey leaks a video of a pre-pubescent N, clad in a friend’s mother’s lingerie, dancing astride Tracey on a chair. Innocence cannot survive the performance. In the background, it is Aimee’s music playing.
Swing Time’s ‘acknowledgments’ page draws to a close with ‘a note on geography’: ‘North London, in these pages, is a state of mind. Some streets may not appear as they do in Google Maps.’ Or, geography is personal. One of the reasons we all love Zadie Smith is because her sense of place maps so neatly onto what feels comfortable for us. She reassures us about our limited understanding of ‘here’ and ‘there’ just enough to sustain our greedy hope that difference is relative. Unsurprisingly, the most visceral pleasure creeps into young N’s voice when she sees her uncle Lambert, who speaks in Jamaican Patois and smokes weed in the garden with her father:
I thought that when I visited Lambert I was visiting Jamaica, Lambert’s garden was Jamaica to me, it smelt like Jamaica, and you ate coconut ice there, and even now, in my memory, it is always hot in Lambert’s garden, and I am thirsty and fearful of insects.
That coconut ice, even the memory of coconut ice, sinks deeper into the psyche than any of N’s adult experiences in Africa, as if the only way she can truly experience other places is to imagine herself there, or retreat into her idea of what it should be like. Smith’s own vision triumphs when she instead makes room for the kind of ‘double-faced facts’ which N suspects ‘only children are able to accommodate’. When Tracey says that her absent father is dancing with Michael Jackson, it may not be true, but the lie tells us more than any reality the child can explain. The successive images of Jackson leaning forward at a forty-five degree angle to the floor; the children falling flat on their faces in an attempt to replicate it; discovering that he used wires; hearing him questioned by Oprah on TV about whether he bleached his skin; learning that years earlier the Africans in Ali Baba Goes to Town nailed their shoes to the floor for the same move – these lies create their own language, and the staggering intricacy of Smith’s work makes itself apparent when she lets the reader feel the reverberations for themselves. Hearing about two truck drivers from Huddersfield visiting ‘their girls’ in Banjul was fascinating – N’s reflection that it represents ‘one kind of weakness feeding on another’ less so.
Smith is at her most agile when manipulating time: swinging between ‘here’ and ‘there’, between international time zones and personal tempos, through time warped by technology, time traumatised, time slowed and preserved in memory. Part of us remains hung up on the eternal present of the first sentence: ‘If all the Saturdays of 1982 can be thought of as one day, I met Tracey at ten a.m. on that Saturday, walking through the sandy gravel of a churchyard, each holding our mother’s hand.’ Within these pockets of here and now, characters inhabit their present with varying degrees of comfort. Initially, Tracey’s dancing offers escape from a cul-de-sac by allowing her to be alive in the moment – ‘her body could align itself with any time signature’ – but when her abusive father is no longer there, trauma sets in, and she goes ‘into standby mode pausing herself like a video-tape’. She finishes the novel in her childhood bed, watching the same musicals she and N did as children. Beneath all of this, Smith uses time not as a medium through which memory unfolds continually, but as an axis of narrative control. Swing Time models its mapping of time upon VHS tapes, and N says that she and Tracey were ‘the first generation to have, in our own homes, the means to re- and forward-wind reality’. On watching Tracey rewind a tape of Jeni LeGon back to her favourite place, to watch the dance unfold over and over again, N marvels at her friend’s ability to know when to stop and start, her intuition about what to do. To rewind a video tape, you need to know the scenes that surround the one you’re looking for; you need a sense of ‘here’ to get to ‘there’. N’s mother – the novel’s most developed character – is an advocate of this idea, and in an attempt to wean her daughter off her dancing, she tells her: ‘Doesn’t matter if you’ve got flat feet, doesn’t matter because you’re clever and you know where you come from and you know where you’re going.’ But N, despite her efforts, has no roots beyond Hampstead Heath, and is lost in a newly digitised world. Trying to conceal her absence at one of Aimee’s concerts, she has the revelation of being able to reconstruct the scene like a machine, mentally projecting her presence outward: ‘I was everywhere in that room at all moments, viewing the thing from all angles, in a mighty act of collation.’ But this is wishful thinking on two counts. It betrays an authorial longing for third-personal omniscience; N’s lack of development is in part a result of forcing a first-person character to do the temporal work of a third-person text. The first-person narrator can jump between ‘here’ and ‘there’ if she likes, but we expect time to have left its marks. And it’s also how N wants memory to work, a comparably digital way of thinking in which ‘growing up’ just means ‘leaving behind’. N, however, grew up with the analogue, the VHS, physical objects with real persistence, and she’s stained by memories that can’t be wished away. Tracey sends a note with the video she publishes, a girlhood game turned into pornography, and N feels it to be ‘the kind of note you might get from a spiteful seven-year-old girl with a firm sense of justice’. She adds: ‘And of course that – if you can ignore the passage of time – is exactly what it was.’ The emphasis here is on ‘passage’. Time moves on and so do we, but we do not move through it that easily.
Prior to the release of Swing Time, Smith wrote a piece for The Guardian titled ‘What Beyoncé Taught Me’, contrasting the styles of several iconic dancers and extracting lessons for writers from their bodies. From Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, we learn to ‘choose the grounded rather than the floating’; Janet Jackson, Madonna and Beyoncé command ranks of dancers gyrating in perfect formation and remind us of the importance of control. But in her commentary on The Nicholas Brothers and their 1920s black vaudeville, lauded by icons from Astaire and Kelly to Jackson and Baryshnikov, Smith lingers. The pause betrays a tension within her own performance. To her eye, the technical brilliance of Fayard Nicholas is undeniable, but he is ‘more concerned [than his brother] with this responsibility of representation when he dances’. By contrast, Harold Nicholas dances with abandon, reckless, absorbed in the now, and perhaps more caught up in the sensation of dancing than in knowing himself as a dancer. Though Smith comes down on Harold’s side – ‘Between propriety and joy, choose joy’ – the pull towards representing, towards speaking in universal symbols, subdues the exuberance of Swing Time too. Only when she gives room to local colour, in the shape of minor characters and their cameos, does her novel express the tensions which interest her, and then joy slips in under the radar. Take a scene at the takeaway where N works for a time, run by ‘a ridiculous Iranian called Bahram, very tall and thin, who considered himself, despite his surroundings, to be a man of quality’. They watch tennis on the TV, the black American Brian Shelton playing the Arab Karim Alami. The audience divides along racial lines; Bahram is crowing, and the young worker Anwar distraught, as initially Shelton falls behind.
But he was not lost: he took the set seven-five, and Anwar took the broom away from the Congolese cleaner – whose name I did not know, whose name no one ever thought to ask – and made her dance with him, to some hi-life he had going on the transistor radio he carried everywhere. In the next set Shelton collapsed, one-six. Bahram was exultant. Wherever you go in world, he told Anwar, you people at bottom! Sometimes at top White man, Jew, Arab, Chinese, Japan – depends. But your people always they lose. By the time the fourth set started we had stopped pretending to be a pizza place. The phone rang and no one answered, the oven was empty, and everybody was crammed into the small space at the front. I sat on the counter with Anwar, our nervous legs kicking the cheap MDF panels until they rattled. We watched these two players – in truth, almost perfectly matched – battling towards an elongated, excruciating tiebreak that Shelton then lost, six-seven. Anwar burst into bitter tears.
This passage is full of music: the hurried sweep of the broom; the hi-life on the transistor radio; Bahram’s fervent ranting; the phone ringing; their legs drumming against the counter; the pock of tennis balls. The tennis scores the act like a time signature: ‘seven-five’, ‘one-six’, ‘six-seven’. The momentum builds. It’s impossible to read this passage without falling into its rhythm. Everyone is moving, jostling, caught up at the same pitch of emotion. It’s more like a dance than anything else in the novel.
[Originally published in the Cambridge Humanities Review, Issue 14.]