Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Zadie Smith, _Swing Time_ (1)

IT OFTEN HAPPENS (as occurred to me reading Brenda Shaughnessy's So Much Synth a few weeks back) that when you fall in love with the first book your read by an author unfamiliar to you, or the first album your hear by an unfamiliar artist, subsequent work by that author or that artist somehow never delivers that same buzz.

For me, Zadie Smith may be the exception. I fell in love with White Teeth back in 2001--its exuberant humor, its carbonated style, its portraiture of multicultural London--and have read every novel that followed with delight. The subsequent novels did not deliver the very same buzz, true, but they all delivered a buzz of their own, more than enough to keep me coming back for more.

I loved Swing Time.  Let me count the ways.

The twists on the "my brilliant friend" theme. Smith gave us a relatively straightforward version  of the theme in the relationship of Keisha/Natalie and Leah in NW, and here she ups the ante. The unnamed narrator of Swing Time gives us a braided narrative concerning her two brilliant friends--but one is not exactly brilliant, the other not exactly a friend.

About half the chapters are about the narrator's girlhood friendship with Tracey, whom the narrator meets in a dance class. Both girls have one white parent and one black parent, and both are fascinated by dance, and a close friendship forms; for a while, they are inseparable. As they get a little older, and Tracey gets on track to become a professional dancer while the narrator is university-bound, the relationship is strained and eventually broken. But reunions sometimes occur, and the intensity of the girlhood friendship makes every later reunion, whatever the interval in time, feels charged.

Tracey's talent as a dancer makes her a brilliant friend, but her brilliance lacks enduring wattage. She does become a professional dancer, but not a particularly successful one, and not for very long. Somehow, though, the gift she once had remains the fact around which the friendship orbits whenever they meet.

The other chapters are about the narrator's employment as Number One personal assistant to Aimee, an international pop diva with a career somewhat reminiscent of Madonna's--Tracey and the narrator idolized her as girls. Aimee wants to start a school for girls in an unnamed country in west Africa (Gambia, perhaps, judging from the characterization of its president), and the narrator is assigned a variety of responsibilities to that end. (Smith's satire of this classic celebrity-led Africa project is note-perfect, by the way.) Complications ensue, and eventually the narrator is persona non grata in Aimee-world, though her whistle-blowing temporarily makes her a kind of 15-minute celebrity herself.

Aimee is brilliant, but not really a friend. Smith unfolds the peculiar role of the personal assistant skillfully. The narrator is an employee of Aimee, not a friend, but the relationship takes place at a level of intimacy that is a simulacrum of friendship. She is chosen for the job by Aimee on the basis of a kind of affinity, like Jesus choosing disciples. She is so busy minding things for Aimee that she has no time to make actual friends, and is often the object of Aimee's solicitude (abundant dating advice, so Aimee becomes the closest thing she has to a friend. But a friend--it becomes painfully clear--Aimee is not.

The nuances of the narrator's consuming but also critically flawed relationships with these two women--that's one reason I loved Swing Time.

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