Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Zadie Smith, _Swing Time_ (4)

ALMOST DONE, BUT I could not say farewell to this novel without gushing a bit about the structure as well. Not as audacious as that of NW, a bit of a retreat in that respect perhaps, but the way Smith toggles between the narrator's childhood story and her adult-life story demonstrates its own kind of mastery.

The novel opens with "It was the first  day of my humiliation"--the narrator has burned her bridges with Aimee, but we do not know how or why, and so one thread of the story begins, with our wondering how the day of humiliation came to arrive.

The prologue ends with the narrator receiving an accusatory text message, "Now everyone knows who you really are," which the narrator calls the "kind of note you might get from a spiteful seven-year-old girl with a firm idea of justice," then tells us, "And of course that--if you can ignore the passage of time--is exactly what it was." And so chapter one launches on the day the narrator met Tracey.

The braiding of the stories somehow raises the stakes for both of them, the switching  between them always carrying the effect of a heightening or an illumination, even though they do not intersect until almost the very end of the book.

Just getting better, that Zadie Smith.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Zadie Smith, _Swing Time_ (3)

THAT'S NOT ALL. The reviews of Swing Time I saw did not place it alongside Citizen, The New Jim Crow, The Sellout, The Underground Railroad, or Between the World and Me, but I think one could so place it.

The books mentioned above look directly at slavery, the most brutal dimension of the African-European encounter; in Swing Time, slavery hovers just out of the range of the novel's peripheral vision, but you feel it there. At one point the narrator refers to the "triangular trade" that drove the growth of slavery in the Americas, and the novel itself has a triangle of locations: London, where the narrator grew up, New York City, where Aimee lives, and the Gambia-like country in west Africa where Aimee wants to create a school. As in the old sugar-rum-slaves triangle, the circulation of capital and people involves assumptions and calculations about race that can't be articulated, because articulating them would instantly reveal their moral shoddiness.

Any number of deft touches--the narrator's Caribbean-born mother's academic and political careers, the narrator's discovery of the films of Jeni LeGon, the narrator's developing friendship with Hawa, a young woman in the African village--turn into miniature revelations of the infinite ironies surrounding the general moral catastrophe of the African-European encounter.

And that encounter is in the marrow of the novel: Tracey and the narrator become friends because of the near-match of their skin tones, and Aimee's fame and fortune presumably rest, as do Madonna's, Elvis Presley's, the Rolling Stones', and just about every other world-famous Caucasian pop musician, on a canny appropriation of the legacy of African music.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Zadie Smith, _Swing Time_ (2)

WAIT, THERE'S MORE. A second deeply appealing aspect of Swing Time is that we meet Archie and Clara Bowden Jones again, in a new guise, as the parents of the narrator. (Irie Jones is mentioned in passing as a neighborhood contemporary of the narrator and Tracey.)

The narrator's father is a bit of a pothead, which I don't recall Archie being, and her mother has a drive and ferocity (she attains a degree, becomes an activist and eventually an M.P.) that I don't recall Clara having, but the differences in the parents' ages, ethnicities, and stance towards the universe seem recognizably parallel to those of Archie and Clara, so you just have to wonder...

...are Smith's parents going to wind up having as many fictional avatars as Bess Finkel Roth and Herman Roth?

One certainly hopes so.