Loads of Learned Lumber

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.

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