Reviews — From the January 2017 issue

In The Shade

Zadie Smith and the limits of being oneself

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Discussed in this essay:

Swing Time, by Zadie Smith. Penguin Press. 464 pages. $27.

A friendship is the fulcrum of Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s roving and capacious new novel. The unnamed narrator and Tracey, two girls whose “shade of brown was exactly the same,” barely speak to each other when they first meet at a Saturday-morning dance class in 1982 near their council flats in North London. But immediately the narrator feels “this mutual awareness, an invisible band strung between us, connecting us and preventing us from straying too deeply into relations with others.” As the two half-black girls in their dance class, they giggle and joke with the white girls who “had every right to assume that they were our focus, our central concern,” but during break time, the narrator recalls, “Tracey and I lined up next to each other, every time, it was almost unconscious, two iron filings drawn to a magnet.”

Illustration by Steven Dana

Illustration by Steven Dana

The intensity of the girls’ friendship has as much to do with the differences between their families as it does with what they share. The narrator’s politically minded, Jamaican-born mother — “a woman plotting an escape, from me, from the very roles of motherhood” — would rather read Marxist tracts than play with her daughter, and she disapproves of Tracey’s mother, a white woman who is raising the girl on her own. Still, the narrator finds comfort in her friend’s home, where “despite my mother’s constant implication that Tracey’s mother was slovenly, a magnet for chaos, I found her kitchen both cleaner and more orderly than ours.” The narrator’s mother, with her high-minded ideas about food, can’t spend fifteen minutes in the kitchen

without being reduced to a sort of self-pitying mania, and quite often the whole misguided experiment (to make vegetarian lasagne, to do “something” with okra) became so torturous for everybody that she would manufacture a row and storm off, shouting. We would end up eating Findus Crispy Pancakes again. Round Tracey’s things were simpler: you began with the clear intention of making Findus Crispy Pancakes or pizza (from frozen) or sausages and chips, and it was all delicious and no one shouted about it.

The narrator is also aware that Tracey is the natural ballerina, her feet “like two hummingbirds in flight,” whereas the narrator is a better singer than a dancer, her flat feet relegated to tap. Their friendship revolves around dance: they watch musicals together, make up melodramatic stories about ballerinas “in various forms of physical danger,” and are enthralled when they see Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, marveling at his red leather outfit as “we jerked our zombie bodies.”

As time goes by and the girls drift apart, their friendship recedes into the background of the novel. Tracey becomes a professional dancer; the narrator briefly works for a music-video channel before landing a job as the personal assistant to a Madonna-like pop star named Aimee, who replaces Tracey as the focus of the narrator’s concern. Years pass without any contact between Tracey and the chameleon-like narrator, who takes on the cosmopolitan lifestyle of her boss, shuttling by private jet between London, New York, and, eventually, a village in an unnamed country in West Africa, where Aimee opens an “empowering school for girls” and, as you might expect, adopts a child.

This may sound like the stuff of bad satire, but Smith is less interested in the contemporary cult of celebrity than in the ripple effects of such power on the lives it touches. “Everybody’s path crossed with hers at the same moment,” the narrator says of Aimee, and the novel moves back and forth in time in order to convey the narrator’s attempt to make sense of it all. Aimee’s impact on her life began long before they first met, when she and Tracey brought her debut single to the tenth-birthday party of a playmate, a white girl named Lily Bingham, who lived in a “whole house” with a garden. Decades later, a video of the two brown girls from the council flats dancing to the song, dressed in lacy camisoles taken from Mrs. Bingham’s lingerie drawer, is uploaded to the internet and becomes part of a vicious public shaming.

That such a video would be quite so humiliating — some consider it “borderline child pornography” — might seem dubious; surely one of the legacies of a go-girl phenomenon like Aimee would be to render mildly risqué dance routines unexceptional. Then again, the narrator grew up being told that certain permissions granted to middle-class white girls didn’t apply to her. She and Tracey arrive at Lily’s birthday party in fancy attire; the white girls are wearing pinafores and dungarees, and Mrs. Bingham “looked almost homeless, her hair barely brushed.” When the narrator’s mother is told about the impromptu dance show, her reaction makes clear that they have breached more than birthday-party etiquette. “You think you’re one of them?” she shouts. “Is that what you think?” A couple of years later, when the narrator is on the cusp of adolescence, her mother tells her that dancing is a dead end:

“What happens with this” — she gestured at my body — “that will never matter, not in this culture, not for these people, so all you’re doing is playing their game by their rules, and if you play that game, I promise you, you’ll end up a shade of yourself. Catch a load of babies, never leave the streets, and be another one of these sisters who might as well not exist.”

There is something mournful about this admonition, which comes at the midpoint of the novel, long after we learn that, for the narrator, dance represents an ideal form of freedom — an ability to live decisively, in the moment, outside the exigencies of passing time. When we first meet her, she is back in North London after being fired by Aimee (the reasons become clear later). One afternoon, she drops in on a talk by an Austrian film director. He projects a video that the narrator remembers vividly from her childhood: a scene from the 1936 musical Swing Time, in which Fred Astaire tap-dances in front of three silhouettes who struggle to keep up with him. The director drones on about “pure cinema” and the “interplay of light and dark,” but the narrator finds that the clip exerts a more immediate power. “I’d lost my job, a certain version of my life, my privacy,” she says, “yet all these things felt small and petty next to this joyful sense I had watching the dance, and following the precise rhythms in my own body.”

As lovely as this sentence is, Smith is flirting here with sentimentality; at such moments, dance risks becoming the ultimate embodiment of, well, embodiment — a convenient counterpoint to abstraction and artifice, as well as the political ideas brandished by the narrator’s mother. But Smith is too subtle a writer to leave it at that. Returning to her flat, the narrator pulls up the Fred Astaire clip on her laptop and realizes that she is looking at a white man in blackface. “I had managed to block the childhood image from my memory,” she admits. “The rolling eyes, the white gloves, the Bojangles grin.”

In Swing Time, dance is not simply a visceral experience of movement and joy; it is also an activity that is mediated — often watched rather than done — and commodified. As a child, the narrator had ignored the hokey plots and stereotypes of the big-budget musicals, with their “minstrels, maids and butlers.” For her, “a dancer was a man from nowhere, without parents or siblings, without a nation or people, without obligations of any kind.” She and Tracey became mildly obsessed with the dancer and actor Jeni LeGon, whom Tracey physically resembles, after watching her in the 1937 musical Ali Baba Goes to Town. Only as an adult does the narrator realize how naïve she’d been about LeGon’s actual life. She had imagined all sorts of friendships between her and the people with whom she worked, including Astaire, when in fact he never spoke to LeGon, considering her tantamount to the maids she portrayed. Even the French-sounding name, so glamorous to two little girls in North London, was a fiction: Jennie Ligon, the Chicago-born descendant of sharecroppers, became Jeni LeGon because of a typo in a gossip column.

The narrator realizes that the dancer they had imagined “was not really a person at all, that was only a shadow.” Shadows, both literal and figurative, are everywhere in Swing Time. The narrator, thinking about LeGon while seated at a café in Paris, sees that her “own shadow was huge and knife-like under the table.” She is still working for Aimee at the time, and only after losing her job does she realize “that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

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is an editor at The New York Times Book Review.

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