Thursday, 1 December 2016

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

 
published 2016


 
Swing Time 1
 


[London in the 1980s:The narrator’s father is always reading The Communist Manifesto]

‘Some people carry the bible,’ he told me proudly. ‘this is my bible.’ It sounded impressive – it was meant to impress my mother – but I had already noticed that he seemed to always be reading this book and not much else, he took it to every dance class, and yet never got any further than the first twenty pages. 

Within the context of the marriage it was a romantic gesture: they’d first encountered each other at a meeting of the SWP, in Dollis Hill, but even this was a form of misunderstanding, for my father had gone to meet nice leftist girls in short skirts with no religion, while my mother really was there for Karl Marx. My childhood took plane in the widening gap. I watched my autodidact mother swiftly, easily, outstrip my father. The shelves in our lounge – which he built – filled up with second-hand books, Open University text books, political books, history books, books on race, books on gender, ‘All the “isms”,’ as my father liked to call them, whenever a neighbour happened to come by and spot the queer accumulation.


 
commentary: Swing Time jumps around all over the place (perhaps like someone dancing, as dance is such a major theme of the book?) It has an irritating triple time scheme: the framing device is that the unnamed narrator has done something terrible, is in disgrace, is watching out for the consequences. So she is looking back at her childhood as a mixed-race little girl in North London, taking dance lessons with her new friend Tracey. And then we get chunks of her life in her 20s, leading up to whatever-it-is that happened. Dancing is the connecting line throughout: Tracey is a terrific dancer, and hopes it will mean she gets on in life. The narrator’s mother wants the way out to be via education and political knowledge.

In paragraphs and in pages, in lines and sentences and chunks of dialogue I enjoyed a lot of this book: Smith is such a very good writer, and can be entrancing. But overall I thought it was a mess, because none of the sections linked up. The two girls’ friendship was seen as a key element of their lives, but actually it wasn’t. The only really important incident seemed to be when Tracey told the narrator a bad story about her (ie the narrator’s – can you see how irritating this namelessness becomes?) father, which is instantly and undoubtingly believed by the narrator and acted on in a completely unconvincing manner. We are told portentously how important the friendship is, but without evidence. Tracey pops in and out of the later parts, but there is no connection, no reality about it. Her affair with another actor is never fully explained or given any closure.


swing time 2The narrator goes to work for a world-renowned music star – one who resembles Madonna in some ways – and the description of those years is very convincing, completely believable, rather like an insider tell-all story. There is a whole section in Africa, a country unnamed but apparently the Gambia, where the popstar, Aimee, wants to do good. Again, these sections seem very real.

The scandal, the bad thing the narrator did, is ridiculous when it finally turns up: I can’t explain why I think that without spoilers, but it seemed not serious enough, and the way it played out didn’t seem likely at all.

There were so many enjoyable parts to the book – the narrators’ parents’ relationship, as indicated above; the scenes describing dancing and films and various entertainments; the consideration of black culture and black contributions to dance; and the many excellent jokes and witty lines.

swing time 3

But to me there was a great yawning hole in the middle, where the separate parts just didn’t link up. I kept thinking Zadie Smith was going to pull it all together, make more sense of it, but it didn’t happen for me.

I had a similar conflicted reaction to Smith’s last book, NW, here on the blog.

The top picture is a 1970s fashion advert. The other two are entertainers Sammy Davis Jr and Pearl Bailey.














14 comments:

  1. I like narrators and protagonists to be named, too, Moira. Other than one or two writers (like Bill Pronzini), I think it's generally too awkward if you don't name those main characters. Some of this book sounds really interesting; but, from your description, there's not enough real 'glue' to hold it together. And for me, that glue is really important.

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    1. There didn't seem to be any reason at all not to name the narrator, and that irritated me. There was much to like about the book, but it's lack of cohesion made me uncomfortable.

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  2. Oh darn. I really didn't like NW and was hoping this one would be more like her earlier books. Maybe I'll skip this.

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    1. I think she provokes very individual reactions, and I know others really like this one. But it is more like NW than the others, I would say.

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  3. I tried some Zadie Smith a few years ago, and I came away rather annoyed because she does have talent as a writer. However, I think that she's heard the word 'brilliant' used to describe her once too often, and it's encouraged her bad habits. She needs a good, strong editor to help her out. I remember an interview with Douglas Adams, where he said that early on in his career the time he spent writing scripts for DOCTOR WHO was very satisfying precisely because he was edited. The Script Editors were old-school BBC types like Robert Holmes and Anthony Read who would point out plot holes, make sure the plotting was stronger, and keep bad habits in check. Some writers don't need an editor, but some very much do, and I think that Zadie Smith does.

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    1. That's very interesting about Adams, and I wholly agree about Smith. If this book had been submitted as an unknown, I think she would have been told she had talent, but she had to take it away and go on a creative writing course about plot and structure...

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  4. Moira, this is a wake-up call to read Zadie Smith. And I do like the colour pictures you have chosen. They remind me of the flares (bellbottoms) people wore in the seventies.

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    1. Thanks Prashant, I did love that picture. It's an advert for Levis.

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  5. Oy, what a dilemma. I loved White Teeth and liked On Beauty. I started but could not finish NW, as I didn't know what was going on, really.
    But I'll try Swing Time.

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    1. I found NW difficult to begin with, but did eventually like it. This is not the best book I've ever read, but it did have a lot going for it, I like her take on the world.

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  6. I agree about liking Zadie Smith's take on the world. White Teeth is one of my favorite books, a classic in my view.

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    1. I'm less of a fan of that one, but I do admire her as a writer, and am always interested to know what she is doing next.

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  7. As I believe I have commented here before, I do enjoy getting your take on this author, but I don't have time to try her out. And this case, I would probably get frustrated.

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    1. I think that's probably the right decision for you. She doesn't fall into any of your genres, and is very UK-focused.

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