Exile on All Streets

Zadie Smith's Swing Time is light by design but as powerful as its predecessor, NW. Where that book vaulted a reader down the block, Swing Time carries you gently to a finish that is bloodless and brutal. The two novels are siblings, rooted in the same slice of northwest London, though Swing Time casts out into New York and West Africa. Themes found in all of Smith's novels appear: the clash between various Anglophone cultures; a friendship falling out of alignment when only one of the friends hits the big time; and the ways people use each other as markers of authenticity.

Swing Time is narrated in flickering time, with a story that bounces between decades. The narrator, never named, embodies the British and West Indian conflict, with an English father and a Jamaican mother. In her early adulthood, she finds herself working for a white Australian pop star turned global do-gooder, Aimee, who charges forward, always, allergic to the reflection (and self-abnegation) our narrator subsists on. As a child, our narrator lives for dance, one of the many art forms Aimee hoovers up, heading for a final appropriation that goes way beyond "being dressed up to resemble Asante nobles." The narrator becomes fully aware of the self-interest baked into both entertainment and the humanitarian project Aimee decides is one of her mandates.

The narrator is not unreliable so much as reluctant. She is her own absence. The book begins with an unspecified "humiliation" that has been public and severe enough that she is hiding out in a rental flat in St. John's Wood. When the coast is clear, she attends a lecture on film at the Royal Festival Hall. A director shows a clip of Fred Astaire's performance in Swing Time, which she's loved since childhood. At first, seeing Astaire dance elicits "a wonderful lightness in my body, a ridiculous happiness." This reverie loops back and catches her: "A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow." Later, when she watches the same segment again on her computer with her former coworker and current romantic distraction, Lamin, she realizes that Astaire played Swing Time in blackface. She has never seen this, or decided not to.

For a novel with only mild eruptions of the illegal, Swing Time moves like a policier. We open and close with a narrator in exile, and many of the characters are impulsive and peevish enough to have exiled her. So who will the villain be? A man figures in the banishment, but men, too, are experienced mostly as an absence. The narrator spends the book being pulled between three women—her childhood friend Tracey; her mother (also unnamed); and Aimee, who might as well be called Madonna Jolie.

Tracey and our narrator share the bonds of loving dance, and of having both a black and a white parent. Tracey prefers her dancing current and popular. (During their youth, Michael Jackson represents the now.) Our narrator is drawn to older heroes like Astaire, Bill Bojangles Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, and, most significantly, Jeni LeGon, a black American dancer who played bit parts in Hollywood films like Ali Baba Goes to Town and Stormy Weather. (Unlike Aimee, LeGon is as real as Astaire. A Chicago native, she died in 2012 at the age of ninety-six.) The narrator doesn't let Tracey's superior technique dampen her love for dancing, which she posits as a political act without calling it one:

I still knew more than Tracey: I knew there was something not quite right about her rigid notions—black music, white music—that there must be a world somewhere in which the two combined. In films and photographs I had seen white men sitting at their pianos as black girls stood by them, singing. Oh, I wanted to be like those girls!

When the narrator and Tracey attend the tenth-birthday party for their classmate Lily Bingham, they bring Aimee's debut single as a gift. They are both already students of Aimee's "stunning, provocative dance moves." Tracey decides to take control of the party and choreograph a dance routine, which involves borrowing Lily's mother's lingerie, drafting the narrator as her dance partner, and turning the party guests into an audience. "I knew there was something wrong, that it wasn't like any dance we'd done before, but I felt it was out of my hands," our narrator explains.

Assigned to videotape the proceedings, Lily Bingham helps "put in motion a chain of cause and effect which, more than a quarter of a century later, has come to feel like fate, would be almost impossible not to consider as fate, but which—whatever you think of fate—can certainly and rationally be said to have had one practical consequence: there's no need for me now to describe the dance itself." Here is the tug of the procedural, asking us to tie that opening exile to this videotape. As with any good crime novel, you have to wait to test the accuracy of your intuition.

A still from George Stevens’s Swing Time, 1936. RKO Radio Pictures.
A still from George Stevens’s Swing Time, 1936. RKO Radio Pictures.

The narrator's father is a postal worker devoted to her mother, a forbidding figure who loves books, and possibly only those. She is studying forms of social justice that render family an inconvenience: "Saturday was her 'day off.' Day off from what? From us. She needed to read up on her isms." When our narrator leaves home to visit Tracey's household, she glimpses something she actively likes, a rare reaction: "Whenever I sat on her huge white leather settee eating her Angel Delight and peacefully watching Easter Parade or The Red Shoes—Tracey's mother would tolerate only Technicolor musicals—I couldn't help but notice the placidity of a small, all-female household." The three women who rule the narrator's life, though, do nothing but discourage her and block placidity.

The narrator meets the actual Aimee during her stint working at a TV station, which leads to an unexpected, but extended, gig as Aimee's personal assistant. The narrator unconsciously accepts a force that is as quietly powerful as all the narrative switchbacks: other people's money. The narrator has borrowed the agency to fly in a private jet and live a 1 percent life, but Aimee is not her friend, as Aimee's manager tells her explicitly. Her real friend, Tracey, fades from sight, while Aimee becomes the narrator's weather system. By the time the narrator runs across Tracey, who is appearing in a West End production of Showboat, they're both on the cusp of thirty. She knows exactly who Tracey is, that she still creates "kinetic joy" with her movement, but her published bio is shorter than anyone else's: "If it was the story of her life it was disappointing." But if the narrator's success outstrips Tracey's, it is still contingent, borrowed, and precarious—the opening scene makes that clear. (The book won't make a call on which friend has a viable life until the last sentence.)

Aimee's conflation of good intentions and self-satisfaction is a remix of the narrator's mother and her solitary, cloudy mission. When the narrator is in her early thirties, still working for Aimee, these waves collide. The mother has become a "backbench MP" and is unimpressed with Aimee's attempts to bring education to a town in an unnamed West African city, saying as much during several television appearances. Her opinion dismisses two people—one of them her daughter—in just two lines: "'White woman saves Africa.' Is that the idea? Very old idea. Well, it's your world, not mine, thank God."

If the reader's first layer of anxiety is about the destination of that videotape, the second layer is produced by the slow march of our narrator, who is consistently unable to find meaning in the mundane stuff we all mulch into lives. She has sex for the first time on a club balcony, unexpectedly, during a phase in her teen years: "At a loss, I became a Goth—it was where people who had nowhere else to go ended up." Smith uses the first person voice like a cable halving a signal; the reader knows a significant moment has been marked, while the narrator makes the episode feel almost accidental in its brevity. But the idea that she has nowhere else to go is not a fact—it is just her mantra.

When Aimee begins her charitable work in Africa, she enlists the help of a Brazilian economist named Fernando Carrapichano. He is awarded the book's only full résumé, which specifies his age (forty-six) and employment history ("managing aid projects in East and West Africa"). He is like a Greek chorus, or the closest the reader gets to a proxy. (If this were reality television, Fern would turn to the camera and shake his head.) When the narrator begins to complain about their inability to improve conditions in the village they've chosen to enrich, he counters with a modern vexation at pronouns: "'We'?" Fern asks, and then smiles. He explains that he is not considered white in Brazil. The narrator offers another variation of her mission statement: "I don't think it matters what I think, does it?"

Race and gender anchor the story without being predictive. The narrator's affinities never lead to a reliable cohort. Her black college boyfriend, Rakim, lectures her on the tenets of the Five Percent Nation and the problems with "Jewish Hollywood." He is more specific in his beliefs than her mother, but no more empathic, and fond of ridicule. After they break up, they run into each other at graduation, and he literally hides behind his mother, who turns out to be white.

If Aimee is living only for herself, and is powered by an impatience that reads as conviction, this may be what appeals to our narrator, who states: "Nothing was easier for me to grasp than the idea that I was born half right and half wrong." And Aimee, fresh off her most perverse act, provides one of the few moments of grace in the book. While the narrator sits with her dying mother, she thinks of her former employer:

I had a rogue thought, I hated having it: I wished that Aimee was here with me. I had been at deathbeds with Aimee, four times, and on each occasion had been impressed and humbled by her way of being with the dying, her honesty, warmth and simplicity, which nobody else in the room ever seemed able to manage, not even family. Death did not scare her.

The bleak truths that Swing Time animates are not that people buy West African babies for cash, or dance in blackface, or go on vengeful Internet sprees. These people you grow up next to and work with are your family, your lovers, your friends, and your partners. And there will be music.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer living in Los Angeles.