Helen Elliott on Zadie Smith’s Swing Time
Names matter to Zadie Smith. She changed her own from Sadie when she was 14. Yet the narrator of Swing Time (Hamish Hamilton; $32.99) negotiates all 453 pages of the novel without disclosing her name. The other characters are carefully, wittily named, none more so than Aimee, the Australian-born superstar, whose lineage is Kylie and Madonna with a nod to Angelina. One name alone is sufficient for this global life, but if you want evidence of global, consider Zadie from north-west London sitting in New York writing about a bogan from Bendigo.
Zadie from London is as erudite about patois as she is about pop culture. She uses “bogan” so casually that you know she assumes that you, global you, will get it.
Zadie Smith is 41, the age her revered Kafka was when he died. Her acclaimed debut novel, White Teeth, is now 17 years old. In between there have been three other novels, The Autograph Man, On Beauty and NW, and a book of essays, Changing My Mind. These lively essays are particularly relevant because they provide intimate liaison with her fiction, able to be read as footnotes in the way David Foster Wallace recommended. The essays are also endearing because they take you through much of what is happening inside Zadie Smith’s head.
Being Zadie Smith is an ongoing project, as she notes in the foreword to Changing My Mind: “I’m forced to recognize that ideological inconsistency is, for me, practically an article of faith … I don’t think I’m going to grow out of it.” Smith’s project in her creative life is to construct meaning from experience. Or, as Wallace, the writer for whom she has the most tender feelings, expressed it, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”
Changing My Mind was dedicated to the memory of Smith’s father, whose life gave the rough arc for her character Archie Jones in White Teeth. Swing Time is dedicated to her mother. Smith has never hidden that she uses autobiographical material in her books, and Swing Time is questioning and eloquent about mothers and daughters, constantly shifting sides but fundamentally tolerant. Questioning, eloquence, tolerance are Smith’s modus operandi. Swing Time is quite like sitting in bed looking at a giant splashy wallpaper. Creativity like this is Dickensian rather than streamlined.
In 1982 two little girls, accompanied by their mothers, meet at the Saturday dance class run by Miss Isabel in a Victorian sandstone church opposite high-rise estates in north-west London. One is the narrator, the other is the name-perfect Tracey. On that morning each girl silently claims the other because they are exactly the same shade of brown. Their racial heritage is a neat reversal: the narrator has a black mother and white father; Tracey has a white mother and black father. Crucially, the narrator responds to what Tracey calls “black” music. Tracey can respond to the “white” music they dance to in ballet class. But the mothers set the tone. The narrator’s mother is aspirational with “a terrific instinct for middle-class mores”. Not only does she adopt a posh phone voice but she is pared back in every way: simple clothes, makeup-free face, driven and impatient with her daughter. Tracey’s mother is the opposite, “white, obese, afflicted with acne”. Her thin blonde hair is dragged back tightly into what the narrator’s mother calls a “Kilburn facelift”. If the mother is unprepossessing, the daughter isn’t. Tracey is her defeated mother’s constant and glamorous avatar.