The nar­ra­tor

He­len El­liott on Zadie Smith’s Swing Time

The Monthly (Australia) - - ARTS & LETTER -

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.

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