Swing Time. Zadie Smith.

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. Penguin (in Canada Hamish Hamilton). 2016. F;11/16.

This is not exactly a book that you either love or hate, it’s easily big enough that you can manage both. I can’t be at all sure that its inconsistencies, or maybe just various kinds of rough spots, are even real (or would be for others), but it does fall just short of fully enthralling for me, even though it’s obviously the product of a great imagination at work.

The story starts off with a bang, and I sensed a Cunningham or Ondaatje dramatic credibility building as the unnamed narrator described her childhood relationship with one of the two powerful opposing female characters. But before I got a third of the way through, awkward diction and what felt like a bad sense of pace crept in and my guard went up, putting the joyful willing suspension of disbelief that characterizes those other two authors just out of my reach. In the last third Smith seemed to pull it together and the major themes came at me with more credible clarity, although I wasn’t sure she was driving with real conviction at anything specific and wondered at the end whether she had even figured that out herself.

In some cases the problems in, I guess, the second quarter of the book didn’t amount to more than editorial mistakes and in others just subtly odd references. But in still others like the sex games elementary school kids were playing with such confidence and best friend Tracy’s precocious power trips the incongruity came from what I imagined was just lack of attention. Dave Eggers commented about Wallace’s Infinite Jest that there wasn’t a single lazy sentence. Here I found quite a few and I started to worry that Ms Smith was losing her way a bit.

There is some spectacular and really charming writing: the little child afraid of the toilet in uncle Lambert’s chaotic home, children being the only ones comfortable with real ambiguity, and several gorgeous deft cameos qualify. The cameos all represent ridiculous narcissistic self-absorbed men: the pizza-employer, Bachir the vacantly bombastic businessman in an African café, and the guy who was probably the narrator’s first lover. She “thought he was the most beautiful man in the world” and “he thought so too”. The serious male characters, a subsequent lover and a brilliant but romantically unrealistic friend, also feel real but they are dramatically peripheral.

It’s two women, and their relationship with the narrator, that live at the story’s heart. The childhood friend and lifelong nemesis Tracy and the employer Aimee both feel to me like Ferrante’s Lila, inspiring that same helpless love, admiration, envy, vulnerability, and hatred in someone like the narrator who “had always tried to attach (herself) to the light of other people, and… had never had any light of (her) own” and who tries to emulate her hero Fred Astaire believing that “it was important to treat (herself) as a kind of stranger”.

But powerful Tracy and rich, famous and productive Aimee are deeply flawed and cruel. Aimee is a caricature of American celebrity who fires and humiliates the narrator and carries on with her charmed life as though the narrator had never existed. And Tracy for all the abuse she piles on our narrator and being way-pathologically obsessed with harming narrator’s dying mother still has, at the end of the story, the power she always had: “judgment, and it goes beyond words.” Beyond, that is, the only power the narrator has, which is the medium of Smith’s creativity.

Zadie Smith can really write, and she has a lovely grasp of big things like the struggle between good and evil. She explores with insight and feeling childhood, motherhood, sex, marital fidelity, political commitment, poverty, wealth, and death and dying, but at the top of her hierarchy of human issues we find in the end power. Political, financial, sexual, system-hierarchical, but primarily personal. Its treachery feeds on everyone and everything that, voluntarily or not, invites it. That’s the hard projectile at the center of this tale. Could her lovely story’s finally being about something that chilly and blind also be the reason Zadie Smith’s attention wandered in the middle of an otherwise compelling rendition of her female character’s struggles? Maybe a picture of the icy hierarchy of control wasn’t quite what she had in mind when she set out.

This was a very absorbing and enjoyable read, but I hope my instinct is correct that this author has something more wonderfully humane to say. 8.6/9.2.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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