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The Dancer & the Dance

Zadie Smith, New York City, June 2016
Dominique Nabokov
Zadie Smith, New York City, June 2016

“I feel dance has something to tell me about what I do,” Zadie Smith wrote in a recent article in The Guardian. She cites the dancer Martha Graham’s advice as useful for her writerly self:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique…. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

Her new novel, Swing Time, is both about dancers and, on some level, a dance itself, syncopated, unexpected, and vital. There is a moment late in the novel when the narrator (mysteriously unnamed, for well over four hundred pages) joins in a dance with a group of village women in Gambia:

I watched them for a minute, the two women, as they danced at me, teasing me, and I listened carefully to the multiple beats, and knew that what they were doing I, too, could do. I stood between them and matched them step for step…. There were so many voices screaming at me I stopped being able to hear the drums, and the only way I could carry on was to respond to the movements of the women themselves, who never lost the beat, who heard it through everything.

She observes, over twenty years after her first dance lessons, “I still had no ideas about dance, only instincts.” This, too, might be a comment on writing, on fiction’s call for a balance between form’s constraint and creative freedom.

Smith’s fifth novel addresses many themes—dance, as an idea and an art form; friendship and rivalry between girls and women; mothers, daughters, and motherhood; racial and cultural identity; creativity and success; ambition; love—and touches, too, on many more: contemporary forms of liberal Western cultural imperialism; the effects of social media; the return to religion in developing countries (in this case, to Islam, in Gambia); the culture of celebrity and its effects; Europe’s immigration crisis. It is an unwieldy list, to be sure, and represents, in fictional form, the consuming and urgent preoccupations of one of our generation’s significant literary minds.

Smith is a fine essayist (many of her meditations have been published in these pages), and could have written a collection of memorable essays on these various topics. But essayistic or didactic fiction is rarely successful; and Smith, a fine novelist also, knows this well. The novel form, capacious and elastic as it is, nevertheless requires that ideas and emotions—all abstractions, really—be pressed and transformed, passed through the fine sieve of the material world and made manifest in action, conversation, and concrete detail. Fiction is created out of T-shirts and tomato plants, oven fries, chalk dust and rainfall, out of snarky exchanges and subtle glances. Constructing a world out of these apparently random bits—“the nearest thing to life,” as George Eliot put it—is a matter of meticulous imagining and careful craft. Making this fictional world come alive is a matter, as Martha Graham put it, of the life force. Swing Time may not parse easily and fits no mold, but it is uncommonly full of life.

At the outset, Smith’s nameless narrator—let us call her N—is holed up in a flat in London: “It was the first day of my humiliation” is the novel’s arresting first line, part of a brief framing prologue. For most of the novel, we will have no context for this adult shame, and indeed will turn for a significant portion of it to the agonies (and occasional delights) of the character’s childhood and adolescence. Ultimately, the narratives of childhood and adulthood will converge; but this book is comprised of two interwoven fictions about very different (and yet not wholly unrelated) female friendships, and shame is central to them both.

The first of these is N’s bond with her alter ego, Tracey. When they meet outside Miss Isabel’s dance class in 1982, the two recognize each other at once: “Our shade of brown was exactly the same—as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both.” Both are biracial; they live in neighboring council estates in Northwest London (Smith’s own childhood borough, the territory of her earlier novels White Teeth and NW); and both are obsessed with dance. Their differences, however, are also very real. N’s mother is Jamaican and her mild-tempered white father, the son of “a minor criminal of some kind,” is a postal worker who has made amends for his legacy by being an attentive parent (“I was compensation—retribution—for his own childhood”). N’s elegant mother, intellectual and socially aspirant, will take a university degree, become a member of Parliament, and move out of the projects. Tracey’s mother, on the other hand, is “obese, afflicted with acne. She wore her thin blond hair pulled back very tightly in what I knew my mother would call a ‘Kilburn facelift.’”

Tracey first tells N that her black father is a backup dancer for Michael Jackson: “As a fact it was, in my mind, at one and the same time absolutely true and obviously untrue.” In reality, Louie, dubbed by one local “the Playboy of the West Indies,” is a dashing ne’er-do-well who flits in and out of view, in and out of prison, and who, when home, is prone to physical violence (“fuck was every other word, and there were great crashing thuds as he turned the furniture over, and a terrible feminine wailing, it sounded like a screaming fox”) and eventually, we come to understand, even worse abuse of his daughter.

Inevitably, Tracey is the genuine dancing talent, and N literally flat-footed. She, enamored of Fred Astaire and Mr. Bojangles, papers her wall with “great MGM and RKO idols,” while Tracey “wanted to see a dancer on stage, sweating, real, not done up in top hat and tails”: she idolizes Prince, Madonna, and Michael and Janet Jackson. N discovers that her gift is her voice, which “had something charismatic in it, drawing people in. This was not a technical gift: my range was tiny. It had to do with emotion. Whatever I was feeling I was able to express very clearly, I could ‘put it over.’”

As for so many young girls, their friendship is also a rivalry, one that will retain its bitterness long after they have grown apart. Not only is Tracey talented, she is pretty, precocious, and, very quickly, sexy. When the first sexualized games erupt in the school playground, Tracey is a prime target for the boys’ attention. In a powerfully ambiguous scene, she saves N from being groped by two avid boys in a school storage closet, only to take her place. It is Tracey too who, at the tenth birthday party of their innocent (white) friend Lily Bingham, choreographs a video of the two (brown) girls mimicking sex acts to a hit song by a singer named Aimee, to the outrage of all.

Shame takes many forms, and its pain is felt by both girls. For N, however, we come to understand that disappointment at her parents’ divorce and, tragically, at what she believes to be her father’s shocking behavior (Tracey claims to have witnessed something that leads N to cut off relations with him) is mitigated by their fierce and demanding love for her. Her complex relationship with her mother is one of the novel’s most powerful subsidiary threads: when the girls are still young, N’s mother, who has no time for dancing, lectures her about the particular challenges facing a young black girl:

“All that matters in this world…is what’s written down. But what happens with this”—she gestured at my body—“that will never matter, not in this culture, not for these people, so all you’re doing is playing their game by their rules, and if you play that game, I promise you, you’ll end up a shade of yourself. Catch a load of babies, never leave these streets, and be another one of these sisters who might as well not exist.”

She is, in short, warning N against what will prove Tracey’s fate. But just as Tracey’s sparkling talent will be challenged and ultimately thwarted by her grueling underlying circumstances, so too N’s life is distorted and stunted in particular ways by the experiences of her youth.

While she doesn’t describe her relationship to Tracey as that of sidekick, it’s clear that in N’s eyes, Tracey’s life retains its glamour for a long time. When, at the end of high school, the two of them revisit Miss Isabel’s dance class, N observes the little girls crowding around Tracey, echoes of their own earlier selves:

She had her hair in a dancer’s bun and a Pineapple Studios bag slung over her shoulder, she turned her feet out as she walked, she was the dream we’d both had, a decade before…. No one paid much attention to me…. To them she was beautiful and grown-up, enviably talented, free.

N can see these enviable qualities because she has, herself, envied them; just as she has envied the doting ease and complicity of Tracey’s mother. Observing and withholding come naturally to this narrator, and at numerous points in the novel we infer that she struggles between wanting to remain hidden (that careful namelessness) and longing—enviously—to take center stage, to stand up and sing, or dance.

It is no surprise, then, that N’s second major friendship—or perhaps “female relationship” would be more accurate—is with the pop singer whose music she and Tracey danced to as children. At the age of twenty-three, N is working for an MTV-like station named “YTV” when she meets Aimee, twelve years her senior, an Australian-born, Madonna-like pop singer: “Her fate and the channel’s were linked from the start. She was a video artist right down to the bone.”

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time, 1936
Everett Collection
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time, 1936

A dancer more than a singer, dynamic and driven, Aimee has overcome a difficult childhood to become a global superstar, in part because “in her mind it was all fate, always meant to be, and therefore fundamentally uncomplicated.” For the next decade, N throws over any semblance of her own life to become one of Aimee’s trusted assistants, sidekick extraordinaire, subsuming any and all desires to the demands of Aimee, “a person for whom I scheduled abortions, hired dog walkers, ordered flowers, wrote Mother’s Day cards, applied creams, administered injections, squeezed spots, wiped very occasional break-up tears, and so on.” Of Aimee’s staff, herself included, N notes, “That’s what…all of us were being paid for really: to keep life uncomplicated—for her. We waded through the tangled weeds so she might float over the surface.”

For much of her tenure, she does this work uncomplainingly, resistant to her mother’s distress (“You don’t live anywhere, You don’t have anything, you’re constantly on a plane,” her mother complains); but N’s eventual rancor is inevitable. At Aimee’s son’s birthday party, she observes:

From where I stood it was a pose that collapsed many periods in her life into one: mother and lover, big sister, best friend, superstar and diplomat, billionaire and street kid, foolish girl and woman of substance. But why should she get to take everything, have everything, do everything, be everyone, in all places, at all times?

This resentment—a cousin of shame, as any reader of Dostoevsky knows—is not in essence unlike that which Tracey comes to feel toward N herself, and eventually expresses: “People like you think you can control everything. But you can’t control me!… You can call it by any fancy name you like, love: there’s a system and you and your fucking mother are both a part of it.” The world divides into the powerful and the powerless, the visible and the invisible; and the former are lifted to prominence upon the backs of the latter.

At the core of the book’s second strand is Aimee’s project to build a girls’ school, the Illuminated Academy for Girls, in rural West Africa. (In this, Smith gestures not only to Madonna’s or Angelina Jolie’s African charity work, but also to Oprah’s Leadership Academy for Girls, a boarding school in South Africa. In addition, Henning Mankell, the Swedish crime novelist, established a theater in Mozambique. There is by now a considerable tradition of celebrities’ artistic and educational “interventions” in Africa.) With the help of a seasoned Brazilian economist named Fernando Carrapichano, known as Fern, Aimee’s team and N in particular set in motion both the institution itself and the attendant colorful publicity opportunities that will strengthen Aimee’s global image:

I heard her tell the Rolling Stone reporter how important it was to stay “in the real world, among the people,” and the next morning, alongside the formal photographed events—soil-breaking, schoolgirls dancing—many images were taken of Aimee in this real world, eating from the communal bowls, crouching down with ease alongside the women—using the muscles she had developed indoor-cycling—or showing off her agility, climbing the cashew trees with a group of young boys.

From this beginning, Aimee will—without cynicism but hampered by her short attention span—throw herself into the project. She will fall in love with Lamin, one of the young men, and transform him from a teacher to a dancer, taking him with her to New York; she will fall in love with a newborn baby and adopt her on a whim from her impoverished local parents.

Smith’s keen satirical eye, a pleasure of her earlier work, is often in evidence where Aimee is concerned. In the first person, this sharp comedy becomes the narrator’s, and consequently reads as personally barbed (in a way not true of third-person narration, the point of view used in Smith’s other novels). It reveals our protagonist to be apparently without illusions regarding her employer’s antics; but then, too, begs the question of why she remains so long devoted to her. That N is not as clear-eyed as she believes herself to be—that she, too, is profoundly and naively complicit in the celebrity culture upon which she comments so drily—is one of the novel’s lingering implications.

N’s life in the village, and her travel to and from it, are described with great vividness and energy. Al Kalo, the village chief, “small, ashy, wrinkled and toothless, in a threadbare Man U T-shirt, tracksuit bottoms and plastic Nike house slippers held together with gaffer tape,” has delivered ahead of time a list of appropriate gifts for the team to bring: it includes aspirin, body wash, batteries, and antiseptic cream. Lamin, the young schoolteacher from Senegal with whom Aimee is so smitten, and who will also prove important to N, “wore his western whites, almost every time I saw him, and a big silver wrist-watch, studded with zirconia, whose hands were perpetually stuck at 10.04.” Hawa, a trainee teacher ten years N’s junior who is both her hostess and her closest friend in Gambia, loves Chris Brown and “wants only one thing from this life: to have fun.”

In this place, many of N’s long-standing preconceptions are called into question: her own blackness, for starters. She discovers that the West Africans don’t think of her as black:

I was not…standing…with my extended tribe, with my fellow black women. Here there was no such category. There were only the Sere women, the Wolof, the Mandinka, the Serahuli, the Fula and the Jola, the last of whom, I was told once, grudgingly, I resembled.

Fern, from Brazil, scoffs at the very idea that she considers him white: “You think far too much about race—did anyone ever tell you this?” he admonishes her. She’s also forced to reevaluate the meaning of an education and of what it should consist: from the vantage point of New York, for example, teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution seems crucial; but this priority fades in the face of “a third of the kids off with malaria, half a classroom ceiling fallen in, the toilet contract unfulfilled.” When she visits Kunta Kinteh Island as a tourist in the hope of better grasping the history of her enslaved ancestors, she finds that “every image had a cartoon thinness to it.” She is granted, instead, a more general realization:

Power had preyed on weakness here: all kinds of power—local, racial, tribal, royal, national, global, economic—on all kinds of weakness, stopping at nothing, not even the smallest girl child. But power does that everywhere. The world is saturated in blood. Every tribe has their blood-soaked legacy: here was mine.

That N’s, or more accurately Aimee’s, is a mission of generosity and hope—the Illuminated Academy for Girls—will ultimately prove an untenable illusion. (Its title is taken from one of Aimee’s albums, not from any spiritual epiphany.) The mercenary manipulations of Western culture are thrown into new relief by the challenges of a village from which the most talented members seek constantly to escape. Lamin and Hawa, each in a different way, look for a route out. It is their disagreements, and ultimately Fern’s comments to the narrator, that at last provoke in her a long-absent reaction to her own behavior: shame, again and at last, “a suspicious emotion, so ancient.” In this instance, however, N’s shame has its origins in her conscience, rather than in society’s opprobrium, and can be understood as a mature moment of recognition, rather than public humiliation—that, as we know from the novel’s first line, is yet to come.

What then unfolds, as the narratives of N’s past and present converge, feels somewhat contrived, to be sure, but essential. Again, fiction is like dance (or jazz music) in its tension between freedom and constraint: eventually, choreography must assert control to effectuate a satisfying conclusion. In this case, the narrative demands that Aimee and Tracey should both turn in wrath upon the narrator: duly plotted, this is brought to pass. In some ways, these event-filled final chapters feel almost incidental, like a coda. The intense, richly imagined life of the novel vibrates most strongly elsewhere, in the moving presentation of the narrator’s primal childhood years with Tracey, and in Smith’s exhilarating portrait of village life in Gambia.

Of the dénouement—in which Aimee fires the narrator, who flees to London where we first encountered her—the most intriguing aspect is Smith’s introduction of her friends Darryl Pinckney and James Fenton (also long-standing contributors to these pages) into the fictional narrative. (She also briefly houses her narrator in a fictional apartment in the actual home of a writer she knows.) In a recent interview with Jeffrey Eugenides in T, the New York Times Style Magazine, she explains her decision to include Pinckney and Fenton thus:

Darryl, to me…is a model of…active ambivalence. He is as well read on African-American issues as anyone could imagine being…. He is absolutely aware that there is such a thing as having been subjected to the experience of blackness, which causes all kinds of consequences, political, social and personal, and at the same time, he claims the freedom of just being Darryl, in all his extreme particularity. I haven’t met many people like that.

This freedom is an ideal toward which Smith’s narrator can aspire, in her understanding of her own selfhood and racial identity; but since it exists in the novel only as subtext (this salient fact about Pinckney is never mentioned), it can’t account, novelistically, for the choice to include him as a character. Rather, its logic arises musically, like a dance step or jazz riff—like the moment in Bill Bojangles Robinson’s 1934 step dance, when he briefly uses his hands to tap, in an echo of his feet, on the steps. It’s an expression of sheer narrative exuberance, a “why not?,” a wink, in which the form—the careful plot, the narrative’s choreography—can’t quite contain the brimming life force: reality will spill into fiction.

Swing Time contains many insights and conducts many conversations—both within itself (those two tales, of Tracey and of Aimee, told in syncopated time) and gesturing outward to central themes of contemporary culture. Highly ambitious, overflowing, sometimes messy, this novel resists familiar satisfactions, as it resists containment or easy categorization. This, for “the nearest thing to life,” is a high achievement.