“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.”
It’s a strange thing, playing secondary character in the story of your own life. Being the protagonist is a privilege often taken for granted by the more garrulous, the more bold, the more forceful souls who possess mere traces of fragility and self-doubt in the smallest measures. I am no stranger to this feeling - it is a deeply embedded tradition I have to commit to subduing every minute, every hour of every day: the urge to shrink, to become physically and psychologically less, to feel fewer storms of emotion, to recognize fewer demands on my attention, performance, my time. The type for whom the power of invisibility is the ultimate gift. I found that part of myself in Swing Time, recognized her like a girl through a passing train window, blurred and inexorably familiar, leaving a discomfiting tingle in her wake. Ugh. You again.
Zadie’s superpower lies in her world-building: from the cracked sidewalk to a passerby’s faded smile, from grand, sweeping sociopolitical backdrops to the most minute displays of aging from chapter three to thirteen. She suffuses her worlds with blazing color and incredible detail, populating them with characters that live and breathe within them, a symphonic interplay of imagined time and space that feels sliced directly from the heart of essential humanity. I marveled at this in On Beauty and White Teeth. In Swing Time, however, I felt rather emptier. The streets lost their grit and the glittering vistas their distant horizon. I craved cohesion where I found only disparate scenes, connected by the bare bones of bitter chronology: a likely consequence of the protagonist’s inability to recognize her role as such. She lacked vitality, compelling personhood, believable motivation. The love that she should have kept for herself spilled into Tracey, her childhood best friend. The formative, vulnerable years, siphoned away from the pursuit of her own interests, her own sense of pride, the very creation of her own identity. So is it any wonder that her interior world developed into a flat, monochrome landscape? Into a career in assisting someone else’s dreams to fruition? So far beyond yourself, beyond years of denying desires you couldn’t coalesce into words, lies only more of the same. The same cracks in the view.
The story of our nameless narrator exists in constant flux, an unending vacillation between past and present, black and white, poor and wealthy, home and abroad, within Tracey’s favor and outside of it. She is captive to the whims of others, women in particular, at times railing against their apparent power over her, like a captured butterfly beating its wings against its glass enclosure - at other times, she acquiesces, acknowledging her role as supporting character, taking tepid comfort in the slackened expectations that her position brings. Her overbearing, politically-minded mother, then Tracey, ultimate frenemy and object of her jealous obsession, and then mega pop star Aimee, who comes to control her every move, until she suddenly doesn’t - the narrator sways, bends, and often buckles beneath the weight of these outside influences, never feeling adequate enough, smart enough, talented enough, or just...enough. Even when she eventually takes a stand, quits her job, makes decisions based solely on her own selfish desires, it is not a totally convincing act of rebellion, but feels moreso like a desperate grab for a life that was never actually hers. And in attempting to claim it, she only further alienates herself from the person she thought she should be.
While I recognized, and at times, understood the narrator’s fundamental dissonance of self, I could not enjoy it. Zadie’s unwavering attention to detail, her commitment to revealing the wholly realistic disappointments and realizations that emerge with the slow passage of time, remains unmatched. I enjoyed diving into the rich interior lives of the supporting characters, wading through their varied fears, neuroses, crises of conscience. Zadie writes with a three-dimensional deliberation so robust I could nearly taste the storms of emotion that swirled within them. The lack of urgency I felt for the protagonist, however, rendered much of this novel’s narrative artistry paper-thin. Maybe my ambivalence towards Swing Time is partly borne of my own reluctance to connect with a character who epitomizes the parts of my personality I work so hard to keep subdued. Maybe the story truly suffered from its lackluster narrator. Either way, my deep admiration for Zadie is unchanged, and I eagerly await her next offering, whenever and however she chooses to grace us with it.
Swing Time, Zadie Smith, Penguin Press (an imprint of Penguin Random House), New York, NY, 2016.