Zadie Smith’s Rhythmic Play in Shadow and Light

Zadie Smith’s Rhythmic Play in Shadow and Light

Los Angeles Review of Books

Walton Muyumba, Associate Professor Assistant Director of Creative Writing
Indiana University

Zadie Smith, Swing Time (New York: Penguin Press, 2016).

I FINISHED READING SWING TIME, Zadie Smith’s new novel, her fifth, around the time the Swedish Academy announced that Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Among my initial reactions to this confluence was to think of Marcus Carl Franklin, the young African-American actor who portrayed one version of Dylan in Todd Haynes’s 2007 biographical film, I’m Not There. Franklin plays Woody, an imagined Dylan in his Woody Guthrie stage, a role Dylan himself constructed as a cross between the hoboing white troubadour and a wandering black blues man; on-screen, then, Franklin performs a performance of a performance. Haynes’s casting choice is cinematic legerdemain: blackface minstrelsy has had a central role in American entertainment from Thomas D. Rice to Bert Williams to Al Jolson to Fred Astaire to Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, so at the very least, Franklin’s performance points to the blues-idiom roots of Dylan’s musical archive and to the kinds of masking (even behind Negro performance and Welsh poetic traditions) that he has put on to “get over.” American culture, like America’s gene pool, is definitely mixed, but Franklin’s performance both represents Dylan’s musical core and disappears from our memory in the matrix of the other actors’ performances in Haynes’s film.

Smith knows about these kinds of erasures and disappearances. In the middle of Swing Time, the narrator/protagonist recalls watching, as a child, Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937) with her best friend, Tracey. Growing up in 1980s London, the girls share a love of dance, Michael Jackson, and Hollywood musicals. They are both biracial and live across the street from each other in mirroring council estates in northwest London. As they enter puberty, their early closeness begins to tear as Tracey’s dance talent opens opportunities for a future on stage, and the narrator begins a kind of extended period of wandering. The narrator’s mother, with her urgent need to shove her daughter toward the middle class, also works to disrupt their connection and let Tracey fade back to her lower class beginnings…

Roth is an interesting forerunner here: The Human Stain is about blackness, racial passing, and the private self, while Swing Time is about blackness, class passing, biracial identity, and the unknown self. Swing Time could be the narrator’s straightforward realist memoir about growing up biracial in a council flat with a compliant, Anglo father and an ambitious, Jamaican mother; about a long, strange friendship and rivalry with Tracey; about a middle class striving and the vagaries of ethnically mixed life in NW London; about the enabling fictions and intellectual freedoms of British university life in the late 1990s; or about experiences with pop celebrity as a member of an entourage, including building a school for girls in Gambia. Instead, Smith offers a narrator who goes sideways…

Read the entire review here.

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