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The Escape Artist

Social climbing and self-discovery are entwined in Zadie Smith’s new novel.

Linda Brownlee / Getty

If you measured a writer’s ambition by the scale of her self-deprecation, few would rank as high as Zadie Smith. Ever since White Teeth (2000), the debut that made her one of the most acclaimed novelists of her generation at age 24, she’s been expressing disappointment with her own limitations: She had wanted to write “like Kafka,” she lamented a year after the novel was published, but sounded more “like a script editor for The Simpsons who’d briefly joined a religious cult and then discovered Foucault.” Her prolific, exuberant comedy—which James Wood had skewered as “hysterical realism”—already seemed out of step with the times. A month after September 11, Smith found herself sitting in her underpants, “looking at a blank screen, finding nothing funny . . . smoking a family-sized pouch of Golden Virginia.” It’s a charming portrait of the artist as a sweating, neurotic mess.

SWING TIME by Zadie Smith
Penguin Press, 464 pp., $27.00

The question of sweat, of the effort of self-invention, has always been at the center of Smith’s writing. Each of her books since White Teeth—a sprawling social novel that celebrated multicultural Britain—has marked what she learned from her preceding work: the satirical family saga of On Beauty in 2005; the quasi-modernist experiment of NW in 2012. What’s more, she is drawn to the workings of things that are constructed, that are in some sense not real and yet have real, intractable effects: class, race, gender, money, beauty, fame. Reading her, you see the work it takes for people to hoist themselves from one social context into another, and the code-switching that such a process both enables and requires. You see how hard it is to distinguish between internal limits and external ones, and thus how hard it is to untangle what sort of effort a person can or should make to win the rigged game they’ve been born into.

Such questions have only become more vexed since Smith started writing; the beginning of her career coincided with the tail end of a period of increased social mobility in Britain. She got to university, she told The White Review last year, just before all the “safety nets and ladders”—notably free tuition—got pulled up for good. NW, which traces the socioeconomic fortunes of two working-class friends, was, she said, “an expression of my own heartbreak” for the passing of that promise.

While her latest novel, Swing Time, is superficially smoother and more conventional than NW, it makes a remarkable leap in technique. Smith has become increasingly adept at combining social comedy and more existential concerns—manners and morals—through the flexibility of her voice, layering irony on feeling and vice versa. In a culture that often reduces identity politics to a kind of personal branding, Smith works the same questions into a far deeper (and more truly political) consideration of what it takes to form a self. The nameless mixed-race narrator of Swing Time doesn’t bother to be offended when, in her professional life, she’s treated as a token, a “conceptual veil” or “moral fig-leaf”—she’s keen to observe and interpret the experience, which she feels is “like being fictional.”

The two main characters in Swing Time—our narrator and her friend Tracey—have a lot in common with Smith herself: Born in the mid-1970s, they grow up in northwest London at the same time she did. Each has one white and one nonwhite parent, and each hopes to become a performer, studying filmed dance routines for hours. They share, too, a preoccupation with effort. We observe them trying to puzzle out the relationship between talent and hard work, between how much is required and how much their exertions should stay hidden.

As the two girls watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance, they aim to pinpoint exactly how the magic is made. Astaire doesn’t look at Rogers with love, they note, “not even fake movie love.” He looks at her like a dance teacher awaiting her next screwup. And though they are placing their own hopes in dance, they have no special sympathy for the partner who does it all backwards and in heels, either. Look at her, Tracey, “smiling oddly,” says of Ginger, “She looks fucking scared.” That “oddly” is an uncharacteristic vagueness of the kind Smith deploys only to make clear how much of Tracey’s inner life eludes her friend, and how many whole and conflicting impulses—fear, identification, contempt—such a smile contains.

The girls are twin-reflections, developing with and in opposition to one another, building a store of mutual resentments and passions that will fuel them both well into adulthood. Tracey is the sharper, bolder one, partly because it can only be thus: The narrator must always be smaller, less colorful than her foil. But it’s also because Tracey has it rougher than her friend. Her father is violent and erratic, appearing rarely between stints in prison or attending to his interests and his assorted other children. Aggression and “backchat” like Tracey’s, the narrator suggests, are often the principal sign of exceptional intelligence in places where there isn’t enough opportunity to go around.

Tracey’s knack for storytelling also seems born of her unhappiness and frustration: Though she is dyslexic and not much concerned with grammar, Tracey is the natural writer of the two, the one whose sentences jolt and compel. The trashy tales she dictates to the narrator as they lie around on their bedroom floors, filling notepad after notepad, display a keen sense for life’s essential pain and randomness: “Tiffany jumped up high to kiss her prince and pointed her toes oh she looked so sexy but that’s when the bullet went right up her thigh.” In their teens, Tracey cannot avoid trouble. The narrator, on the other hand, makes a conscious decision to “go off the rails.” She approaches youthful rebellion “like an athlete deciding on a new training regime,” and joins a crew of goths, without ever quite managing to forget how ludicrous she looks, or overcoming her dislike of the music.

The girls grow up across the street from each other in separate public housing projects, but from their first dance class, what they share is thrown into relief by their differences. The narrator’s single-minded Jamaican mother is an autodidact Marxist feminist intellectual in espadrilles and a tasteful Afro. She spurns all frivolity and lacks “the fundamental skill of all mothers—the management of time.” Unlike her warm, unambitious white husband (Tracey is quick to comment that the narrator’s mixed-race family is “the wrong way round”), she is more concerned with finishing The Black Jacobins than with the bandaging of knees or the making of dinner.

By contrast, Tracey’s mother, white, obese, hair pulled back in a “Kilburn facelift,” makes cheerfully un-nutritious meals and buys her daughter expensive toys and sneakers and “diamanté everything.” She is the kind of mother who gossips with her child instead of lecturing, shouts at teachers when asked to discipline her, and skips Parents Evening. Her style of parenting, as the narrator describes it, “looked like carelessness,” but is in fact a legacy of fear left over from her own troubled schooling. Like many working-class mothers in their neighborhood, she carries “a deep anxiety about ‘being told off,’ ” about being shamed by “the arbitrary rules . . . the new uniforms they couldn’t afford, the baffling obsession with quiet, the incessant correcting of their original patois or cockney, the sense that they could never do anything right anyway.”

Smith’s feeling for class is unnervingly precise, and often manifests itself in subtle shifts of cadence or phrasing. Her gift for voices is in part a comedic one: She can do a London schoolgirl on the phone (“Want to know who fancies you and told everyone he fancies you?”); a superstar admonishing her staff (“Everything coming out of your mouth right now is totally worthless to me”); a politician explaining a breakup (“That kind of person does not make the best life partner, for sure, though I will always consider her a very effective administrator”). Yet the stakes involved in even the most casual speech are very high. When the two friends are invited to the birthday party of Lily Bingham, a well-off white classmate, they’re flummoxed by the “sentence from a different world” uttered by Lily’s mother: “Why don’t you all run upstairs and explore—have an adventure?” There’s a mystifying gulf between that pleasant-sounding invitation and the gruff instructions they’re used to (“Stay out of trouble”; “Go and make yourself useful”). Interpreting their host’s suggestion too literally, Tracey and her friend soon land in disgrace.

In both NW and Swing Time, the distance across a London street, from one family to another, can be immeasurably vast. The tension between randomness and fatedness is always a central one for a novelist, and through the lens of class and race it becomes sharply politicized. The idea that a person’s name, voice, dress—or any element in a web of subtle and yet crushing signifiers—could change the course of their life is double-edged, suggesting both that you are free to reinvent yourself and that, should this task prove harder than it looks, the failure is entirely your own.

Smith has often suggested that voices are selves. In her work, a persona can live up to one of the word’s speculative etymologies: It’s the sound running through you. She understands the trickery and performance—the hard work—that forms a voice. She even likes to write plots that hinge on voices. In Swing Time, for example,
the narrator’s enchantment with her own singing inadvertently exposes her real ambitions and undermines her employer’s trust. And in NW, a character makes a crucial phone call by “disguising her voice with her voice.”

In a lecture at the New York Public Library in 2008, Smith described how she had shed her own North London accent, along with other tastes and qualities that acted as class markers, when she enrolled at Cambridge University. She picked up Received Pronunciation (sometimes called BBC Pronunciation), a style of speech associated with privately educated elites. After a few years of overlapping and alternating with her original accent, this adopted voice took over, “reflecting the smaller world into which my work has led me.” Her London neighborhood, Willesden, “was a big, colorful, working-class sea; Cambridge was a smaller, posher pond, and almost univocal; the literary world is a puddle.”

This change of voice highlights what could be a larger problem for Smith: the insidious narrowing of one’s sphere that can come with early success, with charm and charmedness. Critics have certainly suspected her of this, and her switching of styles from book to book has been seen by some as a sign of unrootedness, indecision, or insecurity—of not knowing who she is supposed to be. But her mastery of voices shows this switching to be more clearly a function of her creative ambition. After stretching her style in several directions—from the maximalism of White Teeth to the minimalism of NW, and several shades in between—she has found an authorial tone that seems to keep falling away, foregrounding characters whose radical instability makes them all the more vital. Now, instead of being conscious of how much work Smith is doing to create her characters, we focus on their own struggles to make themselves up.

The girls grow up, and their paths diverge. The more talented Tracey goes to stage school, then has some brief, minor success in the theater. The narrator, meanwhile, stumbles into a career in the music industry and, suddenly, her background starts to benefit her, though in comical ways. She is hired at YTV (clearly MTV with a “Y”) where, thanks to casual racism, she is received as someone well versed in hip-hop and unassailably cool, “as I was everywhere wrongly assumed to be.” From there she becomes chief assistant to Aimee, a superstar who comes from small-town Australia but who in all other respects resembles Madonna. Madonna, of course, unlike Fred Astaire, is a kind of icon of toil, proudly and pointedly self-fashioned, aiming never to make anything look easy. Watching Aimee dance, the narrator muses on how she can

summon joy out of effort . . . the hard work itself felt erotic, it was like witnessing a woman cross the line at the end of a marathon, or working towards her own orgasm. That same ecstatic revelation of a woman’s will.

Aimee, though often grotesque, is never cartoonish: Smith conjures a strange but convincing creature whose appeal, even up close, is inextricable from her monstrosity. Her unself-conscious directness allows her to give solace to people on their deathbeds “without nostalgia or false optimism.” At the same time, she lacks the self-awareness to grasp the trouble with her plan to found an “empowering” girls’ school (named after one of her own 1990s albums, Illuminated) in a West African country—or with her impulse to adopt a child from that same country.

When, on seeing Aimee decked out in Asante garb, the narrator mumbles something about “appropriation,” she is told that an artist has to be able to use whatever appeals to her, because “art is not appropriate”: It’s about love. The narrator’s response—that it’s possible “both to love something and leave it alone”—is a more than fair critique of Aimee as shameless scavenger, but it also hints at the trickier question of what people do, in fact, owe one another. She herself has done a skillful job as Aimee’s assistant partly because she’s so good at cutting ties, so good at leaving people alone—not least Tracey, who has not failed to notice her abandonment.

Aimee offers one example of how to escape one’s limits. She presents herself as the contextless, frictionless exception to every rule, while enthusiastically appropriating “authenticity” from anywhere she finds it, and repackaging it for sale. The narrator offers a different model of social ascent: assimilation. She evidently considers it a more acceptable one, because it conceals its betrayals of those left behind.

Swing Time’s great achievement is its full-throated and embodied account of the tension between personal potential and what is actually possible. Aimee believes in her own extraordinary power and wealth as a kind of magic, and an entirely personal achievement. It is as though anyone can do what she is doing, if only they want—and know how—to be magical enough. Like Madonna, Aimee appears barely to age. She inhabits a fantasy of pure will, a freedom from ordinary social forces so complete that it hints at a freedom from biological laws as well, only serving to further emphasize what binds and limits an average life. “What could she know,” the narrator wonders, “about the waves of time that simply come at a person, one after the other? What could she know about life as the temporary, always partial survival of that process?”

Like many of the insights Smith gives the narrator, this is, in one sense, a universal truth. But, of course, it does not apply universally: The feeling that time is dominating you is both how life is, and a particular reality for brown girls from the estates. The narrator’s mother warns her that girls like Tracey are always at risk of slipping into pregnancies or prison sentences, and becoming “another one of those sisters who might as well not exist.” They can’t hope to escape merely by being good dancers. Dancing is only another way to be trapped in your own body, as everyone expects someone like you to be.

And yet, when the narrator suggests that the great dancers do exist outside time, it’s not unconvincing. In dancing, a teacher tells her, quoting a Cyd Charisse character, “You go, go, go but you don’t get anywhere.” What limits dance—perhaps the most physical and immediate of any art form—is exactly what makes its transcendence possible. Both Tracey and the narrator are fascinated by Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, and the predecessor for it they find in an old movie; they discover that the dancers achieved the effect by nailing the toes of their shoes to the floor. It makes sense that Smith endows these girls with her own early attraction to dancing. Those hours and years of slog and ingenuity—all to produce a few small passages of lifelike, nearly impossible grace.