Posts Tagged ‘Swing Time’

The title of Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time evokes not only the Fred Astaire film of the same name, but also the structure of the narrative, itself. Shifting back and forth from the distant past of the narrator’s childhood in north London to her recent days, in New York and West Africa, the novel swings in space and time as she recounts two intertwining stories: one of her childhood friendship with a classmate who possesses a gift for dance (that she herself lacks); the other of her decade-long stint as a personal assistant for an international pop star. Long before readers know how the friendship and the job end, they learn that both ended badly. In the prologue, as the narrator watches a clip of Astaire dancing with his shadows in Swing Time, she realizes that she has spent her life in silhouette, first as a shadow to her friend Tracey, and later to her celebrity employer, the Madonna-esque Aimee. In the narrator’s words: “I had always tried to attach myself to other people . . . I had never had any light of my own” (4). To underscore the narrator’s shadow identity, Smith never names her; throughout the novel she remains the unnamed “I.”

Along with the dual storylines of the narrator’s shadow identity, she chronicles changes in how we communicate, rendering the novel not just the story of the “I,” but also a meta-narrative: a story of the construction of stories, themselves. Swinging in time from her pre-digital childhood to the dawn of the now-ubiquitous smartphone, the narrator recounts the fundamental shifts in our interactions. When her mother remarks that she, the narrator, is addicted to her phone, the narrator says, “‘This is how people work now,’” to which her mother replies, “‘You mean: like slaves?’” (154). The mother’s notion of technology’s power to own us echoes Smith’s observations of social media in her essay “Generation Why?

In Swing Time—published six years after “Generation Why?”—email messages, texts, and social media posts shape the events that precipitate the novel’s conclusion. After the narrator loses her job as Aimee’s personal assistant, she receives a .pdf file of the non-disclosure contract that she had signed ten years earlier. Seeing in hindsight that she had given Aimee ownership of that decade of her life, the narrator states: “I wanted to burn her house down. But everything you need to burn somebody’s house down these days is already in your hand. It was all in my hand—I didn’t even have to get out of bed” (434).

Though exposing Aimee’s wrongdoing online might be perceived—and eventually is—as an act of moral conscience, the narrator is motivated not by integrity but rather by a desire to inflict harm. Similarly, ten years earlier, the handwritten letter that ended her friendship with Tracey could be construed as one that Tracey sent out of a sense of duty, as Tracey herself claimed. But in fact her aim was to hurt the narrator. The juxtaposition of Tracey’s letter and the narrator’s email illustrate the potentially far-reaching effects of acting on impulse in the digital age. Reflecting on Tracey’s handwritten letter, the narrator “think[s] of it as the last truly personal written letter I ever received, for even though Tracey had no computer, not yet, the revolution was happening all around us” (349).

After the narrator reads Tracey’s letter, she burns it. But ten years later she cannot burn the incriminating images of their childhood dance after Tracey’s video goes viral. Her video does burn in a sense, whenever it’s pulled from the internet, but it rises again and again like a phoenix from its ashes. For Tracey, posting their provocative, albeit innocent, mimicry of Aimee’s own video is an act of editing the narrator’s life, the way that Tracey had edited the ballerina stories they penned as children:

‘No: that part here.’ ‘It’d go better if she died on page two.’ Moving and rearranging things to create the greatest impact. Now she had achieved the same effect with my life, placing the beginning of the story at an earlier point so that all that came after read as the twisted consequence of a lifelong obsession. It was more convincing than my version. (438)

As an antidote to Tracey’s viral video, the narrator writes her memoir (the novel), a sweeping narrative rife with the complexities and nuances absent from the abbreviated stories of our news feeds. Reading Swing Time in the wake of the revelations of Facebook’s most recent data breach—and its political consequences—calls attention to the novel’s prescience. Narratives that rival the truth have the menacing power to convince.

Work Cited

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. 2016. Penguin, 2017.

Zadie Smith / Dominique Nabokov

Thursday night when Zadie Smith spoke at Lenoir-Rhyne, she said that one of the inspirations for her novel Swing Time was an encounter at a birthday party, one where she witnessed a girl repeatedly interrupting her daughter, Katherine (Kit), to ask her questions about herself. Listening to Smith speak of the girl’s intense interest in her daughter reminded me of the novel’s first description of the narrator and her friend Tracey:

There were many other girls present but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and differences, as girls will. Our shade of brown was exactly the same–as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both–and our freckles gathered in the same areas, we were of the same height. But my face was ponderous and melancholy, with a long serious nose, and my eyes turned down, as did my mouth. (9)

Friday morning when Smith and her husband–the poet and novelist Nick Laird–spoke to a smaller group, mostly students and faculty, she talked more about her writing process. That thing that people call drafts is what I do with every paragraph, every day, she said, unlike her husband who “writes through.”

Halfway through she freaks out and throws it in the bin, he added, and I take it out and tell her it works.

When an audience member asked Smith what she hasn’t written that she still aspires to, Smith said that she would like to write a one-hundred and ten-page novel and noted her admiration for Penelope Fitzgerald’s novella The Blue Flower. But I know that I probably won’t write one  because I write long, but “I hold it out as a sort of fantasy.”

As a novelist, Smith remarked, I am using language to convey the reality of human experience, but the language of our shared experience–social media and television, for example–is surreal to me. “What’s that show about the scientists?” she asked, turning to her husband.

The Big Bang Theory,” Laird answered.

“Yes, The Big Bang Theory,” she said. That seems very surreal to me because the way they talk isn’t really the way people talk to one another.

Prose is so wide open, Smith said. With piano, for instance, there’s a certain level of competency. You know that when you sit down, you’ll be able to play. But every time you start to write, the page is completely blank. That’s what makes it so stressful. When it works, it’s the best version of yourself on that day. There’s a period of intensity when everything comes together.

Now as I find myself revising an essay on Smith’s novel Swing Time, I am invigorated by her reflections on craft and her candor about her own idiosyncrasies as a writer.  And I hope that my students who heard her speak will return to their own drafts, as I have, with a renewed faith in the process–the belief that we will reach that period of intensity when everything will come together.


Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. 2016. Penguin, 2017.

Smith, Zadie and Nick Laird. “An Evening with Zadie Smith and Nick Laird.” LR Visiting Writers Series. 22 Mar. 2018, P.E. Monroe Auditorium, Lenoir Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

—. Q&A. LR Visiting Writers Series. 23 Mar. 2018, Belk Centrum, Lenoir Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.