Zadie Smith’s Rhythmic Play in Shadow and Light

By Walton MuyumbaNovember 17, 2016

Zadie Smith’s Rhythmic Play in Shadow and Light

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

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.

When they watch Ali Baba Goes to Town together, the narrator hopes that one particular early scene will tighten their fraying connection. In the film, Al Babson (played by Eddie Cantor) snags a job as an extra in “an Arabian Nights-type” Hollywood movie. During a lull in the shooting, Al falls asleep and dreams that “he’s back in ninth-century Arabia.” During his dream, Al goes from upstart extra to master bandleader, enlivening a lethargic group of African musicians. After English, Yiddish, and multiple Romance languages fail to link them in communication, Al tries Cab Calloway’s signature call:

Hi dee hi dee hi dee hi [] and the Africans, recognizing it, leap to their feet and cry out the response: Ho dee ho dee ho dee ho! Excited, Cantor starts blacking up, right then and there, painting his face with a burnt piece of cork, leaving only those rolling eyes, the elastic mouth.

Tracey protests against watching the blackface routine, but the narrator begs her to see the song and dance sequence through. In the middle of the number, “Swing Is Here to Stay,” a dancer takes center stage and turns Sammy Lee’s choreography into something otherworldly:

I made Tracey sit as close to the screen as she could, I didn’t want there to be any doubt about it […] Oh, the nose was different — this girl’s nose was normal and flat — and there was, in her eyes, no hint of Tracey’s brand of cruelty. But the heart-shaped face, the adorable puffy cheeks, the compact body and yet the long limbs, these were all Tracey. The physical resemblance was so strong and yet she didn’t dance like Tracey. Her arms wheel-barrowed as she moved, her legs flew back and forth, she was a hoofer, not an obsessed technician. And she was funny: walking on her toes or freeze-framing for a second in an absurd coming attitude, on one leg, arms in the air, like the hood ornament of an expensive car. Dressed like the rest — grass skirt, feathers — but nothing could diminish her.

The dancer in this scene was born Jennie Bell in Chicago, 1916, to Hector Ligon and Harriet Bell Ligon. After Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons butchered her name in print, Ms. Ligon became known as Jeni LeGon. Even before she danced with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in Hooray for Love (1935), her manager “crowed to the [Chicago] Defender that LeGon was ‘a child without race’ who would ‘reign in moviedom without being typed’ and ‘bridge the gap between the distinctly white and the distinctly black in films.’” However, as Brian Seibert explains in his history of tap dancing, What The Eye Hears, LeGon would never live up to her manager’s hype, as she was relegated to the background in “a film career heavy on parts for non-dancing maids,” including a turn as Ann Miller’s maid in the Astaire-Judy Garland vehicle, Easter Parade. LeGon’s dancing in Smith’s novel is both a wonder and a sign. While readers might know enough by this moment in the novel to see LeGon as a kind of warning, neither Tracey nor the narrator (who tells her story in the past tense) recognize it as one. Only much later in the book does the narrator realize that on screen, LeGon “was not really a person at all, that was only a shadow.”

Swing Time is a layered and intellectually intricate narrative about black Anglophone cultural experiences in London, Gambia, and New York; Hollywood musicals and cinematic dream worlds; and white performers who can blanch their origins and appropriate blackness in its varieties. Given its similarities to Smith’s earlier fictions, especially White Teeth and NW, Swing Time’s ambitions ought not surprise us, and yet, the effort Smith asks her readers to exert in penetrating this gorgeous, unwieldy novel seems new.

The novel is part of Smith’s continuing argument with the Anglophone literary tradition; in “Two Directions for the Novel,” her essay about Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, she forswears a certain kind of literary realism. Swing Time offers an antithesis: though Smith remains a writer wedded to realism, Swing Time charges readers with something other than “a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition,” to cite the negative critique she levied against O’Neill’s novel.

Nonetheless, traces of one of Netherland’s major symbolic themes, the game of cricket, show up in Swing Time. Swing Time’s ending is in its beginning: set in northwest London (NW), the novel opens with a 33-year-old, unnamed narrator/protagonist hiding from the London press in a temporary rental flat in St. John’s Wood on October 25, 2008 — 10 days before Barack Obama’s first election to the US presidency. She has just been fired from her post as a personal assistant to Aimee, a Madonna-like international pop star from Australia with a taste for trend-oriented philanthropy. The apartment overlooks Lord’s Cricket Ground, but the game, which she does not really understand, only offers the narrator a kind of distraction from the reoccurrence of her lifelong affliction: shame. When the press attention abates, the narrator escapes out the back of the building and walks about NW until she stumbles upon a lecture about one of her favorite films from childhood, Swing Time, starring Fred Astaire.

When she returns to the apartment, finally prepared to face the music, she turns on her mobile phone to check the messages. Still stung by her dismissal, the narrator’s anxieties are heightened when a text message appears acknowledging a reality — the past is always present — that she has been denying since high school: “[N]ow everyone knows who you really are. It was the kind of note you might get from a spiteful seven-year-old girl with a firm idea of justice. And of course that — if you can ignore the passage of time — is exactly what it was.” Provoked by the note, the narrator spends the next 440 pages detailing her personal narrative and the multiple players who people it.

Cricket doesn’t create space for self-reflection or epiphany in Swing Time in the way that it does for Netherland’s narrator/protagonist, Hans van den Broek. As such, it is Smith’s initial turning away from the kind of lyrical realism at the base of O’Neill’s novel. A long-established comfort with lyrical realism stems from that style’s seeming psychological benefits: readers are rewarded, Smith argues, with fictions that express the “transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.” In other words, they offer up ordered realities. Yet Smith’s technique to unseat readers from their comfortable reading positions stems from her understanding that realities are constructed linguistically, thus they are messy and bound to be misapprehended, instead of ordered epiphanies. Her own work refutes, among other things, the story of authentic selfhood. During her analysis of Netherland in “Two Directions for the Novel,” Smith proposes a series of questions meant to draw attention to that novel’s faulty reliance on lyrical realist principles. Now those questions read like working notes for making Swing Time:

[I]s this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really realism?

Although Smith doesn’t produce fictions that behave like McCarthy’s Remainder — a novel that begins as an “antiliterature hoax” but ends up representing reality as “physical events, rather than emotional symbols” — Swing Time addresses what Remainder realizes, “that we know, in the end, ‘less than little / And finally as little as nothing,’” as Wisława Szymborska writes in the poem “The End and The Beginning.”

Szymborska’s claim voices opposition to the kind of thinking that propels Swing Time’s storytelling: “Now everyone knows who you really are.” That line actually bears some sonic semblance to the note in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000) that Delphine Roux sends to Coleman Silk — “EVERYONE KNOWS.” Szymborska and Roth both recognize that “everyone knows” is tantamount to “the banalization of experience.” Considering Roux’s note, Zuckerman (Roth’s amanuensis) explains the problem to himself:

What we know is that, in an unclichéd way, nobody knows anything. You can’t know anything. The things you know you don’t know. Intention? Motive? Consequence? Meaning? All that we don’t know is astonishing. Even more astonishing is what passes for knowing.

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.

Swing Time favors the narrator’s fragments of recollection and her rhythmic oscillation among the multiple narrative poles those fragments construct. Smith asks her readers to relinquish their expectations for a life rendered in plot and a realist mode that might be enjoyed in passive comfort. The narrative’s swinging movements offer a sense of how memory lies in the mind and how the stories we tell ourselves about our experiences deny or escape ordering. Readers must follow and catch up with the narrator shuffling among her story lines, the work’s internal patterns. As they do, they will notice that the made-ness of the movement evokes the novel’s major metaphor: dance.

At the lecture about Swing Time, the famous director interrogating the movie and Astaire’s dancing talks about his theory of “pure cinema,” what he calls the “interplay of light and dark, expressed as a kind of rhythm, over time.” If cricket “symbolizes the triumph of the symbol over brute fact” in Netherland, then Smith wants in Swing Time a physical event or act that functions as cricket does in Remainder: “pure facticity which keeps coming at you, carrying death, leaving its mark.”

It is likely Smith knows her C. L. R. James, that giant of Anglophone letters, who has named cricket an art form. In Beyond a Boundary, his masterpiece on cricket, colonialism, and blackness, James describes cricket as “a dramatic spectacle,” belonging alongside of “theatre, ballet, opera, and the dance.” In Swing Time, Smith has transposed cricket into its cousin form where the rhythmic play of light and dark carries death, leaves its trace; dancing is pure action, pure facticity.

After the lecture, while watching Swing Time on YouTube, the narrator notices, as if for the first time, that Astaire does his famous dance number in blackface — “the rolling eyes, the white gloves, the Bojangles grin” — and this is the first clue that the narrator doesn’t know what she thinks she knows. Ralph Ellison might say about Astaire’s blackface routine in Swing Time, and moments like it in other films, that they “are not about Negroes at all; they are about what whites think and feel about Negroes. And if they are taken as accurate reflectors of that thinking, it becomes apparent that there is much confusion.”

Smith might argue that this kind of confusion informs Hans’s view of Chuck Ramkissoon — the Trinidadian of Indian heritage who dreams of creating a stadium for professional cricket and who serves as a kind of Gatsby to Hans’s Nick Caraway — “as a kind of authenticity fetish.” Chuck becomes for Hans (and O’Neill’s readers) an access point for “a narrative time when symbols and mottos were full of meaning and novels weren’t neurotic, but could aim themselves simply and purely at transcendent feeling.”

The narrative time Smith is really identifying here might better be thought of as colonial time — Smith describes Netherland as a colonization of space by image. When Swing Time’s narrator recalls arriving in Gambia (as a kind of location scout and liaison for Aimee’s school project) and seeing the kankurang — the secret dancer in the Mandinka initiation rite who guides the young through the middle passage from childhood to adolescence — she explains, “I thought: here is the joy I’ve been looking for all my life.” She wants desperately to fetishize the dancer and the dance; she wants to metaphorize the scene to access some transcendent self.

In this long novel, full of exceptional scenes, sequences, and sections, Smith’s writing in the Gambian chapters is the sharpest. Here, readers meet Lamin and Hawa, teachers in the proposed girls’ school who become the narrator’s close friends, and Fernando Carrapichano, a Brazilian project manager who oversees the school’s development and acts as counselor to her. The narrator continually reads her wobbly self against these others who seem to her assured and confident in their identities. As with the kankurang, the narrator misapprehends them, and thus attempts to fetishize them. In one excellent sequence, with the school project in motion, the narrator interrupts Hawa’s teaching to illustrate to her that the students are not, in fact, learning to write in English effectively. When she reports her actions to Fernando, claiming that they might learn their lessons better if they “take English tests home, as homework or something,” he loses his cool: “Homework! Have you been to their homes […] What are you doing here? What experience do you have in this work? This is adult work! You behave like a teenager. But you are not a teenager any more are you? Isn’t it time you grew up?” But the narrator can’t, won’t, or doesn’t know how to grow up.

When the narrator notices Aimee’s attraction to Lamin, and he shows up in New York at Aimee’s request, she plots to disrupt their connection out of jealousy. She takes Lamin’s presence in her world as a rejection of how she ordered her own reality.

For in my mind, at the time as perhaps it is for most young people — I was at the center of things, the only person in the world with true freedom. I moved from here to there, observing life as it presented itself to me, but everybody else in these scenes, all the subsidiary characters, belonged only in the compartments in which I had placed them.

As another character points out to her, the narrator is delusional.

As with her other novels, Smith displays in Swing Time a gift for mimicking the rhythms of the Anglophone vernaculars her characters use: besides the varieties of British English, there are Jamaican, Australian, Gambian, American, Iranian, and Somali versions of the language. Smith has written that Barack Obama displays a great ability to mimic the intonations of the multiethnic group populating Dreams of My Father: he “doesn’t just speak for his people. He can speak them.” In that assertion, she may have been thinking about her own work too. After all, Smith has turned NW London into her own private “Dublin,” a “minority nation within a nation.”

Maybe what Smith is after in Swing Time is a kind of postcolonial realism or, better, an aesthetic practice for decolonizing realism. Instead of reading about black bodies colonized to help other characters realize themselves, Smith has illustrated a way of pulling the inhabitants of NW out from the background, of freeing black bodies from the fetishizing strokes of lyrical realism. Though I doubt that she would explicitly wed her project to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind, Smith has nonetheless moonwalked into a space that Ngũgĩ’s call for unshackling and shielding African realities from the aesthetic modes of imperialist and neocolonial cultures helped create. It is a space that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Teju Cole’s Open City, and Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland (Pinckney and James Fenton, his partner, show up as characters in Swing Time) inhabit and one into which Swing Time dances. As in those art works, Smith imagines blackness without essentialism, engages the multiple realities that black people inhabit, recognizes the self in a state of always becoming, and understands finally that we know as little as nothing.


Walton Muyumba is the author of The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism and an associate professor of American and African Diaspora literature in the English Department at Indiana University-Bloomington.

LARB Contributor

Walton Muyumba is the author of The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2009). A writer and professor, Muyumba's criticism appears regularly in The Oxford American and The Dallas Morning News.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.