The burden of having become Zadie Smith, international literary celebrity, surely hangs over the work of the novelist who bears the name. The sort of early success Smith enjoyed, at the age of 24, with the smash debut of White Teeth (2000), can have distorting effects. It drove the poet Delmore Schwartz to booze, pills, and madness; made Norman Mailer into a writer who was at his best tracing the arc of his Goodyear Blimp–size ego around the country; and silenced Harper Lee. Smith has responded to her fame by becoming a shape-shifter, a chameleon of the varieties of seriousness. Her ostentatious turns toward the comedy of manners (On Beauty, 2005) and then the formal techniques of modernism (NW, 2012) seemed motivated by an anxiety about the state of the novel generally. Along the way, she emerged as a first-class essayist. Having done E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Elizabeth Hardwick (and in the meantime wowed the world with a viral cabaret act at the Carlyle Hotel), Smith has returned to Big Ideas in her new novel, Swing Time. One of those ideas is fame itself. To pose it as questions: Why do some people become famous and what are they supposed to do with fame when they get it? And what becomes of those who betray their own talents?
“There can’t be no understanding between you and me any more!” a woman named Tracey screams at the narrator of Swing Time. “You’re part of a different system now. People like you think you can control everything. But you can’t control me!” The excoriation is a long time coming: Tracey and the narrator are estranged childhood friends who, at age 33, haven’t spoken to each other in a decade. Tracey’s outburst is also a neat summary of Smith’s book, a systems novel about the way two girls of similar ethnic backgrounds (both have one white and one black parent) from the same place (they are born in council estates across the street from each other in Northwest London) can grow up to have two very different fates. The themes of diverging paths is an abiding one in Smith’s work, beginning with the Iqbal twins in White Teeth, and receiving a more mature treatment with the four friends in NW. Compared with those books, Swing Time is solemn, less given to satire when it comes to the forces that shape its characters’ lives, especially the biraciality that lends them either dual identities or an inherited form of cultural confusion. Not that the novel lacks in absurd contrivances — Smith simply hasn’t decided to play them for laughs this time around.
Much of Swing Time is about poverty, parts of it take place in a remote West African village, and Smith seems to have decided that the subject called for a suppression of her comic gifts. It’s also the first novel she’s written with a single first-person narrator, and that narrator’s sullen personality has a lot to do with the novel’s melancholic cast. The narrator of Swing Time is a disappointed person — disappointed that she’s not as talented a dancer as her friend Tracey, that her own parents divorce, that Tracey becomes paranoid and starts to lash out in bizarre ways. But the narrator is also accustomed to riding on private jets as the personal assistant of mega-rich pop star called Aimee. An Australian who made her name with a series of hit videos in the 1980s, Aimee’s nearest real-life equivalent, as far as I could guess, is Kylie Minogue, but really she’s more of a non-American not-quite-Madonna, a member of West London’s globalized plutocrat class. Her underprivileged origins in Bendigo, Australia, signal, not a little didactically, that anything is possible for a person from the middle of nowhere with the right talents and a strong sense of self-discipline. Tracey has the talent but not the discipline, the narrator the discipline but not the talent.
The novel is more or less split into a Tracey story and an Aimee story, with a glancing convergence in the end. Tracey and the narrator are members of the same dance class as 7-year-olds. In the novel, dance serves as an animating intellectual principle in the way the art of the 1970s does in Rachel Kushner’s 2013 novel The Flamethrowers — and like that novel, Swing Time is full of trivia about beloved cultural artifacts. Besides Michael Jackson, Smith’s touchstones are Golden Age Hollywood musicals, especially those of Fred Astaire, and I suspect that reading Swing Time will be a richer experience for those who share her characters’ affection for those movies than those who don’t. (Alas, this was my predicament.) The same holds for her digressions on the more universally familiar figures of pop music. During a stint working for the London office of “YTV” — MTV by another name, the place where Aimee finds her and impulsively hires her, and a soft target for satire insufficiently exploited — the narrator is dispatched on assignment by her cokehead boss:
“Just before Christmas she sent me to our European Music Awards, in Salzburg, where one of my tasks was accompanying Whitney Houston to a soundcheck. I don’t remember the song she sang—I never really liked her songs—but standing in that empty concert hall, listening to her sing without backing music, with no support of any kind, I found that the sheer beauty of the voice, its monumental dose of soul, the pain implicit within it, bypassed all my conscious opinions, my critical intelligence or sense of the sentimental, or whatever it is that people are referring to when they talk about their own ‘good taste’, going instead straight to my spine, where it convulsed a muscle and undid me.”
The remarkable thing about this description isn’t the spinal-muscle convulsion, which sounds a lot like the tingles Nabokov associated with reading great literature, but Smith and her narrator’s dismissal of all the standard modes of experiencing art — intelligence, sentiment, taste, actual recordings or musical accompaniment — in favor of a romanticized notion of a pure voice expressing “soul” and “pain.” I’m sure a single pure dose of Whitney would have been superior to any number of listenings to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” but the narrator’s desire to seek out something like the “profound experience of art” that obsesses the narrator of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station never really works on the page in Swing Time. Tracey is said to possess this sort of raw talent — it’s the key to her tragic nature — but her increasing mania is much more vividly conveyed.
Aimee’s talents aren’t inauthentic — she’s said to belong to the tribe of “movement” — but her music is secondary in Swing Time to a late-career project of vanity philanthropy building a girls’ school in a West African village. (It’s tempting to read Aimee as a critique of Smith’s own celebrity, but no number of T magazine covers will turn her into Oprah or Angelina Jolie.) Could this celebrity intervention go any way but wrong? Of course it goes wrong, and in tedious detail. But it gives the narrator an entrée to an estranged homeland where she learns she can’t be seen as anything but another foreigner. The faces and dancing of the village girls are allegorically linked to Tracey, as is the fate of the village as a whole, after a few creaky plot twists.
In NW, Smith proved she could do realism, and do it with originality, even modernist touches. The book’s local focus was an asset, and the essayistic capsules of its third section, tracing the life of the Smith alter ego Natalie, remain her best fiction. Parts of Swing Time, particularly the narrator’s account of her brief phase as a high-school goth, reach this level, but long stretches are marked by a joylessness previously alien to her work. The constantly asserted “wonderment” of dance doesn’t quite compensate. Like White Teeth, the book James Wood pinned the term hysterical realism on, Swing Time has globalized ambitions. It’s hysterical realism without the hysteria. Something’s certainly missing. I’d call it irony.