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Shaken Out of Time

Black Bodies and the Movement in Zadie Smith’s Swing Time


[clock] 12-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Winter 2017

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Midway through Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time, the unnamed narrator watches two girls walk “hand in hand” down a dusty road in an anonymous, fictionalized African country. “They looked like best friends,” she notes—that “looked” suggesting the mysteries of friendship that the novel has been dedicated to up until that point. “They were out at the edge of the world, or of the world I knew, and watching them, I realized it was…almost impossible for me to imagine what time felt like for them, out here.” The girls inevitably remind the narrator of her own lost, best friend, Tracey, who angrily haunts the novel, forever resisting the narrator’s attempts to regulate her to incorporeality. Of their friendship, she notes, “We thought we were products of a particular moment, because as well as our old musicals, we liked things like Ghostbusters and Dallas. We felt we had our place in time. What person on earth doesn’t feel this way?” But the narrator is unable to place the two girls before her in any time. “When I waved at those two girls…I couldn’t rid myself of the idea that they were timeless symbols of girlhood…I knew it couldn’t possibly be the case but I had no other way of thinking of them.”

In an interview in T: The New York Times Style Magazine this past fall, Smith noted, “It just seemed to me that what was done to black people, historically, was to take them out of the time of their life. That’s what fundamentally happened. We had a life in one place and it would have continued and who knows what would have happened—nobody knows. But it would’ve gone a certain way, and we were removed from that timeline, placed somewhere entirely different, and radically disrupted. And the consequences of that are pretty much unending. Every people have their trauma. It’s not a competition of traumas. But they’re different in nature. And this one is about having been removed from time.” Swing Time is a novel that is fundamentally concerned with this question. What do we do, how do we respond, when we are violently shaken out of time, when we lose the thread of our own lives, when we are so certain of the narrative of our life and then are suddenly, jarringly, shaken loose? How do we reconcile, what are the lies and myths we tell ourselves, to try and reclaim our time? And when do those lies hurt us and when do they help us find our footing again?

When we meet the narrator of Swing Time, she is deep in the midst of mysterious disgrace, briefly infamous worldwide for a perceived wrong she’s committed against a Madonna-like global superstar who goes by the single name of Aimee. The narrator is Aimee’s assistant: She has worked tirelessly for the past decade helping Aimee, a white woman, set up a school for girls in that unidentified African country. Aimee is a woman who has created her own myth for herself, using sex and youth and pop music to forge a destiny that would not have been available to any woman a generation before her. The narrator meets her by chance, devotes her life to her, and finds herself unmarried and childless, a cog in the superstar celebrity machine of Aimee’s life. But it becomes clear, even though the narrator has spent her adult life serving Aimee, it’s not the pop star who holds her attention. Instead, she exists in a kind of suspended dream state, reliving her brief friendship with Tracey, the only other mixed-race girl in the narrator’s neighborhood in the early 1980s. The narrator’s parents are genteelly poor, and her mother, in particular, is ambitious: She reads postcolonial theory and takes courses on Marxism, ruthlessly forging her identity as a poor, black woman in Britain into a professional activist and self-conscious, self-appointed voice of the people. Tracey’s mother, in contrast, is a poor, white woman who has banked all her small family’s name and fortune on Tracey’s talent as a dancer and her fleeting value as a young, pretty, woman of color. Both girls are poor, both are brown, both are mixed, but their friendship is fraught with class anxieties, as each girl viciously displays the little bit of knowledge she has about power in the world to her friend, shocking and saddening each other in the process. The friendship irrevocably breaks when the girls are in their teens and Tracey makes an allegation against the narrator’s white father that is so sad and strange and perverse that she finds herself unable to speak to Tracey again.

All of this is revealed in an intricate back and forth. The novel is told in alternating chapters that cover the girls’ childhood; their teenage disintegration, and then the narrator’s and Aimee’s misadventures in charity-based colonialism, as well as the narrator’s mother’s rise to political power as an MP in London. Throughout, Smith uses the same device: The narrator obliquely refers to an event, never telling the reader exactly what occurs, only ruminating, until a few chapters later when we learn what has happened. It’s the pattern of storytelling that one follows when one is relating a trauma—the eerie experience of the past as a continuous event.

Although the narrator’s father lies at the heart of the main trauma of this book, this is a book, above all else, about women and about the friendships and loyalties they inspire in one another. The narrator mentions, fleetingly, the men she sleeps with, but they make no impression on her imagination, on her inner life. That space is reserved first and foremost for Tracey, then her mother, then the shallow Aimee. 

Indeed, the character of Tracey is one of the great troublemakers in the tradition of fictional women’s friendships: novels about two women friends often operate on the dynamic of the friend who transgresses and the friend who observes those transgressions, admires and fiercely envies them, and in her secret heart, imagines them as her own. This novel has many wonderful feats, and often, while reading it, I stopped and put it down, overwhelmed with the pleasure of watching a fiction writer absolutely master her craft. It was a sensation not unlike what Eileen Myles has said about what makes a great piece of writing: “You had to close the book to make it stop.” 

But of all the wonders in this book, the creation of Tracey, who manages to be repellant and manipulative and awful and funny and brave, is the great one. Tracey’s is a power, we are meant to understand, that comes from the physical—the narrator’s first notice of Tracey is of her too-short, too-piggish nose. Novels, at least literary fiction, do not always succeed in describing the physical—there’s a reason the “Bad Sex in Fiction Awards” exist. Yet Tracey leaps to life, kinetic and graceful, and in every scene she enters the reader cannot predict what she will do, only knows that she’s an agent of chaos. The spell she casts over the narrator is completely understandable—for the narrator herself, by her own admission, does not possess the same drive, ambition, burning that Aimee and Tracey and the narrator’s own mother do. Indeed, her one attempt at asserting her personhood—singing an impromptu song at a piano bar, eyes closed, drunk and lonely and overcome with the desire to create something sublime—ends when she opens her eyes and realizes most of the bar has ignored her solo.

Counter to this concern, to the narrator’s awkwardness, are her meditations on the dancers she loves. These occur throughout the novel, and are some of Smith’s finest writing in the book. Michael Jackson and Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers and Jeni LeGon: In them, Smith suggests, exists another way—a way to play with time, to move of time, to recognize all of the incongruities and historical rhymes of the last century and this strange, destabilizing new one, and to respond by turning it all into a dance. 

“One of the most solid pieces of writing advice I know is in fact intended for dancers,” Smith wrote in a recent essay for the Guardian. She was speaking of the words of Martha Grahame, who noted, “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

Dance, many believe, is where the soul of a person lies, whatever that tricky bit of self we are calling the soul is. It is an art form that is, like music, difficult to describe in words. It is one that, again like music, can be fostered entirely outside anything like an academy or an institution. It’s one of the arts whose genius comes in youth—there are few dancers who hit their stride in their thirties or forties or fifties, like a novelist or a poet or a stand-up comedian can. To me, it’s always been a mysterious art form: How is there a history in something so fleeting, something passed down from body to body? How do the steps stay the same throughout time? How do they change?

We are in a cultural moment where dance and movement have a special power of transmission. With the rise of social media, which traffics in the meme, dance becomes a new way of communicating across cultures, across languages, purely in the medium of the glowing mobile-phone screen.

It’s an odd place for dance to end up. The steps of a dance craze that used to be formed in a teenager’s bedroom, on the dance floor of a club in some far-flung city, across the runway of a small drag ball, can suddenly be transmitted everywhere much, much faster, the movements that used to describe a group, an attitude, a community, suddenly shaken out of time, to be collated into the latest trend piece on memes, reduced to disposable internet content.

Take the craze of the 2010s, twerking, the dance that launched a thousand hoary think pieces on cultural appropriation and what white girls and white gay boys blithely take from black girls and black gay boys and how a dance can encapsulate class and race and sex and power, all in the flick of a hip. Never mind that twerking has been around for hundreds of years, used to go by the name of “the shake” or “the lusty bump,” or that it reasserts itself in American culture under a different name every few decades or so. Here was a dance that was entrancing to watch when filmed in shaky portrait view on an iPhone, a dance that could be lifted wholly out of its own time and place to come to mean whatever the viewer wished it to mean—the fall of Western civilization, the horror of sexual liberation, or a quick way to make a buck off the “urban” demographic.

It’s this dislocation that is the undercurrent of Swing Time. Throughout the book, the narrator tells the reader about viewing the outdated, often racist musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age. But as a child, she does not see the play savages with bones through their noses or the white actors in blackface as offensive. The images are, for her as a viewer, without context, without history, purely the form of the dance, the line of the body. The great authorial irony, of course, that Smith is able to pull off, is that the scenes she has the narrator describe remain hauntingly poignant and unsettling—imagining a young, mixed girl, face wide open to a television screen, watching black actors contorted into racial steroypes without flinching.

This past year of 2016, the year of Swing Time’s publication, has seen, if the news and pundits are to be believed, the dislocation of many of the great myths of the twentieth century: Diversity does not breed better understanding of our neighbors; the average person is not empathetic; we can know our history down to our bones and still blindly repeat it; the poor are not interested in improving their condition but interested in hearing someone tell them their poverty is merely temporary and the result of others who are browner, less deserving, more grasping than them. The arc of the moral universe is indeed long, but it seems only to bend back over itself, into stupidity, willful ignorance, and gleeful cruelty. We find we have been caught in a dance that has become dangerous, that we must be willing to break out of, but most of us refuse to, because these are the steps we already know and we think it would be too hard, cost too much money, be too embarrassing, to try and come up with new ones.

In the final weeks of the United States’ presidential elections, a new dance craze swept social media: the mannequin challenge. The meme found a group of people frozen in action as cameras swooped around them, “Black Beatles” by Rae Sremmurd playing. Like many viral memes, like a dance itself, the image has come to mean many things to many people. For the black teenagers who created it, it was a gag. For the conservative opinion sites that obsessively track anything black teenagers do on the internet, it became another chance to rail at “thugs” and write screeching propoganda about black criminals being caught by courageous white cops while stupidly doing the challenge. 

But throughout late October and November, everyone did the challenge: Taylor Swift and Destiny’s Child and Britney Spears and Paul McCartney and LeBron James. Michelle Obama did it in the White House. On November 7th, from her campaign’s plane, surrounded by her staffers and Bill and Bon Jovi, Hillary Clinton did it. There they all were, frozen, shaken once again out of time.  

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