Swing Time is my first taste of Zadie Smith’s work and I feel like I might have got on the wrong bus. It’s not that the book is awful or even average. In fact a good deal of the novel is funny and smart and incredibly well written. But it’s funny how one thing, a character, a plot beat, a narrative tic, can upset everything, undermine all the good work. In the case of Swing Time I simply couldn’t get past the character of Aimee.
Thankfully Aimee isn’t our protagonist or narrator. That task goes to an unnamed character – is it me or is there this increasing literary trend of not naming first person narrators? – who, when the book opens, is running away from a scandal, the media on her heels. The rest of the novel essentially explains how our narrator reached this point in her life. She skips between her childhood in London living on a housing estate and her adult life where she becomes an assistant for an Australian pop diva. This would be Aimee.
Those early sections dealing with her childhood and her friendship with Tracey, a girl she meets at a community dance class, is where the book sings. They both dream of being dancers, captivated by the dancing moves of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and then later – and more importantly – Jeni LeGon, a black dancer of the 1930s whose skin colour and dancing chops mesmerise the girls, especially Tracey. Smith’s writing here is just stunning. Capturing the movement of dance in prose while also conveying the sheer joy of the two girls.
The story isn’t told chronologically and at first it’s interesting to compare our narrator in her youth to the woman in her early 20s now working for a pop-star (after a short stint at an MTV clone). She’s smart, aware that the colour of her skin means she’s a novelty even amongst progressive media-types (I should note these scenes are set in the late 90s) and still not entirely sure what she should be doing with her life. It also becomes immediately clear that she’s estranged from her best friend who seems to be posting David Icke like conspiracy theories on bulletin boards. How it got this way is one of the questions the rest of the novel addresses. But between those scenes where we flashback to our narrator’s youth, in steps Aimee.
She’s a pop-star. A diva. And after an awkward first meeting, our narrator has been tasked to shadow Aimee when she visits the office of the MTV clone, Aimee decides she wants our narrator to stay as her assistant. Having always been a fan of Aimee’s work our narrator say yes.
Aimee is a cliché, a strawman, an anvil around the neck of the novel. She’s Australian, born in Bendigo which is described as “sleepy”. (Has Bendigo ever been mentioned so often in a literary novel?). It’s not that Aimee is an awful Australian stereotype, dropping words like drongo and you beaut at random moments (no that role goes to her best friend Judy who says the word bogan maybe fifty times). In fact our narrator makes the point that Aimee has deliberately shaved away anything Australian, including her accent, from her character. No, what bugged me about Aimee is that in a book that features this complex relationship between two best friends Aimee’s lack of depth stands out like a sore thumb.
You can check off the clichés. Aimee is self obsessed and egotistical, only interested in her brand. She is temperamental, treating her assistants like close friends one day and then ignoring them for weeks after. She’s also naïve, especially in a broader political sense, made clear when she decides to build a school in Africa. I know Smith is deliberately tapping into a specific “pop-diva” stereotype. It’s just not clear to me why, or, more importantly, why our narrator stays with Aimee for so many years? The impression is that our narrator, never sure what to do with her life, is willing to be a passive actor in Aimee’s over the top life. Our narrator does eventually rebel, shagging one of the teachers they meet in Africa, a man Aimee is fond of. But it all feels orchestrated, it lacks the natural momentum of our narrator’s relationship with Tracey.
It’s the stuff with Tracey that I wanted to go back to. While the activities in West Africa are interesting from a cultural relativist perspective, I felt that novel truly only shined when we flashed back to our narrators early years with Tracey and our narrators almost reluctant relationship with her mother (another strong aspect of the book which deserves more attention than I’ve given it). But then Bendigo born Aimee appears and the clichés are trotted out and it all feels off kilter, like two novels trying to exist in the same space.
I know this isn’t Smith at her best. And given there’s some incredibly good prose on display I’ll definitely read her next book. (Obviously I should read her back catalogue but we know that’s not going to happen). Even if I got on the wrong bus I wasn’t totally disappointed with the journey.