In Swing Time, Zadie Smith describes a home video uploaded to the Internet and gone viral. “Can children exploit themselves? Is it anything more than a couple of girls messing around, simply two girls dancing—two brown girls dancing like adults—copying adult moves innocently, but skillfully, as brown girls often can? And if you think it’s more than that, then who has the problem, exactly, the girls in the film—or you?”
Swing Time, the British writer’s fifth novel (following 2012’s stunning NW), follows a woman, the unnamed narrator, through a childhood shaped by dance to an adulthood shaped by not much at all—at least not much she really loves. A satisfactory dancer, the young narrator’s real passion is her friendship with the talented, spikey Tracey and the hours they spend watching old Hollywood musicals: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodger’s 1936 Swing Time among them. One musical they find, 1937’s Ali Baba Goes to Town, opens a window into a performance as troubling and mesmerizing as the viral video—depicting the two friends as girls dancing to and like a Madonna-like popstar, Aimee—that is later watched (and probed) by the world.
“Ali Baba Goes to Town is a strange film,” the narrator explains. Eddie Cantor stars as Al Babson, a Hollywood extra on the fictional film Arabian Nights, who falls asleep and dreams he is in long-ago Baghdad. It’s there he meets a group of Africans: “Al wants to talk to them and he tries everything: English, French, Spanish, Italian, even Yiddish. Nothing doing. Then a brainwave. Hi dee hi dee hi dee hi! The call of Cab Calloway, 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.”
It’s not Cantor aping Calloway (in more ways than one) that entrances the child narrator and Tracey. “It was a girl, a girl arrived.” Jeni LeGon, the first black woman to be signed to a Hollywood contract, emerges in stereotypical garb. “Her arms wheelbarrowed as she moved,” Smith writes, “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 comic 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.”
It’s these complicated but spellbinding intersections of culture and performance that serve as a decoder ring for Swing Time.
It’s these complicated but spellbinding intersections of culture and performance that serve as a decoder ring for Swing Time. Here are these brown girls in London, here is this brown woman in Hollywood, here again is this white woman—Aimee—in West Africa, where she takes up a lover and baby “as easily as she might order a limited-edition handbag from Japan.” It’s from this center that the rest of the book makes sense, like the exact spot on the floor of the National Gallery in London from which the gray blur in the center of Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting, “The Ambassadors,” coheres into a skull.
Swing Time, a novel as attentive and lovely as any of Smith’s previous works, resists easy summary. Is it about the narrator and Tracey’s friendship? If so, why is Tracey missing from so much of the book? Is it about the narrator’s relationship to Aimee, the popstar whose personal assistant she becomes? If so, why does it mean so little to the narrator once she is finally fired? Is it about the viral video, an artifact which to the narrator “has come to feel like fate, would be almost impossible not to consider as fate”? If so, why is there “no need for me now to describe the dance itself?” Why does it not show up again for another 350 pages and, when it does, have no practical impact on the protagonist? What does fate mean if it is a blank? What kind of fate makes no difference at all?
In the movie Swing Time, there’s a long number—“Bojangles of Harlem”—in which Fred Astaire is in blackface. He’s alone on the stage, or, not quite. Behind him are three shadows, Astaire-shaped, which sometimes dance along with him and sometimes don’t. Literal black specters and spectators, the shadow dancers witness both a pure expression of white supremacy and of dance itself, one noxious, the other electric. What do you do with an object like this, the novel Swing Time seems to ask, if only sometimes and sideways. Of the viral video that so troubled its fictional viewers, Smith writes, “whatever is said or thought about it seems to make the viewer complicit: the best thing is not to see it at all.” Yet Swing Time can’t, and won’t, look away.