Wednesday, December 13, 2017

What did the book club think of Zadie Smith's "Swing Time"?

This month the In-Store Lit Group discussed Zadie Smith's Swing Time. I've been eyeing the hardcover sitting on my shelf at home and it started entering the "use it or lose it" zone. I don't know why, but I have a track record of reading every other Zadie Smith novel (White Teeth and On Beauty but not The Autograph Man and NW).

Two girls grow up in the same neighborhood. Both are biracial. Both enroll in dance class. As the publisher says, one has talent, the other has ideas. Tracey focuses on her art, but Narrator (which is what I call the people in unnamed first-person novels) is driven to bigger things by her mom, who may be an immigrant from the Carribean, but has an intuitive idea about how to appear palatable to the upper classes, while at the same time shunning striving altogether.

But N (that's short for Narrator) doesn't follow the great path of a social justice warrior. She gets a job at YTV (substitute M) and then as one of four personal assistants for Aimee, a wunderkind entertainment phenomenon. She sings, she dances, she acts! She understands people. And boy, does she appropriate. 

So Aimee has this plan to open this school for girls in Africa (Gambia). But does that mean working with a government that isn't always top notch in human rights? And what does that do to the boys who are not given the chance? When I read fiction, I kind of like books that ask questions rather than answer them, and boy does Swing Time have that in spades (a phrase which, as you know, comes from Bridge, as spades are the highest suit). 

I've said in the past that every writer has a series of plotlines they have to check off. Have I written my affair book? My historical novel? And one novel that seems to be particularly important for women writers (less so men, but Shotgun Lovesongs comes to mind) is the friendship novel. I always think of Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye as the ultimate friendship novel, but I've read many others.

The question that G. asked in the group was, were these women even friends? Were they frenemies? Would they grow closer after the book ended or was that ending scene really the end. As one person in the group noted, the end of Swing Time might be the beginning of Swing Time.

L. liked the book and like many of us, was taken with a recurring theme in the stories we discuss, the passing of information, culture, and psychology from parent to child. The mother-daughter dynamic reminded her of another book we recently read, Nicole Dennis-Benn's Here Comes the Sun. Each mother was, in her own way, imposing expectations on their children.

Jamaica also connects the novels of Zadie Smith and Nicole Dennis-Benn. In fact, I was reading this book at the Walker's Point Anodyne and one of the baristas started talking to me about Swing Time and I wanted to tell him to read Here Comes the Sun but I got cold feet. But I might go back and suggest it. M. was reminded of another book about Africa, The Poisonwood Bible. Absolutely!

In the end, the group was split, like a beat up bell curve (with the higher peak among the likers). I think the biggest complaint was that it dragged a bit (a variation of it was too long). In this way, it reminded me of The Sympathizers in that the part that could possibly be excised (the filming of the Apocalypse Now equivalent movie) was so good that how could you leave it out?

In the same way, some of the best bits of Swing Time are the historical asides, when Narrator looks at old films, revisiting racism, blackface, and the super talented singers and dancers of color who are now forgotten. A number of us turned to the internet to view clips referenced in the book. How could you not want to know more about Jeni LeGon? Here she is for the number Swing Is Here to Stay (from the film Ali Baba Goes to Town) which is analyzed in the novel. 

Folks who love Smith's critical asides are in for a treat, by the way, because her new nonfiction collection, Feel Free release February 6, 2018.

As I've said before, much of my reading is contextual. The books I read influence the future books I read, at least until I forget about the prior books. So I was influenced, in the reading of Swing Time, by two previous novels I'd read, Nicole Krauss's Forest Dark and Andrew Sean Greer's Less.

All three books fall loosely into the category of autofiction. Krauss used a character named Nicole. Greer used a character name Arthur, and to me, that's close enough, being that so many customers call me David. And Smith, she used a nameless narrator. But there are clues. While Smith was not a dancer, she did sing. And the area she grew up matches. And I think the time periods match. As many authors say to us, we are all of our fictional creations and we are none of them.

But there's another clue that there's a component to this book that makes the character a Zadie Smith in another multiverse (thank goodness for comics, so there's a shorthand for this sort of thing). Remember when Narrator needs a place to stay in New York and winds up with Darryl and Richard, two writers "in their late fifties, a couple, one white and one black"?

Anyone who closely reads the acknowledgements (like I always, always do) can figure out these are a real couple who are Zadie Smith's friends. They are not historical people being used like Abe in Lincoln in the Bardo. That's a little Easter egg that Smith is playing with us. It's her and of course it's completely not her. 

If I had any caveat, really, it was while Smith could speak critically about dance, I don't think her writing quite captured the emotional experience of dancing. I love when books about art and music and theater do that. I'm not saying it's an easy thing - the closest it got I think was the last scene. But I'm just going to say that when I read Lonesome Lies Before Us, I was completely there with Yadin Park in his creative space.

We wound up having an excellent conversation about Swing Time.   And now what's up next for the In-Store Lit Group?

Tuesday (note the day), January 2, 7 pm:
Kazuo Ishiguro, author of Never Let Me Go

Monday, February 5,  pm:
Chloe Benjamin, author of The Anatomy of Dreams
Benjamin's fabulous second novel, The Immortalists, releases January 9!

No comments: