She’s hardly a recluse. But on October 21, Zadie Smith surprised us when she became the unlikely subject of a blurry video on Instagram — singing. Serenading, actually: The 44-second clip shows the British novelist and essayist treating bar guests at the Carlyle Hotel in New York to a rich, skillful Billie Holiday rendition. The video was taken the night of the T Magazine party celebrating a series of profiles on “The Greats,” including the one Jeffrey Eugenides had written about Smith. But more than words, the bar performance was the most startling insight into who she is and what she’s capable of. Zadie Smith can sing? The caps-locked, excessive What can’t she do? comments on Insta practically wrote themselves.
Before the video of her singing began to make the rounds, I had decided to more or less give up on authors. Fiction or nonfiction, didn’t matter, I was done. I would still read, of course. But there would be no more hate-screenshotting of Joyce Carol Oates’s latest election tweets. No more drunkenly hopping around friends’ apartments saying “Do I want to fuck it?”, à la Lena Dunham, to inanimate objects. No more mental reenactments of Jonathan Safran Foer’s cursed email correspondence with Natalie Portman. With the exception of Bob Dylan’s trolling of the Nobel committee, which I loved, the mystery was gone. Writers were as dumb as the rest of us.
Smith, however, remains appreciably mysterious. She has avoided becoming annoying on Twitter, refusing us access to her unfiltered self while remaining tuned in nonetheless, nailing her take on modern social life in an essay on The Social Network, profiling the likes of Key and Peele and Jay Z with specific insight into the current moment, and giving the Brexit vote a proper, thoughtful memorial. Her new novel Swing Time, which comes out on November 15, is rife with Smith’s trademark prescience. Frankly, it’s a little eerie. There’s a passage in this book that unexpectedly wades through the “Grab them by the pussy” phenomenon, but with the complicated complicity of adolescence: “The important thing was that you were seen to be the kind of girl worth chasing.” It’s as if Smith, who would have written that passage well before she knew we’d need it, saw the conversation coming.
She seems to do that a lot. Swing Time fits snugly into a recent trend of examining female friendship, as does her previous novel, NW, which to its own credit has passages on Amy Winehouse and Chatroulette that are so on the money they almost feel unfair. Smith’s work nurtures in us a curiosity about the writer behind it. That’s the promise of a new Zadie Smith novel, and Swing Time is no exception.
From the moment White Teeth took off and become the talk of the season in 2000, Zadie Smith has been treated like a movie star: mythic, gorgeous, outrageous, magnetic. “She played emotional games and had several bizarre relationships,” an anonymous source told the Evening Standard in 2002, conjuring a fiery vision befitting a literary Elizabeth Taylor or, better yet, Eartha Kitt. “After one relationship ended, the talk was that she smashed up all the furniture in her lover’s room. But who knows if that happened.” For her part, Smith does keep coming back to the idea of celebrity in her novels: the small stakes notoriety of the professoriate in On Beauty, for example, or the fan obsession she explores in The Autograph Man. She harps on this the way Sofia Coppola does in her movies: with the bent of someone who’s been there, seen it, and can’t help but verge on cynicism when describing it, even though it’s not a world she rejects.
Smith’s novels have, to date, been full of pairings — of white and black men, white and black women and, in Swing Time, two mixed-race girls: the narrator, who remains nameless, and her childhood friend Tracey. The girls grow up in North West London, like the pair of women from Smith’s NW, and, as in that novel, Swing Time tells the story of a touch-and-go friendship that spans from childhood through adulthood. The narrator and Tracey meet as 9-year-olds in a dance class held at a nearby church, and from the start, the encounter is overloaded with Smith’s dependable regimen of social differences — class (the narrator’s mom is upwardly mobile and her father is doting, if ineffectual; Tracey’s mother is unapologetically brash and her dad is in and out of jail), sexual experience, and feelings about blackness. Swing Time is Smith’s first novel written in the first person, a form she wasn’t fond of until she realized she could bend it to her needs. It serves her well.
The story shuttles between past and present, the London of the narrator’s childhood and the unspecified African country of her recent adult past, where, as the assistant to a fictional Australian pop star named Aimee, she works on her boss’s somewhat misguided charitable interests. We see this all from the purview of a narrator with a peculiarly keen sense of what makes her different from others. The novel’s title is borrowed from the 1936 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical film — perhaps because it describes something the narrator loves while also describing her pendular inner life. She’s a woman who comes off as stuck between multiple worlds at once: that of her white father versus that of her Jamaican mother, for example, or her own world against that of Tracey. Smith sums up the girls’ differences, from the start, as the at-odds parenting attitudes of their mothers. “My mother was proud of trying harder than Tracey’s mother,” the narrator notes, “than all the mothers, of having got me into a half-decent state school instead of one of the several terrible ones. She was in a competition of caring, and yet her fellow contestants, like Tracey’s mother, were so ill-equipped when placed beside her that it was a fatally lopsided battle. I often wondered: is it some kind of a trade-off? Do others have to lose so we can win?”
If equality were her prevailing ethic, Smith wouldn’t have much of a novel. So much of Swing Time, which plays out in brief, deceptively straightforward sketches, depends on a sense of imbalance. A minor social difference between the narrator and her colleagues, when she’s working for an MTV-esque music video station in London, reads like a clash of deeper worldviews. Her coworkers love movies like Alfie and The Italian Job: a flaw, for “it was nostalgia for an era and a culture that had meant nothing to me in the first place, and perhaps because of this I was, in the eyes of my colleagues, cool, by virtue of not being like them.” She spends much of the novel pivoting against her various ideas of who she is and isn’t, who she wants to be and doesn’t.
The narrator of Swing Time has an ambivalence that borders on dispassion — a far cry from the contagious zaniness of Smith’s first novel, published when she was 24. White Teeth borrowed from and built on the sinewy bounce of flashy postmodernists like Salman Rushdie. That voice wouldn’t work here — so Smith discards it. Gone is the manic, new-age “hysterical realism” James Wood famously charged her and her peers with creating; it’s been replaced with a more guarded lyricism and social observation. Smith’s writing has less vernacular rhythm than it used to, but it remains laced with a kind of humor only a sharp social perception can afford. Tracey, who accrues styles, dance moves, and personality traits as if the world were a fitting room for her own self-conception, doesn’t merely have a home full of toys: “You had to wade through toys. Broken toys formed a kind of bedrock, on top of which each new wave of purchases was placed, in archaeological layers, corresponding, more or less, to whatever toy adverts were playing on the television at the time.”
These details, which more than anything work to further embed her characters in a specific, lived context — in a time, a place, and a body — are what make the book. Here and in NW, however, Smith seems willing to risk making the kind of observant, smoothly written realist book she spoke out against in her seminal essay “Two Paths for the Novel.” The difference: Whereas the style she once critiqued gives insight to the author’s method, the style she’s adapted is a window into the author herself.
I keep thinking about when the narrator, as an adult, overhears a mic check by Whitney Houston. She can’t remember which song — she isn’t really a fan. Something overwhelming happens nonetheless.
There’s the layer of self beyond all the mess at the surface — the presuppositions of taste, experience, thought, and outright feeling. This is what Swing Time’s narrator seeks all along, and it’s watching Fred Astaire, or hearing Whitney or Nina Simone, that seems to get her there. Friendships with women, on the other hand, do not move her the same way, or at least not so easily. That surprises me: The line, lately, has been that female friendships are their own social sublime, as legitimate as any of the staid and official romantic pairings history has spent a lot of time validating.
Swing Time feels like the kind of novel the Harlem Renaissance legend Nella Larsen might be writing if she were alive today. Smith’s style lately is awfully reminiscent of Larsen’s: observant, precise, rich but not warm, emotional but not sentimental. Larsen’s Passing, about two black women whose friendship hinges on the question of choosing to “pass” for white (one does, one doesn’t), is a precursor to Smith’s work here: a book in which all the discourses of skin color and class and desire get bound up in the tie between two black women.
You could describe the backbone of Swing Time as a pair of failed chances at female friendship — one between the narrator and Tracey in London; and the other between the narrator and Aimee, over the course of a tour that eventually lands in Africa. I’m not so sure Smith sees it this cynically. But it’s tough to think of a male corollary to that in the book: Men feel as present, but distant, from the nucleus of this novel as women feel from the male heroes of plenty of other novels. It’s impossible to move through Swing Time without knowing which woman in the narrator’s life is at the front of the line, or which social bond tells her the most about herself: In most parts of the book, she trains her eye on a specific relationship. And her circular way of guiding us through it all hangs a pallor of failure and regret over the novel.
Friendship in Smith’s novels has lately come off as an excuse to see two people measure their differences — their skin, their genders, their wants — and determine their own lives accordingly. As for Smith’s own self-determination: We can recognize it, in the brief glimpse afforded us by a 44-second Instagram video of her singing and in the flashes of self she peppers throughout her writing, the specificity of her mind at work. But if her first-person experiment amounts to anything, it’s a lesson in all the things we cannot know about each other: all the things we might sense but cannot see.