Thursday, 17 January 2019

Book review: Swing Time, Zadie Smith (2016)

This strange, ambitious novel kept me tapping the pages until about 42 percent of the way through, then I gave up, irritated by the version of reality I was being served. This is to a certain degree an autobiographical novel centring on an unnamed narrator, a young woman who grew up in a mixed-race household in London who ends up working for an Australian pop singer (Smith herself was interested in dance when she was young) but it has decided themes about women and minorities that go awry when the author takes her heroine to Africa.

Aimee, the singer who is the sponsor for the authorial “I”, comes across as entitled in many ways, and appears to be unaware of the struggles of women who are from ethnic minorities (such as the narrator and her friend Tracey). This is the “intersectional” feminism gambit at play. Her myopia is expressed in different ways in the early part of the novel in order to prime the reader for the failure in Africa. But the parts of the book that deal with the narrator’s childhood are richly imagined and powerful, and display Smith’s competence as a storyteller.

The quality of the prose is exceptional throughout, which makes it hard to know when some idea is coming from the author or if it is coming from nature in the form of one of her creations. Characterisation has this quality about it of making certain things seem inevitable when we come across them. An author uses characters to develop the plot and to build themes, and it is through them that most of the signification in the novel or story or poem is created. A character is a tool of the author but there is something about a character that predetermines outcomes. Making a character suddenly behave “out of character” can result in a sort of psychic jolt in the reader’s mind, and may disturb their experience of the book so strongly that they give up reading it. Getting the reader to sympathise with various characters, and to understand the relations between them in the novel, is central to authorial craft, and to a great degree determines the success or otherwise of a work of fiction.

For Smith in this novel the trick was to make Aimee appear to be lacking something essential. But I felt that Smith chose the wrong target for her scorn.

It’s one thing to be critical of the narrator’s parents, well-meaning intellectuals who try their best to raise their daughter in a loving household. It’s one thing to wonder about Tracey, the narrator’s best friend, who is good at dance (Smith’s narrator unfortunately has flat feet and never gets far in the art) and who comes from a broken home; her father spends a lot of time in prison. And it’s one thing to critique the cult of the individual as it is embodied for commercial reasons by products of the entertainment industry.

But to baldly criticise westerners who work to open schools in African countries, and in the process for good measure glorify the noble native sons while lambasting the sponsors, is to go a step too far for good taste to bear. It’s also not accurate in fact. I know of at least two schools that have been opened in Africa by an Australian philanthropist, and that have thrived with sponsorship from abroad, giving children in Uganda opportunities to succeed in their communities due to the advantages conveyed by education. Smith’s critical lens is focused on the wrong object. Further, it cannot be just the leaders in these countries that have failed to provide a good climate for the enterprise of their people; all the people in such countries are complicit in the corruption that exists there. Smith is misguided and well-meaning, but misguided nonetheless.

This book is a kind of deception of a type that is perpetrated on the world by educated exponents of minorities. It’s the standard progressive point of view embodied in a coherent story. Its narrative is slanted to make some people look good and others to look bad, and the accuracy of the reckoning is not rooted in reality but rather in the biases that exist in the alternative mainstream, which is populated by people who consider themselves to be beleaguered but who are in fact just average and who blame a “system” they believe they do not belong to, in order to improve their prospects. Much better books by women have been written in Australia but Smith has never heard of these authors.

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