swing time, by zadie smith–a negative review

by janedotx7

Like many others, I often worry about the effect of digital devices on the human attention span.  Swing Time is the culmination of my worst fear–that the modern world is now so full of distractions, nobody can write a decent novel any more.

This is not to say that the book is a disjointed series of tweets. Smith has a fine eye for characterization, though the protagonist is yet another one of those passive, socially awkward introverts that is so clearly inspired by the writer’s own personality. The prose is unquestionably good–at times aphoristic, it is always fresh and amusing. The problem is that Swing Time is the product of a mind that is intelligent but not wise–an observant mind, but one that is not particularly good at making connections, elaborations, or drawing implications. Just the kind of mind I’d expect to result from an age of truncated attention spans.

The central relationship of Swing Time, if it can be called that, is a My Brilliant Friend-esque frenemy-ship between the nameless protagonist, and her childhood friend, Tracey, who is a dance prodigy. Both girls are black, and grow up in council housing (that’s affordable housing for us Americans–like Section 8 but a great deal nicer, I gather). Our loathsome blank of a protagonist, while as interested in dance as Tracey, possesses only modest gifts. Regardless, their life paths diverge since the protagonist’s mother insists that she go to college, while Tracey’s mother is negligent, and poor Tracey never manages to get out of the ghetto, despite her superior talents.

You know, though, I err in saying that it’s the central relationship. Smith is one of those writers who abuses the use of broken narrative threads as a cheap shortcut to establishing verisimilitude.

This is an example of what I mean by “abuse.” Tracey and the Nameless One end up parting ways about a third of the way into the book, and we see only rare glimpses of her afterwards, mostly secondhand. Tracey is darker-skinned than Miss Nameless One, and comes from a broken home. It makes sense Tracey would remain in poverty, while the lighter-skinned narrator, with her intact family and educated mother, would escape. It makes complete sense that they would lose contact. But this consequence of racism and poverty doesn’t go anywhere–the tragic divergence in socioeconomic circumstances just happens, and there are no further implications, no emotional heft. Later, in the novel, they do reunite once for an incredibly awkward and strained conversation, but nothing happens. It’s awkward, as one might realistically expect, and that’s it.

That’s the problem with drawing too much inspiration from real life–when you part ways with a childhood friend, that generally means the end of learning anything from that relationship. You move on, you forget, it fails to affect you further. Such a development can be inevitable in real life, but it is a fatal flaw in a book. Real life is noise, books are about signal. It’s good to fuzz your book a little bit to make it more convincing, but too much, and any signal is lost. The point of a book is to unfold a story, and so, letting a character drop off the face of the earth is a waste of the time spent developing that character.

This would be excusable had Tracey’s friendship left some sort of notable impact on the narrator, but as I said earlier, the narrator is one of those passive low-reactors who feels nothing, and carries emotion about as well as a colander carries water.

What infuriates me the most, though, is that the book is trying to say something about race, but it never manages to say anything interesting. It’s like reading a series of superficially glib blog posts, instead of an actual book. We don’t need any more books on race that have no more insight than, “hurp durr, it sure is complicated!” Nor do we need any books that regard that message with no more emotion than one might feel for a funny tweet.