Zadie Smith’s Liberal Imagination

Zadie Smith’s Liberal Imagination

Once reveling in the hopes and possibilities of a multicultural society, her fiction now has taken on a more despairing outlook.


Zadie Smith has always been drawn to the comedy of doubles. Almost all of her books have been built around pairs: the war buddies Archie and Samad and the twins Magid and Millat in White Teeth, the Belsey and Kipps families in On Beauty, the childhood friends Leah and Keisha (later called Natalie) in NW.

These pairs are easily—too easily, Smith seems to suggest—defined by their differences. Archie is English and Samad is Bangladeshi. Howard Belsey is a white liberal and Monty Kipps is a black conservative. Leah is unambitious and Natalie is driven.

Smith’s comedy comes from her ability to show how these differences are not hostile to one another but productive and revealing; they can even be a source of intimacy. Indeed, for Smith, they were more than just an object for comedy but also represented a certain kind of politics. From the delirious reception of White Teeth in 2000 to 2012’s NW, Smith’s novels have come to represent one of the sincerest hopes of her liberal Anglo-American audience: the hope that pluralism can be a source of joy and creativity rather than hatred and frustration.

Over the years—and in particular, over the past year—this liberal hope has been under continuous and growing pressure. In an age of religious terrorism, xenophobia, and racist populism, many liberals have come to suspect that pluralism has become the precarious privilege of only a small and cosmopolitan elite. The last time liberalism had such a bad conscience was in the 1930s, when it seemed helpless to stop the rise of fascism and communism, and Smith’s fascinating literary engagement with E.M. Forster, who was a spokesman for this more tragic view of liberalism, has allowed her to express a similar unease. Her essays on Forster and on Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland, both published in The New York Review of Books and collected in Changing My Mind, offered her occasions to critique the very tradition of novelistic humanism to which she belongs, and which relies on liberal assumptions about the autonomy of the self that Smith worried no longer were relevant in our world.

In her 2012 novel NW, Smith even attempted to change the style of her fiction in order to make it less ingratiating and less easy to assimilate, as though to signal to her reader her growing ambivalence toward these liberal verities about the self. But she only sustained the Joycean fragments and dislocations intermittently, and the difficulty she introduced into the text remained mainly on the surface. Realism and the liberal assumptions that undergird it have always been the homes to which Smith has returned. She was unwilling to give up on the idea that we live in the world in common and can find a way to communicate in it.

* * *

This liberal faith has not entirely vanished in Smith’s new book, Swing Time, but the novel does have a quality that is even more monitory than the willed strenuousness of NW. Smith is always being called exuberant—or Dickensian, or even “hysterical realist,” which amount to the same thing—and the title of the new book, with its Astaire-and-Rogers gaiety, seems to promise more of the same. But in fact Swing Time is a sober book, even—at times—a depressive one. It feels like the kind of book novelists write when they have come to the end of their own favorite themes and techniques. There is less of the excitement of discovery, of getting things down on paper that have not been observed before, and more of the resigned pleasure of understanding. There is less seeing, and more seeing through.

The immediate source of this change in her work has to do with the novel’s narration. An omniscient narrator, which Smith has employed in her previous books, can understand all and forgive all. But a first-person narrator, which she uses in Swing Time, is limited by circumstance and trapped by temperament. We never learn the name of the woman who is telling us the story in Swing Time, and she remains adjacent to the action, lost in the shadow cast by other, more radiant personalities. In a deeper sense, however, Smith’s decision to abandon omniscience feels like a withdrawal from the hopefulness and extroversion of her early work. She is still adept at dramatizing difference, but the drama has lost something of its savor; instead of connection, that Forsterian value, she now gives us people trapped by their character, which is their fate.

The story of Swing Time is told in two alternating time frames—the narrator’s childhood in the 1980s and her young adulthood in the 2000s—and in each one she seems to be a secondary character in her own life. As a child, the narrator is dominated by Tracey, her best friend; as an adult, by Aimee, her employer. Both are performers, though on very different scales, who exhibit the seductive narcissism of the born star.

The narrator meets Tracey at a children’s dance class in Willesden, the multicultural, working-class neighborhood where White Teeth and NW are also set. (Irie, one of the protagonists of White Teeth, makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in Swing Time.) Tracey and the narrator are drawn together, almost unconsciously, by the fact that they are the only biracial girls in the room: “Our shade of brown was exactly the same—as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both.” Yet though they would appear the same in a census of race and class, the girls are opposites in every way that matters. Smith shows how the same experience is a different experience to two different minds—a truth that fiction has always been interested in dramatizing, since it is predicated on a faith that the individual is a more ultimate reality than the group.

The girls’ divergent paths are greatly influenced by their mothers (their fathers are ineffective or absent). Tracey’s mother, who is white, is loud, slovenly, hostile to school and authority in general. Yet she is highly protective of her daughter’s dreams of becoming a famous dancer, and believes totally in her talent. The narrator’s mother, on the other hand, is from the West Indies, and has the immigrant’s fierce dedication to work and self-improvement. (This contrast, between the resignation of the white English working class and the ambition of the nonwhite immigrant, has been a favorite subject of Smith’s.)

The narrator’s mother has open contempt for the other residents of the council estate where the family lives, who are indifferent to her efforts at uplift and consciousness-raising. She is especially disdainful of Tracey, and of her dancing: “She’s been raised in a certain way,” the narrator’s mother counsels her, “and the present is all she has. You’ve been raised in another way—don’t forget that…. You know where you came from and where you’re going.”

At heart, though, Smith’s narrator feels closer to Tracey than she does to her own mother. This is largely because of their shared love of dance, and of watching classic film musicals like Top Hat. As Smith shows with delicacy and penetration, dance is a subject that cannot be entirely understood separately from race, since so many of the great contributions to European and American dance have been made by black artists. Thus the girls, in learning how to dance, are also learning the contradictions of what it means to be black in a white culture.

The black dancers glimpsed in golden-age Hollywood musicals offer a model of grace and self-assurance in this culture that the narrator yearns for. Watching the Nicholas Brothers, the immensely stylish mid-20th-century dance act, she can dream that “we were all elegant and none of us knew pain, we had never graced the sad pages of the history books my mother bought for me, never been called ugly or stupid, never entered theaters by the back door, drunk from separate water fountains or taken our seats at the back of any bus…. No one was more beautiful or elegant than us, we were a blessed people.”

* * *

It is ironic, then, that the star who comes to dominate the narrator’s adult life is white, and the opposite of a good role model: Aimee, a one-named, internationally famous, Madonna-class pop singer. She first enters the girls’ lives when they imitate one of her routines: They tape themselves performing a sexually explicit dance, to scandalous effect. Years later, the narrator lucks into a job as Aimee’s personal assistant—or, at least, it seems lucky at first.

Soon enough the narrator learns that Aimee is grotesque, in ways that are fairly predictable. She is entitled, flighty, superficial, spoiled—just as stars are supposed to be. Yet Smith wants to do more than simply lampoon Aimee, and she allows the character to earn the reader’s grudging respect, if only because she has a kind of sheer presence, an indubitable reality, that most of us can barely hope for. Aimee, Smith seems to suggest, has achieved the nirvana of celebrity that is the closest we come nowadays to transcendence. She does not seem to age, or worry, or even stay in one place for too long. “This is one of the striking things about Aimee: she has no tragic side,” the narrator observes. “She accepts everything that has happened to her as her destiny, no more surprised or alienated to be who she is than I imagine Cleopatra was to be Cleopatra.”

This is the privilege of celebrity, but it is also a benefit of whiteness: the ability to take one’s own universality for granted. This quality of Aimee’s emerges most starkly when she decides, whimsically, that she wants to do some good for Africa, and dispatches the narrator to an unnamed West African country to plan the building of a new girls’ school. This is a familiar folly, and it leads to some of the least original comedy in the book. More interesting is how the narrator’s Britishness, her First World history and expectations, shut her out of Africa even more effectively than Tracey’s blackness shuts her out of starring roles in London’s West End. When the narrator dances in a drum circle, the locals are surprised at how well she does it: “Even though you are a white girl, you dance like you are a black!” they marvel. Here, nationality and class privilege are the differences that matter, to the point that they can efface race. The narrator is endlessly conscious of her differences, especially when contrasted against an imperial personality like Aimee who simply grabs everything she wants, even paying off some local parents to adopt their newborn baby.

It is this last act of entitlement that finally provokes the narrator to rebel, exposing Aimee’s payoff in a way that shatters their relationship and thrusts the narrator, at last, into the media spotlight. But even this final confrontation turns out to be more whimper than bang, and there is something about Swing Time that seems to undermine its own attempts at building narrative momentum.

In part, this is caused by the dual time frame, which keeps the reader poised between two story lines that never quite meet. Tracey, who dominates the early part of the story, virtually disappears from the Aimee-focused later part; when we do finally learn her fate, which is far from the dreams of stardom with which she started out, it comes as rather an anticlimax. But the sense of deflation is also due to Smith’s choice to make her novel the story of an assistant, rather than a heroine. This is a daring choice in formal terms, but it takes a toll on the narrative. As we see the narrator continually sell off bits of her soul—losing touch with her mother and Tracey, submitting to Aimee’s tyranny, fending off an obviously perfect suitor she meets in Africa—it becomes clear that she is able to provoke pity and a kind of clinical interest in the reader, but not strong identification or anticipation.

This deeper discouragement in Swing Time is thematic, even philosophical. The play of opposites, which gives Smith’s earlier novels their mobility and comedy, has slowed and soured in this book into a kind of deadlock. No one in Swing Time finds a meaningful or even satisfactory way to live between the binaries that define their worlds: striving or resigned, star or supporting role, First World or Third World. Instead, there is a feeling of never-the-twain-shall-meet. The narrator’s mother, who manages to escape ignorance and obscurity to become a member of Parliament, must sacrifice any sense of irony or intimacy to her driving ambition. Aimee has celebrity but not substance; Tracey has talent but not accomplishment; the narrator herself is perceptive but not assertive.

Compared with the delight that Smith once took in difference and doubling, the sense of human richness and possibility found in her earlier novels, Swing Time feels like a chronicle of partial, compromised victories and foreordained defeats. This makes Swing Time much more like the work of a middle-aged writer than a wunderkind.

Some Smith readers will be disconcerted by this quality in her new book; others will find it a fitting reflection on the progress of her—and their—generation.

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