I have a complicated relationship with Zadie Smith. By which I mean I read White Teeth when I was nineteen/twenty and, like basically every other collegiate female of that age, loved it with a fervor and intensity makes it nigh-impossible to fairly judge anything else by Smith. Not that I dislike Smith’s other books or that I’ve been particularly vigilant about reading them; outside of Swing Time, the first few chapters of The Autograph Man (I liked the first chapter/prologue, but could not get past the rest), and a few scattered essays, I haven’t strayed far beyond White Teeth. Because, you see, when I finished White Teeth I was exhilarated, filled with the kind of lit nerd high that comes from discovery of something really, really fucking good. There’s a particular image I have of Zadie Smith the author, and it’s an one I’m reluctant to tarnish by exposing to reality.
Swing Time, though…Swing Time was interesting. Swing Time looked promising and more than that, everyone was talking about—couldn’t pass a bookstore without seeing it at a display table, browse a book blog without finding it somewhere on the ledge. And the marketing worked: I was curious. I bit.
And I liked Swing Time. It was a good book, with interesting characters and interesting things to say about race and privilege and how much we can shape our own destinies blah blah blah blah. I just couldn’t love it. I know why, too—the reason for my ambivalence is simple and it has a name: Tracey.
There are a number of women driving Swing Time, but at its heart are two girls: the unnamed narrator and her best friend, Tracey. Both are mixed-race, working class, and intelligent, albeit the last in different ways—Tracey is a dancing prodigy, while the narrator is quiet, more academic and college-bound. They meet as children, become friends, and continue to haunt each other’s lives even as they drift apart and the friendship sours. Theirs is a fraught relationship, but it’s also one we’ve seen before, the love-hate almost-homoromanticism of so-close-we’re-practically-siblings friends. It sounds absurdly specific, but it is a genre that exists—Finny and Gene from A Separate Peace are a good example, though what immediately comes to mind here is Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. I don’t think it’s a bad comparison, either—Ferrante (whoever she is) has been huge lately, and it’s kind of hard to view a coming-of-age story about a thorny female friendship without seeing shades of the Neapolitan Novels. The racial subtext obviously adds layers to Swing Time not present in Ferrante’s novels, but the central dynamic between the two girls is much the same. Like Lila, Tracey is the bold and sexually precocious foil to the outwardly successful but internally less assured “nice girl” narrator, who oscillates between jealousy and admiration for her brilliant (ha) friend. Dealing with poverty, sexism, and female talent in a patriarchal society, the two books are ridiculously similar. The key difference is while I could sympathize with Lila, I despised Tracey.
Maybe this is a failure or sympathy on my part, maybe it’s a fault of the narration and Tracey’s perspective never getting zoomed in on, but I’m inclined towards another explanation: Tracey is kind of terrible, and I don’t know why anyone would want to be friends with her. I mean, yeah, she’s a brown girl with dysfunctional parents in a world that historically hasn’t been kind to brown girls, but that could also be said of a lot of kids, Swing Time’s narrator included. Not all of them become vindictive assholes who strive to ruin their best friends’ lives at any possible opportunity. Dickishness plays a part in most sibling relationships, it’s true, but it can’t be the only element, otherwise we end up with Cain and Abel type resentment and eventual fratricide. And that, I suppose, is what troubles me about Tracey’s relationship with the narrator, the fact that the scales are so heavily tipped towards dickishness that it’s hard to imagine why any sane person would stay friends with her. Lila, for all that she engages in sketchy childhood cruelty, is still quick to pull a knife on a guy when he threatens Elena. When it comes to Tracey and standout moments, I think of her deliberately sabotaging the narrator’s relationship with her father. I think of her later in life sending the narrator’s dying mother abusive emails. I think of the time she ruined her piano teacher’s life by accusing him of rape.
And look, okay. Reviewing a book—any piece of art, really—is an inherently subjective process. There are some generally acknowledged criteria you can work with—tightness of plot or lack thereof, believability of character, quality of prose—but beyond that, a lot of it comes down to personal experience, factors like stuff like whether you had to read a book for class or if you saw the movie first or if you’d just read the author’s magnus opus two days ago. It’s not a terribly exact art, and for that reason I’m going to go ahead and admit that when it comes to Swing Time, my feelings towards Tracey may preclude a rational evaluation of the novel. Because really, what the fuck, Tracey. Accusing an innocent man of rape—what the actual hell?
Here’s the thing. A false rape accusation isn’t just a personal betrayal of trust, a skeevy and shitty to do to a person—it’s also the type of behavior that makes it possible to wave aside rape accusations as calls for attention. Rape victims already face a lot of crap, and when Tracey—a brown, sexually active woman who, unlike a random white dude, ought to understand this—decides to game the severity of rape, it feels like a huge betrayal. According to Wikipedia, this is supposed to be explained by the fact that Tracey’s father may have molested her, but the way this is implied in the book is so faint and off-hand—literally just a brief musing from our narrator—that if it weren’t for Wikipedia, I might have missed it altogether. Again, perhaps a fault of me being a bad reader, perhaps one of perspective yet again, or perhaps it’s just really hard to justify ruining a man’s life while simultaneously contributing to rape culture with a half-murmured explanation that has like maybe two lines of actual textual support. Ugh. Just, wow, Tracey, wow. You are The Worst.
Which is a pity, really, since outside of her, I liked Smith’s characters. The narrator herself isn’t the most exciting person on the planet, but that’s not her purpose—she’s a watcher more than a doer, her role more about telling the story than driving it. The side characters, though, are a treat. There’s the narrator’s mother, a self-educated socialist whose fluency with Marx doesn’t translate into an equal understanding of parenting; Aimee, the white Australian pop star who hires the narrator as a combination assistant/yes-woman and who decides to use her money to save Africa (well, at least one village of it); Lamin, a Western-educated Senegalese man with enough intelligence to see through Aimee’s nonsense but who works (and sleeps) with her nonetheless. They’re rich, real characters, complex despite the often limited screen time they get, and while they’re not perfect, they’re lightyears more sympathetic than Tracey. I’d take another novel just about the narrator’s mother, this badass bisexual politician who’s fierce while still being fundamentally vulnerable and human. That, a woman fights systems of injustice instead of exploiting them, is the type of character I can get behind.
So yeah. Swing Time is a good book, a great book maybe, even. Better than 85% of the other books out there, full of interesting and (with one glaring exception) sympathetic characters, a decently engaging plot, and provocative themes (™).
It’s just not White Teeth.