Cool Britannia, slickly marketed by Tony Blair’s Labour government, was hardly a monochromatic one. The London of Alexander McQueen, Oasis, Blur, Damien Hurst and the Spice Girls was a pastiche of the preceding Conservative regimes and a variegated motif of multiculturalism. White Teeth, that rollicking sketch of the post-colonial migrant experience, that comical world of inter-locking narratives – a genre that James Wood compellingly defined as ‘hysterical realism’ – landed amidst the boisterous icons of Cool Britannia in 2000, announcing the arrival of Zadie Smith – young, black, British, freckled, high cheek-boned.
White Teeth, an ostensibly hilarious examination of the vagaries of racially mixed friendships, is perhaps the loudest testimony to what Smith does best – bring the Joneses, the Iqbals and the Chalfens together in the hybrid topography of Willesden in north-west London. The book is, as described by Smith herself, in an interview, “…a kind of mishmash, as first novels tend to be”. Swing Time, Smith’s newest fiction, published in November 2016, is an evocation of that very universe – a hotchpotch of people and places, a medley of sights and sounds and smells. It is also a deeper and somewhat quieter rumination on race.
Wistful love letter to friendship
Two seven-year-old girls, the unnamed narrator and Tracey, meet for the first time in a churchyard, on their way to a community dance class. “Our shade of brown was exactly the same – as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both – and our freckles gathered in the same areas, we were of the same height”. Tracey, from the very beginning, cuts a glamorous figure: “…she looked like a darker Shirley Temple…” She wore her hair in two long plaits that reached her backside and were tied with yellow satin bows. “Satin yellow bows were a phenomenon unknown to my mother,” declares the narrator, whose mother is a “feminist” who “never wore make-up and dressed us both as plainly as possible”.
Told in retrospect by the biracial narrator, Swing Time is a wistful love letter to this friendship. The girls, who live in housing estates in London, follow divergent trajectories as they grow up – the narrator becomes the assistant to Aimee, a pop star of Australian origin, and Tracey flounders in a haze of drugs and promiscuity to stage school and then to the West End theatres. Despite the hectic partying, the jet-setting across continents in a herd of other personal assistants, bodyguards, Aimee’s children and their nanny, PR people and journalists from the Rolling Stone, the narrator, her memory wedged in the past, still obsessively involved with a childhood friendship gone cold, can’t help but talk of Tracey. “When Tracey’s time came there was no one to guide here over the threshold, to advise her or even tell her that this was a threshold she was crossing. But her body was developing quicker than anybody else’s and so she had to improvise, to make her own arrangements. Her first idea was to dress wildly,” reveals the narrative voice, as it revisits the housing estate.
Tracey never leaves the narrator; on a reconnaissance trip to the Gambia where Aimee is planning to build a school for girls, the narrative pauses, yet again, for a quick look backwards. The reader learns that it is the last June of primary school; that Tracey’s father, Louie, is out from prison; he takes the girls to Woolworths, where the narrator is allowed to pick musicals; they lunch on Big Macs and milkshakes; Louie draws a line on the formica tabletop and talks about the “inside”, about being in prison, “…you learn who the real God of the black man is! Not this blue-eyed, long-haired Jesus individual – no!” Louie recalls his gods: “You learn a lot that you can’t learn in school, because these people won’t tell you nothing, nothing about African kings, nothing about Egyptian queens, nothing about Mohammed, they hide it all, they hide the whole of our history so we feel like we’re nothing, we feel like we’re at the bottom of the pyramid, that’s the whole plan, but the truth is we built the fucking Pyramids!”
The ‘race thing’
Racial animosity, in Smith’s universe, is more a humorous articulation of anxiety than a seething rage. In White Teeth, Samad Miah Iqbal, stranded on Russian ground in a tank which was being driven by Alfred Archibald Jones – they were the “Buggered Battalion” – addresses Sapper Jones: “Please. Do me this one, great favour, Jones. If ever you hear anyone, when you are back home – if you, if we, get back to our respective homes – if ever you hear anyone speak of the East,” “…hold your judgement. If you are told “they are all this” or “they do this” or “their opinions are these”, withhold your judgment until all the facts are upon you. Because the land they call “India” goes by a thousand names and is populated by millions, and if you think you have found two men the same amongst the multitude, then you are mistaken. It is merely a trick of the moonlight.”
Race – and the many vicissitudes of friendship that navigate through its choppy waters – is typically devoid of bitterness in the world that Smith’s characters inhabit. In the essay, F. Kafka, Everyman, which appeared in the New York Review of Books in 2008, Smith writes, “What is Muslimness? What is Polishness? What is Englishness? These days we all find our anterior legs flailing before us. We’re all insects, all Ungeziefer, now,” referring to the vague term that Kafka used to describe Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis.
Smith’s characters transfigure and achieve a startling metamorphosis, all the time. In Swing Time, the narrator grows from “horse-faced seven-year-old” to posh executive at YTV to Aimee’s first personal assistant. Her mother, who looks like Nefertiti, whose shelves are full of second-hand books and Open University textbooks, who always “dressed for a future not yet with us but which she expected to arrive,” becomes a member of parliament for Brent West. In the Gambia, the narrator meets Hawa, the daughter of university teachers, whose “Disney-bright features” could transform the forlorn and the miserable into happy, much-loved creatures. An encounter with her cousin, Musa, who is a mashala, who believes that music and dancing is shaytan, makes Hawa realise that she too is on the brink of a dangerous metamorphosis. She, who likes to “live crazy – oh, I can’t help it…” feels that “Maybe when I am older I will be wiser. We’ll see.”
In other microcosms, where domesticity and academe are the settings for comedy and conflict, the “race thing” as described by Smith in an interview, is dismissed for other compelling drama – betrayal, seduction, loss, mourning, Rembrandt. On Beauty, Smith’s third novel, is involved with the loves and lies of two families – the Belseys and the Kipps. White academic Howard Belsey is married to huge black-American Kiki, who is friends with Carlene Kipps, who is the wife of Montague Kipps, a Trinidadian art theorist and Howard’s arch rival at a fictional American college called Wellington. The rainbow cast is archetypal of Zadieian fictional frames, but it isn’t always a variety in race that the author draws the reader’s attention to. In an interview that appeared in The Atlantic in 2005, Smith elaborates: “The race thing is the first thing I reach for, since I was brought up in a biracial family, but I was just as interested in Howard being really skinny and Kiki being really big as in them being of different colors. The race thing is not really their problem.”
Swing Time, like its predecessors, is intensely curious about race. However, unlike its predecessors (and especially unlike White Teeth) Swing Time’s social subtext is a ramble; its investigation of race, a contemplative prodding rather than an arsenal of brilliant sentences that fires away at the ridiculous, the desperate, the pathetic – something readers of Smith have come to expect. What redeems Swing Time, however, is that it is also intensely curious about so much more than race – Michael Jackson and Prince and Cab Calloway and Gypsy and Ali Baba Goes to Town and a dancer called Jeni LeGon, and Top of the Pops and ‘Thriller’ and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and the musical that gave the novel its title, for instance. Race then, is nothing but a polychromatic crowd on a street in what was once Cool Britannia. Or, as Tracey to whom this novel is a best-friend’s messy but endearing paean, says, when she finds herself in trouble for calling a boy in her class a Paki: “It’s just a word.”
Could she be right?