Soul Searching in Swing Time: Identity and Friendship*

Throughout the novel’s course (spent shuttling between the narrator’s upbringing with Tracey and her later career), Smith’s characters act as foils for each other in ways that make us question identity.

In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, the unnamed narrator finds herself with time for self-reflection following a scandal that leads to public ignominy and unemployment. The scandal itself, however, is the least interesting part of this novel that travels between time and place while the narrator comes to terms with whom she is. Of course, much of whom the narrator might be depends on perspective, place, and the unevenness of memory. Smith’s novel, short on plot, delves into notions of identity, with emphasis on how class and race intertwine.

Family

Part of the narrator’s shifting identity stems from being the daughter of contrasting parents. Her mother, a black woman from Jamaica, is ambitious and intellectual, while her white, working class English father is the nurturer, determined to give his child a more stable, loving home than he had. The narrator wryly notes that her upbringing in the estates occurred “in the widening gap” between her parents who eventually divorce. She is neither parent’s child exactly, a sentiment that, in her father’s case, is exacerbated by meeting his white children from a previous relationship. To the narrator, they seem to be more genuinely his children than she is despite her father’s clear devotion. Smith gives her character unenviable insight: she could view this scenario from the opposite perspective but is unable to do so even as an adult. It’s this self-awareness and paralysis that make this character both frustrating and compelling.

Fiction and “Fitting In”

Throughout the novel’s course (spent shuttling between the narrator’s upbringing with Tracey and her later career), Smith’s characters act as foils for each other in ways that make us question identity. Shared skin color, for example, draws the narrator and Tracey (another biracial child) together when they meet in a dance class. Alike and different at once, both aspire to be dancers but only Tracey has the talent and drive for it. Yet Tracey longs for a loving father: she romanticizes her own abusive father’s absences—a tactic the narrator adopts when discussing her white siblings. Of course, such tactics and uncertain memory also complicate matters of identity. The epiphany that Smith’s narrator has about herself is inspired by watching Astaire’s performance in the movie Swing Time again. Yet, her realization (now wearing glasses and in good light) that she forgot Astaire performed in blackface disrupts this moment. And we are left to question: What is forgotten, what is untrue?

Laced with envy, the girls’ friendship is rocky. Sexuality, here, also affects identity and belonging. Although the narrator remains Tracey’s friend when the “nice” girls at school ostracize her for early sexual maturation, time spent together occurs only on Tracey’s terms. And Tracey sneers when the narrator socializes with the other girls, suggesting that the narrator’s presence among them is pretense. While playtime with nice girls like Lily Bingham offers the narrator relief from Tracey, it also invites alienation. Lily—white, middle class and “color blind”—is hurt when the narrator shows her a film scene featuring only black performers. The narrator doesn’t understand what Lily means by “we” when Lily claims “we” would be displeased if only black children were allowed to attend dance classes, both casually conferring and negating her friend’s black identity. This alienation is echoed in Africa. There, the black residents are impressed that “white women” like the narrator and her employer, Aimee (an actual white woman), can dance like black people do.

 

Book Review of Swing Time

 

Career: Celebrity and Erasure

Aimee, an Australian pop idol, is the least intriguing of the Smith’s characters, partly suffering from being too similar to a certain real-life pop idol and partly from her resemblance to a force of nature. To be fair, the latter also represents a comment on celebrity. Smith, however, permits Aimee to be personable, unafraid to cut through emotional morass, and more emotionally available to the narrator than her own mother. Possessing her mother’s social awareness, the narrator cannot ignore how her identity may be used to avoid charges of insensitivity when she raises concerns that Aimee’s “carnival” versions of  African dances could be interpreted as cultural appropriation. She’s ignored, of course: her work involves making Aimee’s life smoother, not disrupting it as she eventually does.

Cooperative or not, Smith narrator fails to inspire admiration the way other women in her life might. Overly apologetic, she lacks a dream to chase or a cause for which she fights, instead laboring in the shadows for others: her mother (recruited to participate in social marches), briefly Tracey (working as stagehand where she helps Tracey deal with costumes and love affairs), and Aimee, as her always on-call assistant. Over time, the narrator’s existence is at last subsumed: she cannot maintain her own social circle or romantic relationships while she services Aimee’s life. The resulting scandal, while not an attempt to quit, nonetheless betrays her discontent.

Shadows and Belonging

In the aftermath of the narrator’s scandal, watching Astaire’s dance with three shadows of himself causes the narrator to realize that she “experiences [herself] as a kind of shadow”. Dismissing these shadows, the question remains will she dance on as Astaire did? Swing Time is a thoughtful meditation on identity that meanders but never loses it way from this concern. Whatever path the narrator decides to take with the revelations about herself, however, lie with Tracey, her left-behind sister who happens to be the one person that evokes belonging.

Book Review: All the Living

“That was what she wanted. That more than family, that more than friendship, that more than love. Just the kind of day that couldn’t be called into premature darkness by the land.”

All the LivingAll the Living by C.E. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

“That was what she wanted. That more than family, that more than friendship, that more than love. Just the kind of day that couldn’t be called into premature darkness by the land.”

Wreckage of What Was

All the Living, a novel that debates whether a young woman should “submit to love” (as the cover put it) or find her way in the world, offers readers a tension-filled love affair. When Aloma arrives at the farm Orren inherited, she sees the mountains that she hates, that remind her of postponed dreams to go far beyond them and play piano without being lost in their shadow. The house, the first in which she’ll ever live, is dilapidated just as the piano Orren promised that she could use for practice is ruined. The tremendous change in Orren, wrought by grief, surprises her. Her own orphaning occurred when she was too young to recall anything but her parents’ absence,  thus leaving her unprepared for Orren’s new emotional distance. Her ignorance of farm life and lack of cooking and cleaning skills, the duties she is preparing to take on, too suggest future difficulties.

Young Lovers at Cross Purposes

To these disadvantages, Morgan adds her characters’ youth (Aloma is around 21 or 22; Orren is three years older)—something which becomes more concerning as the details of their courtship unfolds. They met at the settlement school, where Aloma worked as the staff pianist since her graduation. Their dates consisted mostly of driving near the school and sex, which means they didn’t share in each other’s daily existence. Orren, an “Aggie” student at a college three counties away, planned to own a large farm one day and wants to marry her. She responded to his suggestion with humor, as her plans involved leaving. With their goals at cross purposes, it’s not difficult to envision how this relationship might falter over time if they couldn’t compromise on their goals. Meeting his family at the farm might have her eased into the lifestyle there—or at least given her an opportunity to walk away from that life with less at stake. With tragedy spurring their decisions, their relationship has the potential to founder badly.

Points of Confusion

But I found myself puzzled at points while reading this story. Because Orren mentioned marriage before the deaths occurred, it seemed strange that he never brought her to meet his family. Eighteen months is a long time to date a person, let alone a potential marital partner, without introductions to the other important people in one’s life. And unless he hasn’t mentioned his relationship with Aloma to his mother at all (which puts his intentions in question), I’d be surprised if Emma wasn’t interested in meeting his girlfriend. For storytelling purposes, it’s important that Aloma doesn’t interact with his family so that she cannot share in Orren’s loss or see the expectations he might have for her as his future wife by visiting the farm. While it makes sense that Aloma belatedly realizes she should have met Orren’s kin (she, after all, has no family to think of), it seems to strange that Morgan drew attention to this point and chose not explain it however briefly.

barn-all-the-living-review-artful-sequenceAnother puzzling moment involved the time period in which the story was set, something which was more difficult to decipher than it should have been. In fairness, Orren’s note and Aloma waiting for his arrival (instead of texting or calling) could suggest an era before widespread cell phone use (something which continued into the 1990s)—or just bad reception. For me, it certainly did not clearly signal the decade of the setting (1980s), which would have created the correct expectations for Aloma’s trip to the grocery store. Although the farm is isolated, the nearby community is small enough that most people know each other’s business. Since Aloma is charging her purchases to the Fenton account, the clerk mentions Emma “Sure had a lot of opinions”, which seemed odd (Heaven forbid a woman have opinions!). Her next remark was to ask whether Aloma and Orren were married. Aloma lies, but her blush betrays her and the clerk’s cordiality disappears from her face. Knowing that this story occurs in the 1980s would have explained the cultural attitudes towards women in general and marriage specifically. In a scene following the grocery incident, I eventually located one specific cultural landmark that places this story during the early 1980: the “Where’s the Beef?” posters, presumably referring to a Wendy’s ad campaign. I missed its significance in my initial reading, and I can see how somehow not familiar with this time would not understand it at all.

Mounting Tension

Were it not for Morgan’s prose (with rarely a word misplaced), Aloma’s efforts to conquer housework and cooking might have become tedious. The slow pace, however, allows the friction to arise between this disconnected couple. While submerging herself in work helps Aloma focus on Orren’s wants instead of her own, she becomes cognizant of how little she knows Orren. And the lack of piano coupled with not being married grates on her and they quarrel often. Morgan shines in making their days contentious. Although I’m not fond of Morgan’s tendency to provide conclusions about Aloma that the reader could be gleaned from the story, Aloma repeatedly shows that she’s “the girl who was always looking outward, getting to ready to leave”. Both Bell and Orren see this is in her: Orren accuses her of “fixin’ to leave”. Bell, the preacher who hires Aloma to play piano at services and who is unaware of her attachment to Orren, says she is cagey about whether she wants her freedom or to be “took in”. Her interactions with him represent that outward turn. Aloma does not intend to hurt Bell, but she’s lonely and wants the attention Orren once gave her, attention Bell now provides. She doesn’t think, however, how her behavior might affect Bell or consider the implications behind the attention he gives her even though she knows that he believes her to be single.

Once Aloma becomes the church pianist, the collision between these discontented forces seemed destined. To be truthful, I half hoped that she might call it quits with Orren, though I didn’t expect it. The book’s prevalent drift is towards submitting to love (the topic of Bell’s first sermon), which often reads to me as “the woman has to sacrifice her dreams”. I can’t say I agree with that drift under most circumstances. Here, it’s too easy to imagine Orren and Aloma unhappy together despite Aloma’s submission, even though it helps her bitterness dissipate. Still, Morgan’s conclusion doesn’t promise an easy future and is satisfactory enough. And it kept me thinking about what love requires of us in terms of selflessness over self-centeredness long after the cover closed.

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Love, Concealment, and Laura Chase: Review of The Blind Assassin

At the heart of Iris’s web is her regret that she failed those she loved.

The Blind AssassinThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Part of the pleasure in reading Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Blind Assassin, lies in tracing the various narrative threads throughout the book to see how they inform each other and how they reconcile. Newspaper clippings and excerpts from a novel written by Laura Chase (sister to Iris Chase Geffen, the narrator) are stitched together with Iris’s own story (both past and present). The juxtaposition here—the fictional (or at least fictionalized) romance of two clandestine lovers themselves weaving a pulp sci-fi tale contrasted with the more factual/official accounts of newsworthy events—add both intrigue and tension to a novel that dramatically opens with Iris learning that Laura committed suicide. This added tension is important, too, because the storytelling (darting among accounts) reflects Iris’s reluctance to reveal all that transpired, even as her own approaching death leaves the possibility that the truth will be silenced.

Blind Assassins and Their Mute Sacrificial Maidens

As Iris spins the tale of her youth at Avilion and her early adulthood in Toronto, certain themes emerge: blindness, silence, and sacrifice. Atwood employs the first two of these strands as physical traits of characters from Laura’s novel. The titular assassin and the mute sacrificial maiden represent the lower echelons of a cruel society where the wealthy force slave children to weave carpets until the children become blind, resigning most to a life of prostitution. The rich, unwilling to hear pleas for mercy, also sever the tongues of sacrificial maidens. Meant to appease the gods and thus keep the city safe, these sacrifices prove fruitless: an invading horde waits outside the gates and the assassin is likely to tell them how to breach the walls.

Class tensions, futile sacrifices, and overwhelming outside forces (World War I, the Great Depression) also shape life at Avilion, as do blindness and silence. Here, Atwood shifts from literal blindness to a failure to recognize or understand, just as sacrifice stems from more noble if misguided impulses. Iris’s father, Norval, generously retains his workers (many of whom were fellow veterans) but fails to see how keeping the factory running will jeopardize his own family’s financial security. Iris doesn’t despise sacrifice, but she cottons onto how it may be without merit. Implicit in her reflections about her father’s business mistakes (she recounts that he was a considered a “blind fool”) is the silent accusation that his prudence may have spared his daughters from a grim future. In this manner, the ever-wily Iris protests discreetly that blame does not lie solely with her. But she has a point: as female child then and a woman later, she always had less agency.

Most of the novel’s sacrificial maidens are women, though, motivated by love to endure. Liliana Chase suffers her husband’s post-war adultery and drinking binges in silence whilst attempting to bear him male heirs (Norval’s partial blindness, is a bit heavy handed here). She dies following a miscarriage. The girls pattern themselves after their mother’s sacrifice. Iris, who marries to save family fortune and factory at her father’s behest, finds such love burdensome. She is weighed down by her father’s love as well as the responsibility for the younger and too trusting Laura, a responsibility thrust upon her by parents and housekeeper Reenie. She shoulders the resentment of this duty into old age.

Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. Review by R. GouldConcealment and Secrets

As Iris’s tightly held secrets begin to unravel, the effects of concealment—both blindness and silence—become apparent. Both girls learn how to hide their feelings to avoid mistreatment by their tutor Mr. Erksine, a stereotypical wicked instructor. And what could have been a close-knit relationship between two sisters begins to falter as a consequence of Erskine’s careful predation. Having not witnessed his actions, Iris is confounded by Laura’s unexpected and (to Iris’s mind) too calm account of wandering hands. She can’t imagine why a man would touch a child. However we might dislike it, her view is explicable given the historical context (children knew little of such abuse then). Then, as now, the notion of the “good victim” also plagues the abused and prevents justice. For Iris, concealment serves as a useful survival strategy in her dealings with the manipulative Geffen siblings, whereas silence places Laura at their mercy. Her choice to sacrifice herself for a loved one, concealing her suffering rather than trusting Iris to accept her story, is both tragic and understandable.

It’s concealment that ties Atwood’s novel together. The switches among the narratives styles permit us to question the notion of what represents the truth just as it lets Iris keep her secrets a little longer—even as she drops hints in hopes that she won’t have to outright admit her culpability. As she nears her confession, she finally has to embrace the terribleness of should: how she should have assured Laura that she believed her, when she should have said nothing, been kinder, or even lied. How she should have confessed to her daughter, Aimee, or rescued her granddaughter Sabrina. At the heart of Iris’s web is her regret that she failed those she loved. Whether readers guess at the big revelations in The Blind Assassin beforehand is immaterial. Atwood’s narrator is compelling enough to merit hearing out. And, Iris may earned some redemption by giving Sabrina the freedom to reinvent herself.

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