Friday, December 15, 2017

Halfway Through Swing Time

That’s Swing Time the novel by Zadie Smith, not the film from the 30’s. I’m halfway through and admiring it – the detail and texture, the character work, the sense that these feel like lives that were actually lived - but I’m also getting a little bit bored. Why am I getting bored? It’s partly the style. It’s the kind of style people call austere and lucid, but you might also call plain or ordinary. The main problem though, so far at least, is that Smith forgets, or can’t quite be bothered, to include a decent story. There’s a bit of a hook in the opening pages, the main character’s been disgraced somehow and we’re going to find out how, eventually, but it’s not really enough to keep me engaged and interested. I mean I am interested, sort of, but not very. (I used to review books for the TLS, The Spectator and the radio – you wouldn’t know it from that last sentence.)

It’s all a bit Elena Ferrante of course, but I found My Brilliant Friend a lot more involving. More intimate somehow, perhaps even more felt. The main character in Swing Time drifts along observing things and generally feeling a bit sad. I had a much more vivid sense of struggle and ambition, of joy being grabbed when it’s available, from MBF.

Anyway, only halfway through. I’ll certainly finish it. But I may pause to read a short story or two by Tom Franklin (from the collection Poachers), just for a refreshing shot of narrative punch and stylistic flourish.


Tom Saunders said...

Reviewed this for my group page on Facebook.

"Enjoyed this but I'm not entirely sure why. Smith isn't a prose stylist, something I usually look for in a writer and require. I couldn't get into her first novel White Teeth and I almost gave up on this one. When I got into the meat of the book I was all right, I wanted to know how the lives of the two girls would work out and how their relationship would progress. Structurally, the book wanders somewhat and I didn't feel any strong conceptual thread. Even at the end, I wasn't convinced anything of great perception or merit had been said. The novel progressed but, for me, it didn't come together in a memorable or effectual way. It felt like she was assembling what she hoped would be thematic material without ever committing to the thrust of the book and making a final decision as to what the theme should be. The novel passed the time pleasantly enough and I was aware that Smith has a good mind. She has said it's about being black and I didn't feel any of that, I'm afraid. I often forgot that the central characters were black as their problems felt more like old world problems, never more so than when one of them goes to work in Africa."

Tom Saunders said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Saunders said...

P.S. I posted this because I don't think we've agreed so entirely on anything before or are likely to do so in the future. I'll get my coat.

Mark Illis said...

You put it better than I do! Have you read My Brilliant Friend? Makes an interesting comparison.

Tom Saunders said...

That's kind of you. Thanks. I did start My Brilliant Friend, but my interest wavered toward the middle. It wasn't anything to do with the characters, which were engaging, more to do with the feeling that I would have to pace myself as we were starting down a very long road and, for me, the thought of having to follow it was, unfortunately, a bit wearying. You know, that saga-ish vibe, which many people love, of course. Not good on sagas, too impatient. Personal flaw.