realist fiction

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.16.2017
Book from: Personal collection

Two brown girls dream of being dancers—but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighborhood behind, traveling the world as an assistant to a famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one percent live.

But when Aimee develops grand philanthropic ambitions, the story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, young men risk their lives to escape into a different future, the women dance just like Tracey—the same twists, the same shakes—and the origins of a profound inequality are not a matter of distant history, but a present dance to the music of time.

Swing Time is a dense, simmering novel of ideas, with markedly artful prose: flowing, full of rhythmic momentum, and patterned after the book’s title, swinging smoothly and slyly back and forth in time. The narrator uses these swerves in time in order to conceal or displace acute moments of shame or pain; Smith uses them in order to more thickly layer themes and symmetries. I found the rhythmic flow intoxicating, and it was the main reason I finished the book at all since, two chapters in, I was otherwise so turned off that I considered quitting.

I had two difficulties with the novel. First, the narrator’s voice has a bitter, narrow chippiness to it. Though I’m often keen on unsympathetic protagonists, I object to that particular flavor of bitchiness. This narrator is pretty virtuosically passive-aggressive, a defining flaw that’s pathetic at best.

Second, reading Swing Time made me realize that I find it hard to enjoy narratives about female rivalry. It’s been such a blessedly absent force in my life that I felt acutely uncomfortable, even impatient, being asked to dwell on it at length: “IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY” (This realization resulted in me revising my plans to read the Neapolitan Trilogy.)

Still, the book is so rich that even as some fraction of my reading attention was always squirming impatiently, there was also always something new and prickly-interesting to be considered – an insight of character, an angst-inflected vision of ’80’s or ’90’s London, the surreal juxtapositions of Western influence amid village life in West Africa (young men wearing wristwatches with no batteries…).

Probably the most vivid element of the book to me were the sharp specificities of feeling and observation that the narrator relates as a person of mixed race. When encountering other black women, for example, but especially those with mixed families, she continually notes skin tone, facial features, the race of each parent. All these behaviors are deeply familiar to me as a mostly acculturated first-gen immigrant kid (though not of mixed race), sharing that underlying unease of “where do I fit in” and “am I _____ enough.” The moment that I remember as the book’s most heartbreaking is when the narrator sees her white father’s children from an earlier marriage to a white woman, and realize that they look like they have everything to do with her father; and her – nothing.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.1.2017
Book from: Borrowed from J.

For the diver Kino, finding a magnificent pearl means the promise of better life for his impoverished family. His dream blinds him to the greed and suspicions the pearl arouses in him and his neighbors, and even his loving wife cannot temper his obsession or stem the events leading to tragedy.

Spare, dreamlike, caressing, bitter. I kept having to stop reading every five pages to writhe in the dread and certainty that John Steinbeck was definitely, definitely going to do the Steinbeck thing: kill whatever symbolizes innocence. The graceful nature writing, all pricked with color and sensual detail – sometimes crisp, sometimes impressionistic – it’s just misdirection, dammit.

The Pearl centers on much the same moral territory as Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath – the moral quality of simple people, their vulnerability to the wealthy and cruel, their structural powerlessness – but explores the new dimensions of race and colonialism. Though Kino also traps himself with his inability to deviate from traditional, aggressive masculinity, Steinbeck targets above all else, with rage and sorrow, the systemic ignorance and poverty enforced by colonization of the Mexican natives. The scenes where the town doctor and the pearl buyers collude against Kino are stomach-turning.

Speaking on aesthetic grounds – this is the most unusually filmic, or even balletic, piece of prose that I’ve ever read, in that Steinbeck writes for the narrative an explicit musical “score,” which rises and falls very beautifully and convincingly with the action. The Song of the Family, the Song of the Pearl, the Song of Evil, and other motifs twine throughout, mingle and distort. (I read afterwards that The Pearl had indeed been solicited to be used as a film treatment by a Mexican film company, so the filmic quality’s not just a coincidence – and I do look forward to finding the movie sometime soon.) This deepens the elegiac and dreamlike, nonverbal quality of the narrative.

Now, Kino’s people had sung of everything that happened or existed. They had made songs to the fishes, to the sea in anger and to the sea in calm, to the light and the dark and the sun and the moon, and the songs were all in Kino and in his people- every song that had ever been made, even the ones forgotten. And as he filled his basket the song was in Kino, and the beat of the song was his pounding heart as it ate the oxygen from his held breath, and the melody of the song was the gray-green water and the little scuttling animals and the clouds of fish that flitted by and were gone. But in the song there was a secret little inner song, hardly perceptible, but always there, sweet and secret and clinging, almost hiding in the counter-melody, and this was the Song of the Pearl That Might Be, for every shell thrown in the basket might contain a pearl. Chance was against it, but luck and the gods might be for it.

The sixth and final chapter of the novella also stands out to me for its stark, towering beauty and darkness. I close with some of my favorite passages from early in that chapter:

The sun arose hotly. They were not near the Gulf now, and the air was dry and hot so that the brush cricked with heat and a good resinous smell came from it. …

Kino stirred in a dream, and he cried out in a guttural voice, and his hand moved in symbolic fighting. And then he moaned and sat up suddenly, his eyes wide and his nostrils flaring. He listened and heard only the cricking heat and the hiss of distance.

The “hiss of distance” is so perfectly evocative of immensity, solitude, oppression.

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