Zadie Smith’s Liberal Imagination

Zadie-Smith-1Adam Kirsch at The Nation:

This liberal faith has not entirely vanished in Smith’s new book, Swing Time, but the novel does have a quality that is even more monitory than the willed strenuousness ofNW. Smith is always being called exuberant—or Dickensian, or even “hysterical realist,” which amount to the same thing—and the title of the new book, with its Astaire-and-Rogers gaiety, seems to promise more of the same. But in fact Swing Time is a sober book, even—at times—a depressive one. It feels like the kind of book novelists write when they have come to the end of their own favorite themes and techniques. There is less of the excitement of discovery, of getting things down on paper that have not been observed before, and more of the resigned pleasure of understanding. There is less seeing, and more seeing through.

The immediate source of this change in her work has to do with the novel’s narration. An omniscient narrator, which Smith has employed in her previous books, can understand all and forgive all. But a first-person narrator, which she uses in Swing Time, is limited by circumstance and trapped by temperament. We never learn the name of the woman who is telling us the story in Swing Time, and she remains adjacent to the action, lost in the shadow cast by other, more radiant personalities.

more here.