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#AmReading Swing Time by Zadie Smith

There is one kind of book that I consistently love to read, which is very different from what I write. It's the sort of literary novel that paints an intimate portrait of one person's life over three or more decades, following two or more timelines that alternate and converge as insights rise from the depths of memory. 

The last one I read was Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye--yes, I was slow to discover it--and just this week, I read Swing Time, the second book I've read by Zadie Smith. (The first was On Beauty.)

These sorts of books help me think deeply about character and identity--my own and those of the fictional characters I write.

Swing Time explores many questions of personal identity--how each of our lives and our self-perceptions are shaped by the year we are born, our nationality, gender, religion, age, perceived or measured intelligence, talents, race (a social construct dependent upon context), and genetic heritage (which includes inborn personality traits). And all of these traits, even the genetic ones, affect what happens to us in our lives--our environment. It's a tangled mess of questions that Smith sets free to unfold in Swing Time. There is a satisfying completeness in the book's thorough dismantling of any possible simple answer to the question, "Who am I?"

Reading Swing Time raised a lot of personal questions for me about my own life and self by causing me to reflect upon how I am similar to and different from the narrator and why. The narrator was born in the mid-1970s; I was born in the '80s. Some of the attitudes the narrator expresses about life are familiar to me from being the same age, and others are familiar to me from being in the same decade. It made me wonder: Did I mature at a different rate from the narrator for personal reasons, or did we simply share the ideas that were a product of the 1990s when we happened to live in that decade?

The narrator's childhood friendship with a girl named Tracey felt familiar to me; I had a similar, dangerous friendship with a less privileged, brilliant, but wild child growing up. There is a similar "frenemy" dynamic in Atwood's Cat's Eye and many other novels of this type, actually, and in each one I've read, I've asked similar questions about myself: Why did I exit this relationship differently, earlier, and more successfully than the characters in these books I've read? Especially when the childhood story seemed so familiar that the end of the relationship as I experienced it in real life felt inevitable to me?

What personal difference caused my story to diverge so sharply?

Swing Time prompted me to ask again and again, regarding a number of different moments in the narrator's life: Did I make a different choice because of my birth year? Could my national, racial, or class identity have affected my outcome in some important way? Or was it mostly because of individual personality traits I inherited from some ancestor--and whom? (I have often felt that, though I look like my family members, my personality and ways of thinking seem dropped upon me by aliens.)

How are our personal possibilities narrowed by all of these converging factors that create this real, powerful, but slippery and amorphous thing called "identity?" And within this tangled web of influences both knowable and unknowable to us, how much freedom of choice do we ever have?

Swing Time is the kind of book that invites a shaking-up of preconceived notions and an opening of the mind to questions we cannot readily answer. It's exactly the kind of book that, I believe, makes better authors of its readers.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone in a creative, political, philosophical, psychological, or social field who is in any kind of a rut. Swing Time invites us to move outside of our habits of thinking and identifying to question thyself.


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