The Great Abyss of Identity
The story of a young female searching aimlessly for their identity is not one that is unusual. There are many variations of stories about young females who pretend to be someone that they are not just to prove that they know they are when they actually do not. However, usually at the end of those stories, the female has an epiphany and suddenly she drops the act and starts to be who she wants to be, she finds herself. In Zadie Smith’s New York Times Bestselling novel, “Swing Time,” a familiar story of identity is detailed through the perspective of a young woman who is reminiscing on the memories of her past, where you see that she has never lived her own life, she has always been a shadow in someone else’s life. The narrator struggles with her self-proclaimed identity throughout the entire novel; she is aware of who everyone else labels her as, but is conflicted when faced with knowing who she believes herself to be. The narrator spends all her life living to please Aimee, a pop star in need of an assistant willing to cater to her every whim, in other words, a shadow; so when Aimee is suddenly gone, she is left with the search to find someone else to follow because she has no sense of self-identity.
Zadie Smith symbolizes the constant identity search by keeping the main character, also known as the narrator, an unnamed character and by detailing her childhood, adolescence, and her adulthood where she always appears to be a background character, even though it is her own life we are learning about. The narrator stays unnamed because she is always identified by who she is around at a particular moment in time. For example, when the narrator is around her childhood best friend, Tracey, an unruly, problematic bully, the narrator is a well-behaved child who simply made friends with the wrong person who goes along with the crowd. The narrator participates in games where children touch other children inappropriately, but because Tracey loves the game, the narrator continues to play despite how uncomfortable it makes her feel. During one incident where the boys took the “game” to a different level, the narrator said “…and it was clear this wasn’t the playground game or the classroom game, it was a new and perhaps dangerous escalation…but each time I tried to keep some item of clothing up, they pulled it down and I was meant to laugh at that too. Then the laughing stopped and something urgent took over, they worked in silence and I went silent myself”(69). However, when the narrator is around Lily Bingham, a quiet nice girl from school, the narrator is polite and well mannered. The narrator is very lost in who she is and who she wants to be. For the majority of the story, the narrator is a goth, she wears all black and has a black-walled room.
The narrator goes to the club one night and wants to escape from the crowd, so she begins to explore finding a boy who she makes a split second decision to lose her virginity to. The narrator does not enjoy it and does not even really know why she chose to do that with him. The narrator winds up calling her mom to come pick her up because she finds Tracey overdosing. This proves that she just makes impulsive decisions based on who she wants to be in that moment. In that particular scene, she wanted to be a young girl who goes to the club and messes around with random boys and likes it, but she didn’t like how she felt afterward. Another example of her searching to find herself is in chapter six where her mother calls her to discuss their shared interest in West Africa; however, they are on two different sides of the issue, her mother says to her, “Doesn’t it matter to you who your partners are in this project? I know you, darling, and I know you’re not a mercenary, I know you have ideals – I raised you, for God’s sake, so I know” (335). The narrator’s mother is even noticing that she is pretending to be these different people to appease others and she is concerned about her daughter because she raised her, if anyone knows her, it would be her mother. The narrator knows her struggle with identity, yet makes no attempt to strongly define herself, or claim who she is to herself.
By the end of the book, we are left with the image of the narrator looking up at Tracey dancing with her children on her balcony after the narrator walks to Tracey’s with the intent of offering “something simpler, more honest, between my mother’s idea of salvation and nothing at all.” (453). This leads the reader to believe that the narrator will try to be in Tracey’s children’s lives, but not by taking them as her mother suggested. The implication is that now the narrator has found another’s life to shadow and live to appease now that Aimee and the narrator’s mother is gone from her life. The narrator never truly discovers she is, she is simply a shadow. After reading how the narrator flips from person to person to satisfy the person she is around shows that she is in a never-ending search for true identity. The narrator is forever lost walking through the great abyss that is identity.
Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. 2016. Penguin, 2017.