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Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Shaken Out of Time

Midway through Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time, the unnamed narrator watches two girls walk “hand in hand” down a dusty road in an anonymous, fictionalized African country. “They looked like best friends,” she notes—that “looked” suggesting the mysteries of friendship that the novel has been dedicated to up until that point. “They were out at the edge of the world, or of the world I knew, and watching them, I realized it was…almost impossible for me to imagine what time felt like for them, out here.” The girls inevitably remind the narrator of her own lost, best friend, Tracey, who angrily haunts the novel, forever resisting the narrator’s attempts to regulate her to incorporeality. Of their friendship, she notes, “We thought we were products of a particular moment, because as well as our old musicals, we liked things like Ghostbusters and Dallas. We felt we had our place in time. What person on earth doesn’t feel this way?” But the narrator is unable to place the two girls before her in any time. “When I waved at those two girls…I couldn’t rid myself of the idea that they were timeless symbols of girlhood…I knew it couldn’t possibly be the case but I had no other way of thinking of them.”

<i>The North Water</i>. By Ian McGuire. Picador, 2017. 272p. PB, $16.

Cruel North

On August 16, 2016, a cruise ship called the Crystal Serenity departed from Seward, Alaska. The price for a place on its month-long voyage started at $22,000, but the Serenity had no trouble filling its berths: 1,700 people signed up to take part in the first-ever passenger cruise through the Northwest Passage, the straits and sounds that for centuries had tempted and foiled even the hardiest captains and crews. Climate change has so dramatically shrunk the Arctic’s sea ice that the Serenity, with the help of a single icebreaker, was able to make short work of the Northwest Passage. Its passengers sailed smoothly through the polar sunshine, untroubled by fears of an icy death.

Just a week after the uneventful completion of the Crystal Serenity cruise, news broke that an Arctic Research Foundation team, acting on a tip from an Inuk crewmember, had documented the wreck of the HMS Terror in the Canadian Arctic. The ship had last been seen in 1845, when it was part of Sir John Franklin’s famously ill-fated attempt to traverse the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage; the Terror and its sister ship became locked in sea ice in Victoria Strait, and all 129 crewmembers, including Franklin himself, froze or starved to death. 

Author: The JT LeRoy Story. Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig. Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures, 2016. 110 minutes.


Disgrace is a public phenomenon, defined by public measures—of perception, opinion, consensus. To suffer disgrace is to arouse a collective sense of betrayal, bounds demolished, moral or social compacts violated. Reprieve from disgrace is also a public phenomenon, something a certain kind of documentary makes plain. Having suffered disgrace, occasionally a public individual will sit for a documentary portrait, as both former New York congressman Anthony Weiner and Laura Albert, the writer behind the literary persona JT LeRoy, have recently done. Weiner and Author: The JT LeRoy Story apply documentary means to restorative ends, where a kind of suspense attends the effort to marry a frayed reputation to a private self, disgraceful behavior to mitigating context, image to some more tangible thing. 

VQR Online

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