Kiley Reid’s debut novel reveals the lie behind the claims that the Obama age was post-racial.
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Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, the Vox Book Club’s pick for November, takes place in a very specific age indeed. It’s 2015, the lead-up to the 2016 election. President Barack Obama is in office, Hillary Clinton is expected to be the next president, and pundits are given to smugly declaring America to be post-racist and post-sexist.
As Such a Fun Age shows, that was never truly the case. This novel is a satire of polite liberal prejudices, and how they flourish beneath a veneer of colorblind civility.
Such a Fun Age concerns 25-year-old Emira. She’s Black, a recent college grad, and struggling to figure out what she wants to do with the rest of her life. Her 26th birthday is approaching, which means she’s about to get kicked off her parents’ health insurance, so she’s got a ticking clock on this problem.
But all Emira really likes doing is hanging out with Briar, her 3-year-old white babysitting charge. Emira has tried to imagine getting a permanent nannying position with another family so she can get her own health care, but it’s not children in the abstract she likes: it’s Briar specifically, who is smart and deadpan funny and never stops asking questions.
What Emira likes less is Briar’s mother, Alix. And it’s with Alix that Reid’s satire gets most pointed.
Alix exists as an all-too realistic parody of Lean In white feminism. She’s a sort of proto-influencer who built her brand in the ’00s by writing handwritten letters to companies asking for free products, receiving them, and then blogging about the result. Now, she’s an Instagrammer who runs a coaching business teaching women how to ask for what they want — so long as they are nice, upper-middle-class women who ask politely, respectfully, and on expensive stationery. Her signature hashtag is #LetHerSpeak.
The tell that Alix’s interest in letting women speak is phony comes early on, when we enter her point of view and learn what she thinks of Briar. Alix is viscerally annoyed by Briar’s voice, which is “loud and hoarse” and “consumed everything in its path.” Briar seems more unruly to Alix than other children her age, less respectable in her curiosity and desires. So though Alix is happy to use Briar as a prop — breastfeeding her from the stage during an event in order to leverage a viral moment, positioning herself as the icon of the modern mom who has it all — she prefers not to pay too much attention to Briar on a day-to-day basis. That’s why she hires Emira.
And Alix finds herself fascinated by Emira, much more than she is fascinated by Briar. She wants Emira to use her youth and Blackness and beauty to validate Alix, to affirm that since Alix has a close Black friend and her favorite shoes are from Payless, she’s still cool. She wants, also, to “save” Emira from herself, to teach her how to polish her self-presentation and redo her résumé and start writing handwritten cover letters on beautiful creamy stationery.
Emira isn’t particularly interested in any of that, though. She mostly just wants health care, and she wants to be thought of as a human rather than as a prop in white people’s performances of progressivism. That’s why her closest relationship is with Briar, who loves her with a deep and specific gravity. It’s also why she doesn’t care for Alix, who treats her as a trophy — and why she’s more than a little wary of her own white boyfriend, Kelley.
While Alix is an obvious villain, a cringey tryhard who might as well be the living embodiment of A White Woman’s Instagram, Kelley is a more ambiguous character. We never get inside his head, as we do with Alix, but we can see from the outside that he’s self-confident and genuinely pretty cool, someone easy to like.
But Kelley also, Emira notes with some surprise, seems to only date Black women and have Black friends. He drops the n-word in casual conversation, hard r and all. When Emira talks about racism, he seems very eager to prove that he “gets it,” but she isn’t at all sure that he does. He seems to savor his outrage over her situation in a way she keeps thinking is maybe a little off-putting.
Kelley and Alix, we eventually learn, have a history. It’s left them resentful of each other — and also eager to use Emira as a pawn in the contest Alix mentally labels Which One of Us Is Actually More Racist?
And so Such a Fine Age winds up with Emira, now extricated from both Alix and Kelley, thinking not of them but of Briar. Briar was the only person Emira could be sure genuinely loved her in her whole time as a babysitter — but Emira fears that stuck alone with her neglectful mother and all the privileges of whiteness, Briar, too, will come to outsource her emotional labor to someone she can hire. In the world of liberal racism, the problem isn’t hate so much as it is unthinking and callous fetishism.
Share your thoughts on Such a Fun Age in the comments section below, and be sure to RSVP for our upcoming live discussion event with Kiley Reid herself. In the meantime, subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything.
- Let’s talk about that Thanksgiving scene! Alix and Kelley first recognize each other when Alix invites Emira and her boyfriend over for her Thanksgiving party, for which she has decorated with ironic tacky pumpkins and turkeys. Did Thanksgiving strike you as a good time for all these secrets to come out? What about the class politics of Kelley taking Alix’s ironic decor seriously?
- Emira winds up as the administrative assistant to a regional director of the US Census Bureau, and from there gets an unspecified promotion. What do you think of Emira winding up in an office dedicated to observing and chronicling demographic shifts in this novel dedicated to satirizing different social demographics? Does it square to you with the ideas Emira is interested in through the rest of Such a Fun Age?
- Alix is probably the richest character in this novel — awful and cringey, sure, but also compelling in her sheer desperate striving. I often found myself enjoying her despite myself, on the principle that the most interesting character is usually the one who wants things with the most energy, and Alix wants with all her shallow heart. How did you feel about her?
- While Alix gets to be entertainingly awful, Emira’s job in this book is to put up with a lot, until she doesn’t. How does that change the way you engage with both of them? With Emira playing defense for so much of the book, what are the qualities that make you latch onto her as a protagonist — or not?
- Kelley’s a deeply ambiguous character, and we never fully find out what his deal is, in part to make the final misdirect land. How did you end up thinking about him by the end of the novel?
- The whole book is built around a video of Emira facing down a racist security guard at a grocery store who has accused her of kidnapping Briar. Emira considers the video humiliating and badly wants to keep it from getting out, but Alix and Kelley both think she should leak it. How do you think about that conflict? Why does Emira want to keep anyone from ever seeing the video, and why are Alix and Kelley so eager to make a fuss over it? Does this story change the way you think about our national pastime of dissecting videos of everyday racism all over social media?
Author: Constance Grady