Every writer has her flaw. Bad dialogue is not a forgiving foible. And yet literary history is riddled with examples—the ones who got away with it, the ones who didn’t, and the ones who, either way, remain in the literary canon. Exhibit A: H.P. Lovecraft. Every aspiring novelist and storytelling cadet knows that the dialogue exchanges of the magniloquent vocabularian are a classroom example of what not to do. Set aside the fact that the spoiled New Englander was an only child, set aside the racist dogma suffusing his plots, set aside his flagrant classism—“I could not write about ‘ordinary people’ because I am not in the least interested in them”—the poor guy never quite figured out how to sound like normal people. The result was, as he himself would put it, “hideous.”
For all the reasons Zadok Allen never amounts to anything more than a paper-thin cypher, Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019) excels in her believable and heart-wrenching deep-dive into U.S. race relations and the (not-so) subtle racial profiling that Black Americans suffer on almost every stratum—from the grocery store to the workplace. Such a Fun Age contributes not to the field of blatant micro aggressions—though these feature prominently in Reid’s narrative and indeed catalyze the sequence of unfolding events—but in the most private of hemispheres, a place where discussions of racism are awkwardly eschewed. Reid confidently addresses the gross and painful racism that manifests in our ostensibly pure personal relationships. Reid’s aptitude for triggering awkward dinner table conversations may be a turn-off for some readers, but I think most will find the book an inimitable hit.
Such a Fun Age centers Emira Tucker, a recent college Temple University graduate who, like most recent college grads (me, included), finds herself with vague career plans and limited means to go soul-searching. She opts for babysitting the two-year-old daughter of a wealthy family from New York City—need I say, white?—that pays her sixteen dollars an hour. The arrangement is only satisfactory for Emira, who secretly pines for “a real job, a nine-to-five position with benefits and decent pay,” which she insists will make the rest of her life “start to resemble adulthood as well.” Like most hourly wage workers, she is forced to take on many last-minute gigs, including one on her best friend’s birthday. This is where the mess takes off.
One night, Alix Chamberlain, thirty-one year-old non-profit founder, calls Emira to ask if she can look after her daughter, Briar, for a few hours while she and her husband attend to an “incident with a broken window.” Unbeknownst to Emira, the “incident” traces back to the week before when Alix’s husband, Peter, in his role as anchor for the Philadelphia Action News, introduced a segment on homecoming proposals. Reacting to a video of a black teen proposing to a white girl, he gaffes, “Let’s hope that last one asked her father first.”
Alix spends the duration of the novel fretting over whether Emira has seen the clip, but it appears she has bigger fish to fry. That night, Emira and her friend Zara take Briar to the local Market Depot, a grocery store catering to the upper-class neighborhood with organic foods and other overpriced items. “Next to a dried-fruit section, Zara bent in her heels and held her dress down to retrieve a box of yogurt-covered raisins. ‘Umm…eight dollars?’”
The scene reaches a blistering tenor when a security guard approaches Emira to ask, “Is this your child?” For the next few minutes, he hectors her with a salvo of questions, apparently in disbelief that Emira is a babysitter. An onlooker, “nervous” for Briar’s safety, shortly steps in to interrogate Emira, as well. The exchange only defuses once Emira calls Peter—“He’s an old white guy so I’m sure everyone will feel better.” For the remainder of the book, a bad taste lingers in the air. Scant mention of race is made ever again and yet, informed by the first scene, we are painfully aware of how outward appearances can determine the course of every and any interaction.
On my first reading, I was enthralled by the exhilarating drama that Reid weaves. The story bears the feel of a soap opera and yet the themes it explores are undeniably poignant. The result is an unsettling mixture of comedy and exposé, propelled by spectacular dialogue that makes a read-aloud irresistible. It’s no wonder that Lena Waithe’s Hillman Grad Productions and Sight Unseen Productions snapped up the film and television rights to this novel within months of its completion.
On my second reading, I was reminded of The Help by Kathryn Stockett, the 2009 novel adapted into an award-winning film with a star-studded cast including Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, and Viola Davis. Stockett’s novel captures—inaccurately, some have argued—the lives of African-American housekeepers in Jackson, Mississippi, at the tail end of Jim Crow segregation. Like Reid, she follows a cast of many characters, including two housekeepers, Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson. Along with ten other nannies, they recount their experiences of workplace discrimination to Eugenia Skeeter, a sympathetic and liberal-minded white woman who sees publishing potential in the untold stories of “the help.” Stockett, like Reid, attempts to replicate the dialectal differences between the housekeepers and the white women of the town, imbuing each character with their own unique voice. (Critics have argued that Stockett’s novel defeats its own purpose, i.e., to bring African-American voices to the fore.) Reid’s novel might be thought of as a re-writing of The Help, modernized and re-claimed. It presents the voices of twenty-first century African-American women spoken by a twenty-first century African-American writer.
As I think about the similarities between the two novels, I can’t help but feel at first exhilarated—could this be an undisclosed influence on Reid’s novel?—and then unnerved—how much progress have we really made as a society? Let’s consider an obvious parallel. Both novels involve black women in uniform working for white women at hourly rates (no benefits). The differences, of course, are equally striking. Reid diverges by revealing how discrimination can manifest in more subliminal ways. Through Emira’s interactions with Kelley—her woke white boyfriend—and Alix, we learn how fetishization is in itself a form of racial bias. Despite all their differences, Alix and Kelley share the same objective: remain on good terms with Emira. Rather than treat her with the respect of a friend, they counterintuitively commodify her as a means to an end. Alix obsesses over their relationship, continually expressing snippets of self-encouragement like, “Stay with it, Alix,” “You’re almost there,” “This is good,” and “We aren’t there yet but we’re getting there,” the sort of reassurances one would expect out of a high schooler doting on a crush. Alix’s attempts at conversation are, of course, unrequited and, despite her best attempts to cover up her M.O., Emira picks up on the cues. “‘I would have been very on time…’ she said. ‘But my boss has been really into asking me questions and wanting to talk.’” Alix is in denial of the boundaries that exist in a professional relationship in ways similar to the sociable Miss Celia in The Help. Emira, of course, does not communicate her discomfort as well as the outspoken Minny, but the words she looks for are the ones Constantine, Eugenia’s maid, articulates to her boss’s daughter: “Some things I just got to keep for myself.”
In a world where white men retain the means of production and white women are simply the law enforcement, The Help follows the struggle of one white woman who does her best to publicize the voices of Black women by writing their stories for them. In Such a Fun Age, Emira applies her English degree not toward a book of her own, but a part-time job transcribing speeches and meetings for Green Party Philadelphia. When Kelley suggests that she parlay the grocery store debacle into an op-ed, Emira replies curtly, “I’m not a writer.” Later, it is Alix who appropriates Emira’s story by sending Kelley’s recording of the incident—one Kelley had supposedly deleted—to the local TV station.
On the outside, Reid’s debut novel is a tale of an interracial love triangle, but at its heart, it is an urgent examination of race politics in America and the discriminatory behaviors we still let slip. It’s one giant eyeroll with Reid at the center, placing 2020 on a pedestal and asking us to reconsider: “such a fun age?”