Kiley Reid is interested in what makes us cringe.
“As a writer I’m really drawn toward hyper-realistic, almost awkward dialogue and inner monologue,” said Reid in a recent phone interview with The Michigan Daily. “And I’m very drawn to characters who find themselves in positions of power and don’t really know what to do with it.”
Accordingly, Reid situates her debut novel, “Such A Fun Age,” at the nexus of multiple tricky relationships in the politically pregnant year of 2015. Enter Alix (“uh-leeks”) Chamberlain, a 30-something blogger and influencer who has spent years cultivating a personal brand loosely based on White feminism (“letter-writing promotion-receiving getting-what-they-want women”) in her favorite place on Earth: New York. After landing a book deal and low-key inserting herself in the Clinton campaign, Alix decides to give the big city a little break and relocates her news anchor husband and two young daughters to Philadelphia, where she spends her time procrastinating on said book and using social media to pretend she still lives in New York.
“I thought it was important that Alix would have the type of job that not just anybody can have,” Reid explained.
With all that work, Alix seeks out the perfect babysitter to take care of two-year-old Briar Louise — her more loquacious, less look-alike daughter — and hires Emira Tucker, a 25-year-old Black woman, chiefly because she’s safely unfamiliar with Alix and her brand. But underneath her employable anonymity, Emira is struggling with the pressures of being a postgrad who doesn’t exactly know what she wants to do yet (“Emira didn’t love doing anything, but she didn’t terribly mind doing anything either”). She’s got a few months left on her parents’ health insurance, $79.16 in her bank account and a voice in her head that says “you don’t have a real job.”
“Emira is so naturally anti-careerist,” Reid added, “and I think that makes a lot of people … a little bit uncomfortable.”
One night the Chamberlains call Emira in a panic, offering to pay her double to distract Briar while they manage a last-minute emergency. Emira leaves a birthday party to take the Chamberlain’s toddler to a Whole Foods analog down the street known for “bone broths, truffle butters, smoothies … and several types of nuts in bulk,” where she is summarily accused of kidnapping the White child she’s been paid to watch. It’s an altercation charged with latent racism , and a self-aggrandizing bystander takes it upon himself to film it on his smartphone.
“There’s a lot of people wondering ‘How can I be the best ally and do the perfect thing in this terrible situation?’” Reid said. “And a there’s a lot less focus on ‘How do we make sure that these situations don’t happen to begin with?’”
The confrontation takes place at the outset of the novel, allowing its aftermath enough space to grow beyond the neat boundaries of “aftermath” and into the complex plot of its own. In this respect, Reid has written a book about the consequences of prioritizing allyism over structural change. And it’s masterfully awkward. Alix gets anxious about progressive identity and her self-worth morphs into an uncomfortable function of how close she can get to her babysitter, a building obsession that reads like a crush and results in some off-putting but well-meaning wine nights. Emira is slightly spooked but needs the money and genuinely adores Briar, so she continues to make ends meet with the Chamberlains and enjoys herself when she can. Which includes getting involved with the video phone bystander, a 32-year-old White tech bro who has a track record of dating women of color, with the exception of his high school sweetheart. Who happens to be Alix Chamberlain. Yeah.
What ensues is a painful, passive series of personal flexes as Emira’s employer and boyfriend compete to “protect” her, what Alix refers to as “a losing game called ‘Which One of Us Is Actually More Racist?’” And it’s played desperately — in Alix’s case, to the extent of metrics: “… the fact she’d lain in bed the night before and been so pleased as she counted in her head how many African American guests would be present at her Thanksgiving table. This number had totaled to five.”
Throughout her novel and our phone conversation, though, Reid adamantly and repeatedly returns to a critical lurking variable in the sticky social equation: class.
“Talking about race without talking about class is a moot point,” Reid explained. “In this particular case, Blackness can look and be so many different things for so many different people. If I’m honest — You know what, I think that I was always drawn toward matters of class but I didn’t know that’s what they were,” she interjected. “I thought it was more etiquette in awkward moments and now I realize it’s more people dealing with their guilt and a lot of people finding themselves in positions of power, whether it’s their holding a phone or they have a babysitter, and how they respond to being in those positions.”
And a constant consideration of class, according to Reid, makes space for the sort of terribly nuanced people and problems that populate and pace “Such a Fun Age.” The novel itself opens with a quote from Rachel Sherman’s “Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence,” a series of interviews with upper-class New Yorkers, and a work which Reid cited as pivotal in her understanding and crafting of characters from varying class backgrounds.
“By the time I read (“Uneasy Street”) I knew the plot lines that I wanted to have for this novel, but I wanted to dive deeper into the issues of guilt and class solidarity and the very common way that people see their morality attached to their wealth, but not so much the systems that got them their wealth,” Reid explained.
“And I think that it helped in terms of my understanding of capital in America and how that affects peoples’ psyches, but it also helped me with character development for sure … my biggest takeaway from the book was that as soon as you are judging someone for being rich, you stop judging all of the systems that keep poor people poor.”
Here Reid paused — something she did frequently throughout our conversation. She speaks deliberately and emphatically, and often reflects on her words mere seconds after they enter air.
“… And that gave me room to have really full characters that aren’t villains, that are really smart, sometimes that are really charming, but that also make really bad decisions.”
While responding to some of my questions (and, honestly, judgments) on Alix Chamberlain’s thornier takes (the Thanksgiving scene is unreal), Reid circled back to this class-derived expansiveness of self.
“I think it’s a human response that we don’t always arrive at what we think the proper response is right away, and sometimes it takes a little mental gymnastics,” Reid explained, slowing my critical roll. “And so I really wanted the reader to go with Alix and she’s arriving at those things, ‘cause she’s not perfect, and neither is Emira … but I think that all of the characters should have room to process these thoughts, even when they’re not the most sympathetic thoughts on their own.”
This is the type of writer Kiley Reid is. The amount of empathy and consideration she routinely expresses for all her characters, present tense, is a feat of feeling in and of itself. Later in our conversation, while reminding me that Alix is working under the pressures of late-stage capitalism (namely, the double burden of work-for-profit and unpaid child rearing), Reid took a moment to wince in audible pain.
“Yeah, poor Alix,” Reid breathed. And then recomposed: “She’s doing the best she can, but if Alix is the perfect mom to nanny for it doesn’t mean that Emira’s financial situation is going to change, or any Black woman’s.”
First and foremost, though, Kiley Reid is writing to compel an audience.
“As a human I’m very political and not shy about those things,” she explained, “but as a writer I like to make it all about my characters, and what they believe in.”
Indeed, with all its awkwardness and tension considered, “Such a Fun Age” is immensely readable, almost unbelievably so. The pages fly, relaxed with frequent dialogue and references to social media and paced impeccably by the compelling triangles between Alix, Emira and the various relationships (transactional, romantic) that bind them. It’s been selected by Reese Witherspoon as her Book Club pick for January, and the film rights were picked up by Lena Waithe months before its initial publication. “Such a Fun Age” is the sweet-and-sour spot between heavy and light, a book about difficulty and nuance that makes itself accessible to an unprecedented number of audiences.
“I love it when novels give me a lot more questions than answers,” Reid disclosed, “and so my first priority is always just to focus on the narrative and not be polemic or use any character to make an overarching point, but I would love to raise questions in people about these things … Okay, so why does Emira have to figure out what she wants to do at 25? Why did college work so much differently for Alix than it did for Emira? … I would love for readers to feel inspired to dive into why that lifestyle is threatening to them, or threatening to the characters.”
In that case, I amend my first sentence. Kiley Reid is interested in why we’re cringing.
Kiley Reid will be at Literati Bookstore at 124 East Washington Street on Monday, January 13th at 7 p.m. to read from her novel, answer questions and sign books.