Invisible Woman

Such a Fun Age BY Kiley Reid. New York: Putnam. 320 pages. $26.

The cover of Such a Fun Age

We often look to novelists to encapsulate a moment, era, or generation. Earlier in the 2010s, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013) captured our anxious new millennium and offered wisdom on race, colonialism, capitalism, and immigration. Her literary success gave way to TED Talks, widespread interviews, and a MacArthur Fellowship, among other honors. Despite the breadth of Adichie’s texts, what she became most sought after to comment upon—the lens through which her work was evaluated—was identity.

A few years later, Sally Rooney’s 2017 debut, Conversations with Friends, and the 2019 follow-up, Normal People, were similarly celebrated for capturing contemporary life. Rooney was insightful about the ways the internet and capitalism have shaped our speech and relationships. Yet, in an era fraught with questions of identity, borders, and belonging, Rooney’s Dublin is too white to be truly universal. Her characters read James Baldwin essays and pore over long-form articles about the Syrian civil war. But their engagement with the substance of their ideals is nonexistent. This lack hasn’t stopped publications from presenting Rooney as the “first great millennial novelist,” in the words of one New York Times writer. In the US, where 40 percent of millennials identify as nonwhite, the idea of Rooney’s universality shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Like the novels of Adichie and Rooney, Kiley Reid’s debut, the darkly funny and often sincere Such a Fun Age, takes contemporary young adulthood as its subject. The book feels purposefully of-the-moment, with references to fast fashion, trap music, and Lean In–style feminism. Reid also has a knack for the rhythm of dialogue. She delights in modern linguistic tics like vocal fry, upspeak, and the singsong cadence of rappers that has seeped into everyday speech. “Do you remember me? Of course you do, hi,” one character insists during a meet-cute. “I’m used to drinking like . . . boxed wine, so yeah, I’m no connoisseur,” another tells her employer. Reid interpolates the language of texts and emails throughout—“I can’t tell if you’re getting hired or dumped rn,” reads one important message.

Unlike Rooney, Reid overlays a serious analysis of the ways in which race, class, and gender interact. It is 2015. Twenty-five-year-old Emira is a black recent graduate of Temple University from a working-class Maryland family. An English major who has taken a part-time office job with the local Green Party while supplementing her income by babysitting, Emira is tentative, unsure of her future, and hesitant to articulate her likes and dislikes. She genuinely enjoys the company of young Briar, who is white, but remains ambivalent and guarded with Briar’s parents. It’s a realistic rendering of a transactional relationship from the point of view of the employed, departing further from millennial novels in which money is a source of self-alienation and embarrassment. Emira has many conflicting feelings about the people around her, but she cannot remain ambivalent for long. She can’t afford to.

Early on, she faces a dilemma shaped by the distinct physical precariousness of black people that makes her search for certainty and stability all the more pressing. While celebrating a girlfriend’s birthday, Emira receives an urgent call from Briar’s mother, Alix. It is Emira’s day off, but no matter. “Is there any way you can take Briar to the grocery store for a bit?” The home Alix shares with her husband, Peter, has been vandalized, and the couple wishes to shield Briar from an encounter with the police. The family will pay double time. With a friend in tow, Emira abandons the party. They pick up Briar and pass time browsing the aisles, dancing and singing to Whitney Houston songs. A security guard detains them, insinuating that Emira has kidnapped the child. A young white man records the incident on his phone. Peter comes to the rescue, but not before Emira is sufficiently humiliated. Briar’s parents feel humiliated, too, but in the way of good, liberal white people whose well-wishes can be laced with condescension. The incident sets off a cascade of events and entanglements.

Reid alternates between the perspectives of Emira and Alix, the thirtysomething owner of a lifestyle brand that traffics in the cheery language of self-empowered, upwardly mobile moms. (During one event, Alix breastfeeds her daughter in front of an audience during a panel; everyone is rapt.) The satire is cutting, but the novel is at its best when it shows, without the distancing effects of humor, how the white characters reinforce racism even when they seem to oppose it. This is revealed most poignantly through Kelley, the well-meaning onlooker who filmed Emira’s ordeal. That night he tells her, “This would definitely get you an op-ed or something.” Emira just wishes it could be erased. A romance ensues, which Reid uses to paint a wary portrait of the kind of interracial relationship that teeters on the line between adoration and objectification:

Emira had dated one white guy before, and repeatedly hooked up with another during the summer after college. They both loved bringing her to parties, and they told her she should try wearing her hair naturally. And suddenly, in a way they hadn’t in the first few interactions, these white men had a lot to say about government-funded housing, minimum wage, and the quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. about moderates, the ones that “people don’t want to hear.” But Kelley seemed different.

We soon learn of Kelley and Alix’s connection, which involves a shared hometown, a name change, and a tense, screwball Thanksgiving dinner. Reid’s novel captures something important about race and the inexorability of whiteness, upward mobility, and the inescapability of digital life. But she is unlikely to be anointed the “voice of a generation.” These icons tend to skew whiter than reality—Kurt Cobain and not Whitney Houston, Rooney and not Reid. This is unfortunate. Because the realities of class and race bump up against the realities of economic collapse and environmental calamity, we’d deepen our understanding of the era by looking to a wider group of voices to embody it.

Danielle A. Jackson is a Memphis-born writer living and working in Brooklyn.