Late in the evening, early this century, Washington Square West, Philadelphia. Washington Square West overlaps an area identified by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Philadelphia Negro as the Seventh Ward, the site of many places famous in Black history: Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church; the Institute for Coloured Youth; the home of Frances E.W. Harper, one of the first Black American women to have her novels published. The official name of the place honours who you’d expect it to, but its real fascination lies in the Black ghosts remembered in the iron plaques that stud the streets, like subversive road signs redirecting interested pedestrian traffic.
Such juxtapositions, coupled with the area’s extreme social contrasts (multi-million dollar homes next to subsidised housing), set the stage for a contemporary comedy of manners, or its modern analogue: a tale of social media etiquette and IRL intrigue. This is the way Kiley Reid’s first novel, Such a Fun Age, is often described. Reid herself has called the book a ‘comedy of good intentions’, a phrase that might describe the online faux pas the novel skewers. You know ’em when you scroll past ’em: the conspiracy theory-laden chain letters; the hashtags improperly deployed; the lengthy captions that say more than the photos they contextualise; the motivational posts that serve only to annoy your followers; the use of social platforms as a stage for overwrought solo performances.
The novel’s action takes place not far from the President’s House, the third presidential mansion, where George Washington and John Adams lived, and a tourist destination for those who don’t leave colonial tours shaking the experience out of their heads as if in imitation of the Liberty Bell, Philly’s cracked symbol of freedom. For years, the historical society responsible for the site quibbled with local activists who held that it was important to memorialise the fact that Ona ‘Oney’ Judge, an enslaved woman forced to work for Washington, had lived there too, and to let people visit her quarters. The President’s House is a mile north-east of the former Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital, which closed in 1973. Douglass was the most photographed American of the 19th century, and his image – along with his speeches and bestselling autobiography – made him an example of Black progress in an era when former slaves and their descendants were being manumitted yet also ruthlessly pathologised. Upstanding and regal, Douglass personified one kind of Black image, just as the erasure of Oney Judge represented the lacunae that mark historical narratives like one of Kara Walker’s cutouts. The legacy of these representations haunts this novel.
The protagonist of Such a Fun Age is Emira Tucker, a 25-year-old Black woman struggling to figure out her place in the world. A recent graduate of Temple University, Emira works on Tuesdays and Thursdays as a transcriber at her local Green Party office and the rest of the week as a childminder for the white, upper-middle-class Chamberlain family. In making Emira work for a political party that makes almost no impression in a decidedly two-party country, Reid is telling us something about Emira’s marginal career prospects. She watches her friends achieve the stability that seems expected in one’s mid to late twenties – graduate school, promotion, cohabitation – but she can boast none of these markers of modern adulthood. When the story begins her savings account barely exists. Her employment history consists of one-off gigs with no sense of progression.
The Chamberlains, who live in Washington Square West, are recent transplants from New York City. Peter, a fortysomething local news anchor and Alix, a 33-year-old writer and Instagram influencer, are parents to Catherine, a newborn, and Briar, an inquisitive three-year-old. Their mother pretends she is still living in NYC, a trick maintained by means of carefully scheduled Instagram posts, and is trying to come to terms with what it means to have failed to afford New York. She teaches the art of writing effective cover letters and has a burgeoning career as a motivational speaker, espousing a rah-rah feminism familiar to readers of Sophia Amoruso’s #Girlboss and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: commodified, myopic and suited to hashtags. (Alix’s career took off after some strategic breastfeeding at a panel on women’s empowerment.) She is struggling to deliver a book of model cover letters to her publisher – Emira asks if she’s writing a ‘history book’, but Alix is ashamed to say what it’s really about – and having a hard time making new friends in Philly. She develops a bit of a crush on Emira, who seems to represent Alix’s pre-parenthood twenties. She is also drawn to what Emira’s Blackness and relative youth signify to her: coolness, freedom, fun.
One evening, close to midnight, there is a ruckus at the Chamberlains’ house. Alix calls Emira, who is at a party, and asks if she can babysit Briar while Alix and Peter wait for the police. It’s an imposition, but Emira needs the money. She and her best friend Zara swoop in and take Briar to a fancy grocery store where they entertain her by dancing in the aisles to Whitney Houston (at the time she recorded ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’, the song Briar and Emira jam to, the secretly transgressive Houston was known as ‘America’s sweetheart’ – another distorted Black image). After Zara departs for a late-night date, a white shopper who had at first seemed friendly gets the store’s security guard to approach Emira and Briar – on the suspicion that Emira has kidnapped the child. Emira stands up for herself and protects Briar. The incident is documented by another white shopper, Kelley Copeland, who records the whole thing on his phone. The video, which Kelley sends to Emira and promises not to share online, is both the gun in Chekhov and one of those lime-coloured water pistol emojis with which Apple replaced the revolver icon after too many mass shootings: it’s waiting to be spread around ironically, and used out of context. Not surprisingly, with a Macguffin like this, Emira and Kelley become entangled. Much of the book concerns the relationships between Emira, Alix and Kelley as they each try to manage the leverage they have over the others. The novel is a comedy about online v. in-person interaction, and the pressure of images and their proliferation in this incredibly fraught – fun! – age.
Emira’s first sight of herself in the grocery store video is an out of body and out of time experience: ‘Her eyes and chest immediately felt sober but it was taking her limbs and hips longer to catch up. There was part of her that hadn’t reached How did this happen?! and was still amazed by the technology that put her in this bathroom and on the screen simultaneously. As if from another universe, Emira heard her voice again.’ The narration could have come from a sci-fi novel: a character being beamed up to a spaceship or having their atoms rearranged. The connection between science fiction and racial otherness, established in the work of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany among others, is glimpsed at here. Bruce Sterling’s description of William Gibson’s cyberpunk aesthetic as combining ‘low life and high tech’ applies in the grocery store scene, with the boorish security guard, the racialised suspicions of the white shoppers and the recording iPhone. The video of Emira is rehashed and hashtagged via the prankish glee of meme culture and ‘digital blackface’. Its dissemination might result in a new portmanteau: ‘cyberpunk’d’.
Reid says she dislikes ‘issues books’, and Such a Fun Age isn’t one. It’s not sociology masquerading as fiction, which is the way Black novels are often read. ‘I don’t like my writing when it’s polemic,’ she told an interviewer. ‘As a human I love looking at the systemic issues, but as a writer I love the teeny-tiny instances that come from big socioeconomic issues.’ She’s deft with lists, executing satire in three or four acute details. One person mentioned in passing has ‘unrealistically white teeth, light pink hair, and an Instagram following of 36K’. After the birth of her oldest daughter, ‘Alix’s world became a place defined by Pack-’n-Plays, white noise machines, chafed areolas and grapes cut in half.’ Another character is summed up: ‘Long twists on her shoulders. Navy scrubs. Orange socks with white grips on the bottom.’ These descriptions perhaps provide a sly literary commentary on the listicle, an often mocked medium of this supposedly fun age. Listing one character’s penchant for fetishising someone alongside actions that demonstrate their genuine interest in that person forces the reader to figure out what to do with the composite. Reid also notices the minor differences between people that make them individuals, without being defining characteristics. She describes one character’s chipped nail polish and cheap perfume, and the way she cries, and the reason she might wear a denim jacket indoors. Some of the characterisation falls flat: there’s a moment late in the novel when a friend of Emira’s seems more like a caricature of herself, and of a young Black woman generally, than the nuanced person we met earlier in the novel. That characterisation bothered me, but I was forced to reckon with my own expectations: does that one flat character help to underscore the point of a book like this? Books can be flawed and, like the people they’re about, still worth engaging with.
Part of the way post-postmodern books contend with a heavily mediated era is by incorporating representations of video and interactivity, which are used as plot points and even as formal constraints (this began with David Foster Wallace’s conception of the maddening video called ‘the entertainment’ in Infinite Jest). Live news segments are pivotal set pieces in Such a Fun Age, and the video of Emira at the grocery store sets the story going. It’s funny that this is where terror now resides. On the eve of the millennium everyone was afraid that all the computers in the world were going to go haywire. Could we imagine, then, that the real nightmare would be their non-stop use?
Although much of the book’s action takes place in 2015 – in retrospect a halcyon time thanks to the hindsight afforded by 20-20 (and 2020), right before the election of Donald Trump seemed possible – the book frequently toggles back to the spring of 2000, a moment of great importance in the personal development of Kelley. His habit of calling the women he dates – most of them Black – ‘Miss’ goes back to that year. (This is funny because, given his bouts of narcissism and fetishising interest, he only scratches the surface of the women he likes. He is always missing them.) But what if that moment, like the millennium bug, was a false panic? What if small, technical, imaginative failures are always occurring inside him, as they do in all of us? What if being human is essentially going haywire all the time and feeling lucky that most of the faulty thinking and feeling is happening internally? What does that mean for the possibility – the duty, as Sarah Schulman calls it in her book Conflict Is Not Abuse – of repair?
Something else happened in 2000. In a review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, James Wood coined the phrase ‘hysterical realism’ to describe a trend. Novels like Smith’s and Wallace’s were brimming with ideas, but also full of tangential discussions, overstuffed to the point of exhaustion:
The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence … Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs.
For Wood, these novels were marked by the kind of overwrought energy that characterised other boom and bust moments in history, including the Industrial Revolution and the period after the Second World War. ‘Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels,’ he wrote. ‘It is how they structure and drive themselves on. The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted and overworked.’
Twenty years later, hysterical realism is more evident in social media than in the novel. Some have tied the emergence of autofiction to the rise of the selfie, the epitome of the reflexive expressions produced by this period. With its double entendre connoting the kind of thing adults say about toddlers as well as an era-defining sarcasm, Such a Fun Age is interested in a different sort of hysterical realism: how is it possible to write a novel that comments on virality, the climate, our social conventions and the shopworn vitality of this moment without sounding like a 300-page piece on current trends? I mean, Instagram, amirite? Instead of the artificial, ever accreting narrative drama Wood describes, the subplots in Reid’s novel seem to indicate that ‘storytelling’ is interwoven into every thread of contemporary life: from Sprite ads in which children give a meta-commentary on their dreams to social media platforms where digital dispatches called ‘stories’ last only 24 hours, turning the measure of a day spent into a day spent well, or at least staged prettily enough to be shared online. No wonder Emira feels as if she’s flailing, as if she hasn’t got her story straight. It’s hard enough to discover what you’re passionate about, or even what you’re good at, or just who’s hiring, but when you don’t even have a narrative to offer there’s another sort of challenge. What does it mean that Emira has no social media accounts? She may be abstaining to save her sanity, but she is also missing out on the opportunity to comment on her life and image, even as it goes viral. That’s where Alix’s cover letter-writing workshops are important: here is a woman who has mastered the problem of how to sell herself, and her story, who understands that what you do matters less than how you present it to the world.
Hysterical realist prose may have worked too hard but it was onto something. It foreshadowed a world that would expect its emerging workforce never to stop working. What happens when the manic energy of hysterical realism burns off? You get Such a Fun Age, a realist novel about burnout, depicting the persistent, low-grade, low-level dread we in Reid’s generation carry with us. Novels like Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Daniel Gumbiner’s The Boatbuilder and Catherine Lacey’s Nobody Is Ever Missing also show millennial protagonists responding, in part, to the technophilia of the moment by retreating into a monkish solitude, or searching for authenticity in the self-mythologising self-care movement. Emira does both. She longs to work with her hands, as her family does: her dad is a beekeeper, her mum binds books, her little brother is an award-winning barista and her sister is a seamstress. She tries to follow in the family tradition by attempting a career as a sign language interpreter, then tries transcribing, before ending up as a childminder. She’s searching for fulfilling work while trying to work out what self-care really is. Sometimes it means treating yourself to a $234 leather jacket, sometimes it means crying, other times it means drinking expensive wine. Mostly it means trying to remain open and sensitive. Emira enjoys caring for Briar and hanging out with her girlfriends. She finds pleasure in sex, in looking around her new boyfriend’s apartment, getting to know him through his space and his things.
The homes in Washington Square West, where Emira works and Alix lives, and – just to the north – Kensington, where Emira lives and Alix once visits, are linked by more than their juxtaposition. They are tied by commerce, transactional intimacy, chance, psychogeography and social inequality. The book moves beyond merely articulating the shallowness with which we engage online to show the superficiality which has always characterised our engagement with one another, whatever deep feeling exists. We fail to show up online, just as we fail in person. And what does it mean to fail? To empower yourself rather than someone else? To be nosy instead of genuinely interested?
The anticlimactic nature of failure now, combined with the right wing’s false assertion that making even minor mistakes can lead to instant social death, is central to Such a Fun Age. At first Emira thinks a local news item about the grocery store incident is ‘a big deal’, but it loses importance once she realises that it has been seen by no one her age – those best equipped to attend to and disperse the story. What happens in our heads is sometimes more devastating than what we say or do. One scene near the beginning of the novel gets at this, but blink and, like Kelley, you’ll miss it:
Emira found herself arranging her mouth as if she’d ingested something too hot. She caught a morphed reflection in a freezer door, and she saw herself in her entirety. Her face – full brown lips, a tiny nose, and a high forehead covered with black bangs – barely showed up in the reflection. Her black skirt, her slinky V-neck top, and her liquid eyeliner refused to take shape in the panels of thick glass. All she could see was something very dark and skinny, and the top of a small, blond stick of hair that belonged to Briar Chamberlain.
Emira, like Oney Judge, disappears from view in Washington Square West, overshadowed by a white person she works for. But, like Oney, she reappears. White people want to multiply Emira’s Black, female image and, unlike Oney, she has a chance to engage with that image. And what does that mean to Emira? In the scene above, the sketch she draws of herself is a response to a racial aggression, and we recognise that it’s an effect of how awful she feels. The sight of herself in the grocery aisle mirrors the way she saw herself in the video of the encounter. But to see yourself in your entirety and at the same time barely to show up in a reflection is a curious condition. It’s scary to feel and appear indeterminate. But maybe there’s something freeing about it. The description of Emira’s wavering, nebulous form in the refrigerator door recalls the oscillating history the sociologist Alondra Nelson has described:
There’s this looping back and forward that is very much part of human experience. There is psychic comfort in linearity; it makes us feel like we’ve harnessed the world, that we’ve got control over the world. Linearity makes it possible for one to get caught up in a sense of inevitable social, political progress … The great mythos of American life is the idea that we’re always improving, always moving forward. And the great story of science and technology is that it is also always leaping forward to good ends. To my mind, this political moment should be one of humility, of paying attention to looping back, and of acknowledging that sometimes looping back means failure, means going back to the woodshed, means throwing out what we thought we knew and thinking again.
‘Throwing out what we thought we knew and thinking again’ pretty much describes every character’s arc in this novel, but especially Emira’s. Indeterminacy is maybe the antidote for straightforward narrative. A morphed reflection that refuses to take shape might describe a person’s face in a camera’s aperture right before the Snapchat filter is set, when they’re still vague and can step out of the app’s digital constraints. A filter is like a carapace you can always shake off. Amorphousness, essential for growth, is the anti-story.