I think my first experience with a story that made the skin on my neck crawl with cringing embarrassment was The Office, the original British series. I couldn’t stop watching even though I knew, if I had been one of those office workers, I would have been doing my best slide out of the room and head straight for HR. Why do we watch, though? Why have there been so many more stories about people obliviously behaving badly in the last decade or so? I think I’ve figured it out after finishing Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, which deserves all the praise it’s received since it was published. First, cringy stories appeal to me because they present a chance to think about the minute dilemmas of ethics and etiquette of daily life. Second, because they make me feel utter relief that it’s not me making all those awful mistakes.
Late one night in September, Alix calls her sitter to take her toddler out of the house for a bit while they deal with an act of vandalism and the police. Emira shows up with a friend—even though she’s been celebrating a friend’s birthday—to take Briar to one of the few places that’s open that late, the local up-market grocery store. Emira’s friend makes the best of things by playing music and getting everyone dancing. It’s a cute moment, until a security guard and a “concerned” middle-aged white woman show up to start asking questions about why a Black woman is in a grocery store at midnight with a three-year-old white child. Emira handles the incident, with some help from a white guy who asks pointed questions and—more helpfully—starts recording the whole thing with his phone.
The cringiness begins to build when (the white) characters around Emira start to maneuver themselves to make themselves look good and avoid any accusations of racism. Alix—who has the very internet age job of asking companies to send her products so that she can review them on social media—conferences with her friends to keep Emira happy and quiet about the whole thing. She also, painfully, becomes obsessed with learning more about Emira as though becoming Emira’s friend means that Alix can somehow transcend the employer-employee relationship. Meanwhile, the helpful guy with the camera starts to date Emira. Although they have a real connection, Kelley keeps pushing Emira to “stand up for herself” against anything that even smacks of racism, to go public with the video, and quit working for Alix.
The more we learn about Alix and Kelley, the more I had to cringe. Their past relationship. All the misunderstandings. All the prejudices. If these characters had had a chance to talk to each other without all this baggage, they might have been able to avoid making a huge and very public mess of everything. We get to see all of the decision points for Emira, Alix, and Kelley. They have options about what they can do. More than once I wanted to shout at the characters about what I thought the right thing to do would be—Alix needs to let stuff go, Kelley needs to admit that he does fetishize Black people so that he can be the wokest white guy ever, Emira needs to stop coasting through life—but, for the most part, the characters compound their mistakes because they refuse to admit that they could be wrong.
Such a Fun Age, with all of those awful decisions for us to analyze, spoke to me about the need to slow down when we get caught up in trying to make amends or fix a bad situation. People who firmly believe that they know best are people who need the kind of hard comeuppances that so many characters receive in this novel.
And I am so relieved that I am not one of the characters in Such a Fun Age.