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Week Eight: Such a Fun Age

We’re wrapping up our July reading with the conclusion of Such a Fun Age. Then it’s your turn to decide which of this month’s book heads to our end-of-summer finale.

Welcome to Camp ToB 2020, the summer reading program from the Tournament of Books. This summer, we’re reading six works of fiction from 2020—two books per month, two weeks per book—that the ToB fandom chose by popular vote. Each week we read half of one novel and talk it out on Wednesdays, joined in the booth by a member of the Commentariat—our Activity Leaders, in Camp parlance—to discuss our progress. At the close of each month you’ll decide which of the two books advances to our end-of-summer championship, where you’ll pick one of our three finalists to win an automatic berth in the 2021 Tournament of Books.

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Andrew Womack: The second half of Such a Fun Age starts off with a bang, picking up after Emira and Kelley arrive at Alix’s house on Thanksgiving, when Alix and Kelley see each other for the first time since their cringeworthy breakup in high school. Following a Thanksgiving dinner in which the least awkward moment is when three-year-old Briar vomits at the table, Emira becomes caught between Alix and Kelley’s intense, unresolved dislike toward each other, which eventually spirals into Alix’s deranged plan to win Emira’s devotion by: 1) accessing Emira’s email (after Emira forgot to log out of her account on Alix’s computer); 2) stealing the Market Depot video that Kelley shot of Emira being accosted by a white shopper and a security guard; and 3) leaking it to the internet in order to offer Emira a shoulder to cry on—and a full-time job.

Once the video goes viral, Emira breaks up with Kelley, believing he was responsible for the leak, then agrees to a live TV interview with Alix, who sees this as a chance to reclaim her spotlight in the media. During the interview, Emira rejects the job offer by telling Alix—in a rehash of the line Kelley delivered to Alix when he broke up with her 15 years ago: “I think it best we went our separate ways, and that those paths never crossed again.” A very well-earned burn.

Now let’s get into our discussion of Such a Fun Age—which was just long listed for the Booker Prize, by the way—with this week’s Activity Leader, Jennifer Bennett! Hi Jennifer, and welcome to Camp ToB. Let’s begin with you introducing yourself to the campers.

Jennifer Bennett: I live in Charlotte, NC, with my husband and two teenage sons. We are walking distance from an independent bookstore that we visit regularly. Notwithstanding the rise of online sales, I still enjoy the feeling of a bookseller hand-selling me a new book I would never find on my own. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory came to me that way.

Andrew: What are your reading habits?

Jennifer: Reading has always been important to me, personally and professionally. As an only child, I lost myself in many books, finding some of my best friends there. Some that come to mind are Meg Murry, Alice in Wonderland, Huckleberry Finn, and Jo March. As a corporate attorney in-house at a large bank, I read almost all day long and want to “overwrite” that work reading in my leisure time by escaping into a good book. I prefer fiction and read across most genres. I discovered the Tournament of Books in 2013, and drew many great books from its brackets, including The Overstory, A Little Life, The Tsar of Love and Techno, and A Tale for the Time Being. Despite the genre, I am intrigued most by the quality of the narrator’s voice particularly when representing the marginalized or misunderstood.

Andrew: Well, let’s see how Such a Fun Age compares! Let’s start with the Thanksgiving scene with Emira, Kelley, and Alix. Slightly awkward! What did you think?

Jennifer: Early in the book, I recognized the inevitability of Emira’s and Alix’s shared connection to Kelley coming to light, but I was surprised by the cringeworthy drama over which it unfolded. I had not thought of it until Kelley and Alix came face to face on Alix’s front stoop, but Alix and Emira both had suffered a potentially traumatic experience revolving around Kelley and race, but with remarkably telling differences. For Alix, she allowed herself to be shaped permanently by the visit from Kelley’s friends and her overreaction by involving the police. She took great lengths to hide the experience and represent herself as the new lifestyle influencer Alix. Therefore, her reacquaintance with Kelley was dramatic. It crumbled her facade and exposed her for who she really is: a shallow, fake, and insincere person trying to be deep, compassionate, and authentic.

Andrew: For anyone who hasn’t read the book, when Alix and Kelley were dating back in high school, Alix invited Kelley over while her parents were out of town. A bunch of Kelley’s friends, including Robbie, a star Black athlete, showed up thinking there was a party at Alix’s house. Alix ended up calling the police, whereupon Robbie was arrested and ended up losing his scholarship.

Jennifer: Emira, on the other hand, takes the reunion of Kelley and Alix and revelation of their past relationship much in stride and turns her attention, as she has throughout the book, to actually parenting Briar, something Alix lacks the selflessness or commitment to do. What the Thanksgiving debacle showed me is the depth of Emira’s connection to the world around her—although she seems to shrug it off at times—and the utter out-of-touch experience of Alix and her besties. The scene from this trainwreck that best epitomizes these differences comes as Alix relives her attraction and infatuation with Kelley, while Emira senses another explosive development: Briar hurling into a napkin—and Emira getting under her mouth from across the table in the nick of time. The book builds much of the emotional development of these characters through evocative details that show the reader who they are rather than telling us. I rapidly read through the Thanksgiving scene to gather the trail of rich details that would help me see and understand how Alix, Kelley, and Emira are going to act going forward.

Andrew: This is a great point. When that front door opened, it shone a light on everyone’s true character. As ever, Emira is dedicated to Briar. So let’s talk about the end. Or, at least, how we got there. What did you think of the entire email-snooping and video-leaking drama?

Jennifer: It is hard to determine whether Alix is so selfishly driven to control her circumstances or so pathetically insecure that she will sacrifice others’ dignity and autonomy just to feel better. It all really started when she called the police to get Robbie out of her pool in high school, landing him in jail. I think that was a spontaneous reaction, but she gained sophistication if not maturity as she aged. Alix’s text and email snooping is inexcusable in its own right, but the fact that she accessed the Market Depot video through these clandestine tactics and then orchestrated its release so she could star in a news feature about the events so clearly shows her willingness to step on the backs of anyone around her to get a leg up. Not unlike the incident in high school, Alix comports herself as though she was protecting her family and driven necessarily to do what she did. As she tells Kelley, “If you think I’m going to sit back while you try to look cool with someone who is like family to me, you’re crazy. If you’re still okay fetishizing black people like you did in high school, fine. Just don’t pull that shit with my sitter.”

Interesting that Alix refers to family as “my sitter,” more of a suggestion of ownership than emotional connection. Of course, I have a hard time imagining what it even means to be considered family by Alix after she leaves Catherine at home alone to reclaim her sitter from Kelley. Does it seem to you that no one really expects much from Emira? There are doubts about her ability to move into a more meaningful job, and Alix, Kelley, and even her friends at times come down on Emira in a way that left me wondering what was really going on with her. Well, she really got the best of everyone with her full time job with benefits and her slam at the end of the TV interview: “I just think it would be best if we went our separate ways and…that those paths never like…came back together.” A great two-fer as she breaks her ties with Alix and Kelley.

Andrew: I hadn’t thought much about others’ expectations of Emira, but you bring up a really interesting point. I think there’s a general dismissal of her ambitions and interests and really, her humanity. At Thanksgiving dinner, as the topic of the video from the night at Market Depot comes up, Emira says, “I would die if that video got out. I haven’t even watched it.” And then two of the people at that table—Alix and Tamra—disregard that statement entirely for their own purposes.

 

Alix Chamberlain is shocked when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is confronted while watching the Chamberlains’ toddler one night, walking the aisles of their local high-end supermarket. The store’s security guard, seeing a young black woman out late with a white child, accuses Emira of kidnapping the child. A small crowd gathers, a bystander films everything, and Emira is furious and humiliated. Alix resolves to make things right. But Emira herself is aimless, broke, and wary of Alix’s desire to help. When the video of Emira unearths someone from Alix’s past, both women find themselves on a crash course that will upend everything they think they know about themselves, and each other.

Book description excerpted from publisher’s summary and edited for length.

 

Jennifer: Everyone, even Emira, seems to doubt Emira. At first, I thought it was patronization by Alix as the white employer who knows so much better than Emira, but then even Emira’s friends seemed to be down on her. When they got together to celebrate her birthday, the gifts included a new phone case because the old one “is so tired and done. It wasn’t doing anything for our brand.” She also received interview shirts along with a lot of pressure to up her game in finding a new job. Emira’s friends weren’t mean-spirited but definitely intense about her apparent lack of drive. Alix, her friends, and Kelley were downright judgmental and abusive about the situation. Alix’s friend Tamra, who’s Black, said, “She doesn’t have the motivation to maintain a real career the way our girls will have.” What does that mean—that you have to be rich and in touch with influencers and a particular scene in New York to know where you are going in life? While all of these people in Emira’s circle condemn her apparent lack of ambition, they overlook how in touch she is with Briar and able to connect with and parent her in the absence of any such relationship from her biological family. It is not surprising how Emira does get her dream job, engaging with the child of her future employer at a fundraising event. And what I love is that dream job was Emira’s dream job, not her friends’, not Kelley’s, not anyone else’s. It brought joy to Emira and gave her the chance to be who she wanted to be. I found the last sentence of the book poignant as it wrapped up so many of the themes—finding yourself, being yourself, buying yourself—“Emria would carry the dread that if Briar ever struggled to find herself, she’d probably just hire someone to do it for her.”

Andrew: That line, to me, made the book. I liked the book up to this point, but that line brought an emotion home to me, where I felt like these characters were telling a bigger story than what was on the page. It blew open the story in a new way for me.

In fact, up to pretty much the end, a thought running through the back of my mind was that this is a real summer read—it’s sharp, it’s breezy, it’s fun to read. I liked it. But what is its relative “seriousness” as a book? What did you think about how this book balanced these very weighty—and serious—subjects with a narrative that’s fairly lighthearted at times?

Jennifer: I shared similar thoughts. During my pandemic quarantine, I have read Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout, Normal People by Sally Rooney, and Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman. Arguably, these books might each be described in the same way, but they also tackle tough topics. Authors can’t time their books’ publication with world events or even when we choose to read them, but each of these books and Such a Fun Age seem perfect pandemic reading. I want to be entertained, I want to escape, but I don’t want to check out completely, so the thought-provoking themes of these books give the reader something to take away and consider, perhaps again and again while trying to remember which day of the week it is. I don’t believe that difficult topics always need to be difficult to read and that a readable narrative may even make these topics more accessible and therefore more considered.

Andrew: Maybe this is the way to get that message across. I like that a lot. So let’s talk about the meaning of the book title. This came up in the comments for our discussion of the first half, about whether it refers to Alix’s age, or possibly Briar’s age, or even this current moment we live in—this age of racism caught on camera and of social feeds that influence society. What are your thoughts?

Jennifer: Publishing the book in 2019, Reid chose to set it in 2015 as the presidential run of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was taking hold in the country. I wonder if Reid was looking back at that time as “such a fun age.” I also see Alix and Emira as proxies for very different generations, cultures and races, each in her own way representing an age of women in the United States. In the end I feel the title is more sarcastic than declarative. I am not sure that Reid thinks any of the main characters was living a fun age.

I couldn’t stop thinking as I was reading the book how Reid brought strong, if not agreeable, voices to Alix and Emira. I was drawn to comparison with the voices of Ruth and Kennedy in Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things. Much has been made lately in literary criticism of the degree to which a fiction author must experience the events about which she or he writes. Recently published America Dirt by Jeanine Cummins and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell come to mind. In a work of fiction, if an author diligently researches and works to represent accurately and authentically the voices of key characters’ voices, I think that is a sign of craft, not appropriation. What do you think?

Andrew: I do think the controversies around those particular books actually do connect, in a way, with Such a Fun Age, in how Alix has appropriated a Black woman’s story for her own benefit. Likewise, Cummins is a white author who is profiting off stories of Latinx immigrants’ trauma. Russell is a white author who is alleged to have been overly influenced by Wendy C. Ortiz’s 2014 memoir, Excavation. Did those authors work to create those books? Sure. But it’s harder work when you’re not lifting narratives or trafficking in stereotypes and clichés.

I also wonder about platforms like Twitter, which certainly profits off videos like the one Kelley took of Emira being accosted at Market Depot, and there you have it again: more white people profiting off the trauma of Black and Brown people.

Jennifer: Your reference to social media does open the issue wide open, as any one of us can now “be” an author, a photo-journalist or a commentator. I guess I come from that “fun age” when I could believe that a personal story belonged to its subject and was his or hers to tell. With the proliferation of social media and the advent of cameras in the hands of everyone, we are all being photographed, filmed or talked about across these platforms, often without our knowledge. On the one hand, social justice may be served by the movement propelled through the video of the tragic killing of George Floyd. On the other hand, numerous cases are well documented of suicides, mostly young people, prompted by intense cyberbullying. For all the ambition or sophistication that people around Emira thought she lacked, she better than any of them understood the various ways the Market Depot video could be used or interpreted, many of them she felt not helpful to her. Maybe, in fact, Reid’s title is summed up by this quote: “And aside from a few YouTube compilations on Local News Interviews Gone Wrong, no one Emira’s age saw it.”

Andrew: This is some food for thought, for sure, and definitely some food for the Commentariat! But before we get to that, it’s time for everyone to vote on which of our two July reads—The Night Watchman or Such a Fun Age—should head to our end-of summer finale. Cast your vote in the poll below by Friday, July 31, at midnight Eastern Time, and we’ll see you in the comments!

 

 

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The Tournament of Books’ organizers Andrew Womack and Rosecrans Baldwin are TMN’s co-founders. Baldwin’s latest novel is The Last Kid Left. His next book, a work of creative nonfiction about the city-state of Los Angeles, is forthcoming in 2021 from MCD x FSG (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). More by The Tournament of Books Staff

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