Come and Get It by Kiley Reid


Review by George Yatchisin

Kiley Reid’s second novel Come and Get It might appear to be a campus-set comedy of manners, but the joke will be on you if you think it’s only a satire of a self-involved academic/writer and a gaggle of coeds who lean on the phrase ohmygod a lot. It’s not that Reid fails to deliver witty insights about life at the University of Arkansas in 2017. For instance, at one point she describes her most sympathetic character Millie as follows: “She stood bright-eyed in her red RA polo with the posture of a zookeeper who feeds sea lions for a crowd.” But Reid has much more on her mind than pointing out character quirks, consumerist obsession, and social peccadillos.

The academic, Agatha Paul, is a visiting professor teaching nonfiction and cultural and media studies, who gets most obsessed researching the young women of Belgrade (really its name, and it is not a choice housing location) dorm, first examining their thoughts on marriage, only to pivot to exploring their ideas about money. That’s a hint—the novel limns what one can and should do for money, but without any preachiness.

But it’s Paul’s first book, Satellite Grief, that turns out to be the crucial connection bringing characters together. Reid holds out what that provocatively titled book is about until about two-thirds of the way into Come and Get It—up to that point we only know the saddest sack character Kennedy has a dog-eared copy of it by her dorm bedside. When Reid finally lays out both Agatha’s and Kennedy’s tragic back stories, it’s clear how serious a world she’s constructed. Generally when reviewing a book I take copious notes, but this time I just got swept away by the power of the tale, caught in the noose of its emotions. The book embodies that painful, precise line from Renoir’s Rules of the Game: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.”

Kennedy is a crux of that realization. Early in the book she’s seems a milquetoast overprotected by her mom, struggling to adjust to life as a transfer student. Her social anxiety over friend-making boils down to the claim, “Ten minutes was never enough time to figure out how to be a person.” It doesn’t hurt how much we can all feel that way some (most?) of the time. Or maybe it does.

It’s easy to find her pitiable. She puts a “This Must Be the Place” sign on her room door, but a suite-mate discovers Kennedy doesn’t know of the Talking Heads. They’d be too hip for her; her naïve melody is that she hasn’t found her place yet. She does harbor a deep hurt, though, as a flashback to her one boyfriendish moment—“He smelled wonderful, like deodorant and stadium seating”—ends in disaster. Her need to transfer colleges is much dire than we might have imagined upon first meeting her.

Of all things, her sad tale makes her want to be a writer. It’s not just therapy, it’s a way to respond to social media run amok in her life. Plus, as the writing TA who eggs her on puts it, “If anything, I’m more jealous of your trauma.” The TA helps edit Kennedy’s draft and it awakens her to the notion of craft, if in a very in character way, “Kennedy hadn’t considered it before, that to write something beautiful you just do it regular, and then you pull out a red pen.”

Who controls your narrative might be an old trope, but in a book where race is ever bubbling just under the surface, it’s just one more way of recasting the master-slave relationship. While African-American Millie can wave away her charges calling Belgrade a “ghetto” dorm, she’s also obsessed with buying her own house, and saving the money to do that. Agatha semi-unscrupulously figures out a way to listen in on students’ chatter without them knowing, and then sells their stories—doctored to read even better—as a running column in Teen Vogue. For a whole host of reasons, it’s Millie who ends up the most betrayed by becoming mere fodder for one of Agatha’s columns. Tellingly Agatha fails to mention Millie’s race in that piece.

It’s not a huge jump to wonder how much Reid lets Agatha Paul be her stand-in. Paul gets to manipulate all the coeds’ stories, spying on them to do so, yet it’s Reid who creates this fictional world entirely. From her acknowledgments she put a lot of effort into getting that milieu right, as she had interviewed 30 people for details on RA life, working at Starbucks, performing as a collegiate featured twirler and fire girl, and more. Her three main characters “came” to her from books with wonky titles like Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything and Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics.

As informed as Reid is about her subject, it’s always her care with her characters that provides the book’s gravitas. How much we get the twenty-four-year-old Millie with the line: “Instead of social media apps, she was always on Zillow.” How much Agatha softens for us, especially if you’ve ever lived in the center of this country, when we learn: “She sat on her porch during lightning storms. She watched with wet feet as the tornado siren wailed.” How much we wish Kennedy more than comfort in crap from K-Mart.

It’s easy to be a bit in awe of how much Kiley Reid must have wielded her red pen, turning the pages of Come and Get It into something so regular, so beautiful.