Criticism of the power of money on an American campus

Criticism of the power of money on an American campus

Student Jenna, giggling, wraps a blanket around herself: ‘I look like a cute refugee.’ Jenna, Casey and Peyton live in the Belgrade student complex at the University of Arkansas. Prosperous, predominantly white women, who live on their parents’ money. One receives a monthly check from her father’s dental practice, a ‘practice salary’. Millie is just disgusted by it. She is the 24-year-old resident assistant at a wealthy university in Arkansas, one of the few black women on campus and the main character of Kiley Reid’s second novel Come and Get It.

Millie has to work really hard to keep her head above water. She saves diligently, she wants to buy a house as soon as possible. In turn, the white students label Millie as ‘a bit ghetto.’ Then 37-year-old professor Agatha Paul arrives on campus. She is a visiting professor and wants to investigate the financial situation of students. She and Millie conspire against the coddled girls: Agatha pays Millie weekly, in exchange for which she can eavesdrop on them from Millie’s room. She processes their out-of-touch comments into a column for Teen Vogue – without the students knowing. The columns become a hit, but at what cost?

Where does the money come from?

Kiley Reid addresses major social themes in her books. Also her first novel Such a Fun Age (2019) was about a young black woman accused of kidnapping her white babysitter. The novel exposed American racial and class inequality, themes that Reid addressed Come and Get It treated again. Instead of racism, this time she focuses on money: who has it, where does it come from and how far are people willing to go to get it?

It’s an interesting starting point and Reid lays the foundation for a profound critique of the power of money and skin color within American campus culture. Yet the novel never really gets off the ground. Reid meanders, elaborating for pages on characters who then turn out to have no impact on the plot. The girls on campus are deliberately smug and superficial, but they never really come alive. Reid writes in a hyper-realistic style: every microscopic movement of her characters is described, no detail is spared. She sprinkles liberally with brand names (La Croix, Target, Lululemon) and trends (balayage hair, frozen yogurt, a capsule wardrobe), which make it clear to the informed reader who her characters are but are inscrutable to others.

This style is most reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991), but in Come and Get It it is used less effectively. American Psycho parodied the hypermaterialism of New York in the 1990s, main character Patrick Bateman’s lengthy descriptions of designer clothes, fonts on business cards and menus of hip restaurants serve to lull the reader to sleep, masking the dark plot. The abundance of brands and descriptions of clothing, food and music deliberately distracts from the horrors beneath the glamorous surface.

Come and Get It is also about wealth and greed, but cannot be called a psychological thriller. In this case there are no actual horrors hidden beneath the story. Reid’s characters, in all their superficiality, remain stuck right there: on the surface. The book culminates in an unexpectedly violent climax, but does not gradually build towards this. The rest of Come and Get It does not hint at darkness, the satirical tone does not mask a deeper darkness. The conflict with which it ends has little to do with the theme of the rest of the novel – the reason is a clash between two students that is hardly related to the money theme. Come and Get It is an ambitious book, but does not deliver on its promises. The reader is left unsatisfied, without really having learned anything about the power of money, but with a lot of new knowledge about the brands that are popular among American youth.