Review: Sloane Crosley’s romantic caper novel “Cult Classic”
On the bookshelf
By Sloane Crosley
MCD: 304 pages, $27
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The opening essay of Sloane Crosley’s first bestseller, “I Was Told There Would Be Cake,” involves an accidental collection of toy ponies that Crosley had received over the years from men with whom she was going out. If a guy said, “I got something for you,” she would say, “Is that a pony? Although she refers to her equine joke as “a nervous tic and a cheap joke”, she also notes that “on our second date, if I ask again, I’m pretty sure I’ll have a pony”. Unable to throw them away, she lets them rot in a drawer. She’s too nostalgic to get rid of them, too embarrassed to display them.
“The Pony Problem” captures many of the qualities that set Crosley’s plays apart from the glut of 21st century personal essays. It’s funny and honest and emotionally resonant, and it sets the pattern for much of her writing: she uses a very specific and accessible premise (the ponies) to dissect the underlying themes (her exes, her past, the sometimes delightful and sometimes depressing conventions of romance).
It also feels like it could have been written by the protagonist of Crosley’s second novel, “Cult Classic.” Lola is a Manhattanite in her late thirties who, like Crosley, works in the media and struggles to contextualize and move on from her previous relationships. She’s engaged to a tough but predictable guy she calls Boots, with whom she has “an agreement to never talk about our exes unless absolutely necessary”, which is troubling for someone who, like she says, received “smaller denominations from the romantic ATM”. that others.”
One night, while out with some friends in Chinatown, Lola runs into one of those five-dollar ex-boyfriends. The next night, while dining at the same restaurant again (because a visiting friend read about it), Lola meets another ex. The next day, while accompanying her friend Vadis as she runs errands for her socialite boss, Lola spots another former lover. At first disconcerted by these fortuitous encounters, she quickly discovers that they are not coincidences at all.
Lola and Vadis worked together for a magazine called Modern Psychology, now defunct but once “the world’s preeminent psychology periodical”, for an editor named Clive. Since the magazine’s closure, Clive has become “a full-fledged psyche guru” who “posted Carl Jung quotes on social media” and briefly hosted his own television show. Now, Lola learns, Clive, along with Vadis, has started a new business called Golconda, a secret business run by an abandoned synagogue.
The premise behind the Golconda is a kind of remix of “The Game” by David Fincher, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” by Michel Gondry. Using “a combination of subliminal messaging mixed with meditation” and a heavy dose of social media monitoring, Clive’s cabal can offer clients the chance to grapple with their romantic stories via carefully curated encounters. A package called “In Flight”, for example, guarantees that a customer will be “seated next to an ex every time you board a plane”. Unbeknownst to Lola, she has experienced the “Classic” – a guinea pig chosen for his closeness and busy love life.
Lola is outraged by the deception, manipulation, and creepiness of the project, but she agrees to continue participating (and even report after each run-in) because her “devotion to the past” borders on obsession. If she is marrying Boots, it would be best to consider her love history before committing to her marital future. Is Boots the smart and stable choice after years of incompatible suitors? Or is he a boring over-correction of an endless series of interesting failures? Who, after all, is lucky enough to find the solution with the help of a well-funded secret society?
Crosley’s first novel, “The Clasp,” was a coaxing one that split its third-person narration between three protagonists. “Cult Classic” uses the same first-person style as its essays, resulting in a more intimate dynamic between reader and narrator. Lola is observant, cynical, and so self-aware that she makes progress difficult—a watched pot that refuses to boil. “No breakup,” she argues at one point, “is complete until you dig in like a pair of truffle-sniffing pigs to find out what happened.” Constant self-examination, even when done in earnest, can be a form of stagnation, especially when the stakes are as high as Lola imagines.
“That’s how romantic love keeps from dying out, isn’t it?” she argues. “What do you mean scam itself in sensibility. Romance is perhaps the oldest cult in the world. It hooks you up when you’re vulnerable, takes your deepest fears as collateral, renames you something like “baby”, brainwashes you, then makes you think your soul will wither and die if you let go of a person who loves you.
Lola’s wit and sense make her a great storyteller, but it’s her emotional honesty that makes her a strong storyteller. Crosley’s writing is funnier than ever, with a nice line or clever observation on nearly every page. (“May our gas lamps light the bridges we’re burning!”) The absurdity of the premise is made palatable by Lola’s natural skepticism, which allows Crosley to have fun orchestrating plot twists. As in his essays, his fascinating conceits – entertaining and compelling in themselves – drive the narrative, but his insights into contemporary life are the fuel.
The only slight misstep occurs at the conclusion, which is presented as happy but manages to be dark instead. Lola’s narrative seems to have instead led to a less resolved place, more like life in its mess. I prefer the end of “The Pony Problem”. Crosley ultimately decides to collect the plastic ponies in a bag, take them to the subway, leave them under a seat, and never look back.
Clark is the author of “An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom” and the upcoming “Skateboard”.
Crosley will talk about his new novel with Judy Greer at the Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library on June 16 at 7:30 p.m.