Sloane Crosley on Writing a Novel For People Who Haven’t Figured It Out Yet
Kristin Iversen Talks to the Author of Cult Classic
Not enough of New York City’s restaurants sit below street level. It’s too bad, really, because there’s no better vantage point from which to wait for someone, looking up through the windows at the briskly walking passersby, trying to guess which disembodied lower-halves will stop and descend the stairs and come through the door, knowing that any of those pairs of legs might belong to the person you’re expecting, or a total stranger, or something in-between—maybe an ex-boyfriend?
In Sloane Crosley’s new novel, Cult Classic, running into an ex at a restaurant sets the plot in motion for our protagonist, Lola, an unhappily engaged, unhappily employed New Yorker in her late 30s. But while one chance encounter with a former flame might be written off as a random New York-is-really-just-a-small-town-isn’t-it moment, and two such encounters might lead to a tersely uttered, “only in New York,” what happens when there’s a third?
That’s when Lola—rightfully—starts to get suspicious, and not only question where all these exes are coming from, but also what the sudden reemergence of these figures from her past are saying about how out of place she feels in her very confusing present.
“I really wanted to pay intelligent tribute to this part of all our lives,” Crosley told me over coffee one gray morning this spring. “She has insecurity about what she should be doing; and what she is battling is humiliation over this dirty secret of how much she is holding on to the past, which is something that everyone in this restaurant is doing.”
While the restaurant we’re sitting in—The Smile—is below street level and thus ideal for unexpected confrontations, it’s nowhere near as trendy as the one where Lola happens upon her former flames (that spot serves things like General Tso’s souffle, whereas The Smile has a banana quinoa muffin that Crosley and I split), nor were there any accidental meetings between exes going on that I noticed. But, there’s no doubt that Crosley was right: everyone there was holding onto their past to one degree or another. It’s what people do, whether or not they want to.
Excavating her own past is something Crosley has accomplished with lucidity and mordant wit in a trio of essay collections, beginning with 2008’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake, in which she walks the tricky tightrope of mining personal experiences in a way that profoundly resonates with readers, but also rarely giving away the kind of details that actually make up who a person is; she’s generous as a writer, but never self-effacing.
The past, both personal and historical, is also a focus in her debut novel, 2015’s The Clasp, which follows three college friends who are now 30, aimlessly drifting and facing the kind of existential crises that often occur after attending a lower-tier friend’s wedding—the kind that, you know, can only be solved by, say, a madcap trip to France and a clear-eyed evaluation of just where exactly they went wrong in their lives.
More than just her addictively entertaining voice, though, what Crosley’s books have in common is a close examination and then dismissal of nostalgia, a refusal to be swept up in the kind of preciousness that can make some writing feel like it’s trapped behind glass; something to be admired, but not actually felt. This rejection of the obvious is not just present in Cult Classic, it’s actually amplified, as if she wanted to confront head-on a couple of the most cliche things to be explored in literature—love and New York City—and make them feel fresh again, make them feel worth rediscovering.More than just her addictively entertaining voice, though, what Crosley’s books have in common is a close examination and then dismissal of nostalgia.
Crosley grew up in White Plains, a suburb about half an hour north of New York City (not the kind where people have tennis courts in their backyards, she mentioned), but she’s lived in the city for over two decades now, and is an expert at capturing its energy, the constant, calibrated chaos—the “deluge,” as she put it.
Crosley knows the streets of downtown Manhattan like the palm of her hand, and she used this specificity to great effect in Cult Classic, tracing the city’s unique wrinkles to conjure up a home for Lola that is fully realized enough for anyone to slip into, no matter where they’re from. “Someone once told me that bees are not supposed to fly—that their wings are disproportionate to their bodies and just physically the measurements don’t work,” she said. “But, they do fly. And similarly, getting hyper-detailed about what streets you’re dealing with, down to the block, it’s more relatable.”
Crosley’s sharp attention to detail doesn’t end with city streets, of course—each of the exes that Lola runs into is so finely drawn that it’s hard not to think they were based on very specific people. But, Crosley laughed when talking about what it was like inventing the exes. “They were so fun to play with,” she said. “It was like playing with dolls… I had the most delightful time decorating some of these men like Christmas trees—which is a mixed metaphor for the one who’s obsessed with the Holocaust.”
In the hour or so that we talk, allusions to horrors both man-made and natural pepper our conversation in a way that strangely, perhaps, feels perfectly appropriate in relation to a book that—even if it involves a mysterious cult that’s “not a cult” which is a big part of the reason for all Lola’s ex-encounters—is still, Crosley stressed “a comedy.” But, funny as Cult Classic is, it’s also a reminder that it’s possible to live your life as if you have no ownership of it, to wake up one day and be unsure if what you have is really yours, or just an ill-suited rental. And then try and fix it.
For Lola, the discomfort with her life has grown palpable—she’s emotionally disconnected from her fiancé, frustrated with a career that isn’t going anywhere (she works in media, so, yeah), and only really feels like she can be herself with her friends. It’s no wonder that she embraces the distraction of finding out why she keeps encountering the kind of people from her past who know a version of her that no longer fully exists. She feels lost, but also, at 38, like she’s not allowed to feel that way.
And yet, as Crosley pointed out to me, “She’s New York young, right? It’s like being New York famous,” she laughed. “But, everyone feels like a little bit more of a mess for longer than they’re allowed to say, and I wanted to give a more serious, hopefully intelligent treatment to this entire arena of life that gets swept under the table for most people after a certain age.” She wanted to address the fact that, yes, it would be great if people had their lives together, and weren’t constantly questioning if what they were doing was the right thing, but, she added, “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think about their love life all the time, even if they’ve been married to the same person forever… You know, I feel like, you think you’re too old for a certain thing, but you’re sort of never too old to get caught up in bullshit.”
And there is so much bullshit, so much detritus we wind up accumulating (Lola, for one, has been accused of being a “people hoarder”), that we’ll do anything to figure out a way through it all. In Cult Classic, the only way out just might be through the Golconda, an organization that’s housed in a rundown, rat-filled former synagogue and is definitely “not a cult.” It offers people an immersion therapy of sorts with their pasts, and opportunity to confront what is no longer theirs so that they can more fully embrace what they currently have. In contemporary wellness parlance, it offers closure.
But, so what? Closure—especially in the form of a happily ever after—is a familiar enough conclusion to most stories about love (and for that matter, many stories about New York), and undoubtedly a satisfying one for many people. It just doesn’t feel very honest. There is no endpoint to love in the same way that it’s impossible to ever really know New York; it’s not even that happy endings don’t exist, more than an ending doesn’t have to end for it to be happy. Or, as Lola thinks, “if closure exists, it’s being okay with a lack of it. It’s to be found in letting the doors swing open, in trusting that if hinges were meant to be locks, well, then they’d be locks.”
In effect, what Crosley is exploring in Cult Classic is the importance of allowing yourself to sit in discomfort—not to suffer, but to squirm a little, to acknowledge the pain of the past and of the present and honor it by not pretending that it ever happened. Maintaining a little jolt of electricity, a lightning charge, is something Crosley is preternaturally good at doing; it’s something that can be felt in all her books, as she toggles back and forth between serious topics and sly jokes; it’s something that can be felt in conversation with her, the instant feeling of conspiratorial closeness; and it’s something that can be felt in Cult Classic, a beautifully messy romance-mystery-thriller that can feel unbelievable at times, but is never less than aggressively real—just like love, just like New York.
Crosley was clear when telling me that she doesn’t think accumulating without intention or staying close with every ex is a healthy way to go through life, but she said, after apologizing for quoting her own book, “I think letting the door swing open and not slamming it is healthier than this pressure to forget everyone you had ever known once you fall in love. I think that is really disrespectful to your own life.” And to love. And to New York.