Not enough restaurants in New York are below street level. It’s a shame, really, because there’s no better vantage point from which to wait for someone, stare out the windows at fast-walking passers-by, try to guess which disembodied lower halves will stop and run down the stairs and walk through the door, knowing that one of those pairs of legs might belong to the person you’re expecting, or a complete stranger, or something in between, maybe an ex-boyfriend?
In Sloane Crosley’s new novel, Cult classic, meeting an ex in a restaurant sets in motion the plot of our protagonist, Lola, an ill-hired and underemployed New Yorker in her late thirties. But while a chance encounter with an old flame could be considered a random New York-is-really-just-a-small-town-isn’t-it moment, and two such encounters could lead to a terse pronunciation, “only in New York”, what happens when there is a third?
That’s when Lola – understandably – begins to get suspicious, and not only wonder where all these exes are coming from, but also what the sudden re-emergence of these characters from her past says to what point she feels out of place in her very confusing present.
“I really wanted to pay a smart tribute to that part of all of our lives,” Crosley told me over coffee one gray morning this spring. “She’s not sure what she should do; and what she fights is the humiliation of this dirty secret of how much she clings to the past, which everyone does in this restaurant.
While the restaurant we’re sitting in – The Smile – is below street level and therefore ideal for unexpected confrontations, it’s nowhere near as hip as the one where Lola stumbles upon her old flames (this place serves things like General Tso’s soufflé, while The Smile has a quinoa banana muffin that Crosley and I shared), and there were no accidental exes that I noticed. But, there’s no doubt that Crosley was right: everyone clung to their past to one degree or another. That’s what people do, whether they like it or not.
Digging into his own past is something Crosley has accomplished with lucidity and biting wit in a trio of essay collections, beginning with 2008 I was told there would be cake, in which she walks the tightrope of exploring personal experiences in a way that resonates deeply with readers, but also rarely gives the kind of details that actually make up who a person is; she is generous as a writer, but never erased.
The past, both personal and historical, is also at the center of his first novel, 2015 The claspwhich follows three college friends who are now in their 30s, drifting aimlessly and dealing with the kind of existential crises that often arise after attending a lower-level friend’s wedding – the kind that, you know, can’t be resolved only by, say, a crazy trip to France and a lucid assessment of exactly where they went wrong in their lives.
More than his addictively entertaining voice, however, what Crosley’s books have in common is a scrutiny and then rejection of nostalgia, a refusal to be swept up in the kind of preciousness that can make a writing feel like is trapped behind glass; something to admire, but not really feel. This rejection of the obvious is not only present in Cult classicit’s actually amplified, like she wants to confront some of the most cliched things to explore in literature head-on – love and New York City – and make them feel fresh again, make them feel feel worthy of rediscovery.
More than his entertaining and addictive voice, what Crosley’s books have in common is a careful examination and then rejection of nostalgia.
Crosley grew up in White Plains, a suburb about half an hour north of New York (not the kind where people have tennis courts in their backyards, she mentioned), but she lives in the city for more than two decades now, and is an expert at capturing its energy, constant and calibrated chaos – the “deluge”, as she puts it.
Crosley knows the streets of downtown Manhattan like the back of her hand, and she’s used that specificity to good effect in Cult classic, tracing the unique wrinkles of the city to evoke a home for Lola that’s done enough for anyone to slip into, no matter where they’re from. “Someone once told me that bees aren’t meant to fly, their wings are out of proportion to their bodies, and physically measurements don’t work,” she said. “But they do fly. And likewise, getting hyper-detailed information about the streets you’re dealing with, down to the block, is more relevant.
Crosley’s attention to detail doesn’t stop at the city streets, of course – each of the exes Lola meets is so finely drawn that it’s hard not to think they were based on very different people. specific. But, Crosley laughed as he talked about what it was like to make up the exes. “They were so fun to play with,” she said. “It was like playing with dolls…I had the most enjoyable time decorating some of these men as Christmas trees, which is a mixed metaphor for anyone obsessed with the Holocaust.”
In the hour or so that we speak, allusions to both man-made and natural horrors spice up our conversation in a way that seems oddly, perhaps, perfectly appropriate compared to a book that, even if it involves a mysterious cult that is “not a cult” which is a big part of the reason for all of Lola’s ex-dating – is still, Crosley pointed out “a comedy”. But, funny as Cult classic it’s also a reminder that it’s possible to live your life as if you don’t own it, to wake up one day and not know if what you have is really yours, or just a unsuitable rental. And then try to fix it.
For Lola, the discomfort with her life has become palpable – she is emotionally disconnected from her fiancé, frustrated with a career that is going nowhere (she works in the media, so yes), and really feels like she can be herself with her friends. It’s no wonder she embraces the distraction of finding out why she keeps meeting 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, as if she had no right to feel this way.
And yet, as Crosley pointed out to me, “She’s young in New York, isn’t she? It’s like being famous in New York,” she laughed. “But, everyone feels a little messier for longer than they’re allowed to admit, and I wanted to give a more serious and hopefully smart treatment to this whole arena of life that gets swept under the table for most people past 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 wondering if what they were doing was the good 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 have the feel like you think you’re too old for a certain thing, but you’re somehow never too old to be bullshit.
“Everyone feels a little messier for longer than they’re allowed to admit, and I wanted to give a more serious and hopefully smart treatment to this whole arena of life.”
And here then so much bullshit, so much trash that we end up accumulating (Lola, for her part, has been accused of being a “people hoarder”), that we will do anything to find a way through it all. In Cult classic, the only way out may well be the Golconda, an organization that is housed in a ramshackle old synagogue filled with rats and is definitely “not a cult”. It offers people a kind of immersion therapy with their past and the opportunity to confront what is no longer theirs so they can better embrace what they currently have. In the contemporary language of well-being, it proposes closure.
But then what? Closure – especially in the form of happily ever after – is a fairly familiar conclusion to most love stories (and many New York stories, for that matter), and no doubt satisfying to many. people. That doesn’t sound very honest. There is no end to love in the same way that it is impossible to ever really know New York; it’s not even that happy endings don’t exist, more that an ending doesn’t need to end for it to be happy. Or, as Lola thinks, “if the closure exists, there is no problem. You have to find it by letting the doors swing open, trusting that if the hinges were meant to be locks, well, they would be locks.
Indeed, what Crosley explores 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 present and honor it by not pretending that it is is ever produced. Maintaining a small electric jolt, a lightning charge, is something Crosley is supernaturally good at; it is something that is felt in all her books, as she oscillates between serious subjects and sly jokes; it’s something you feel in conversation with her, the instant feeling of conspiratorial closeness; and it’s something that can be felt in Cult classica beautifully messy romantic thriller that can sometimes seem unbelievable, but is never less than aggressively real, just like love, just like New York.
Crosley was clear when she told me that she doesn’t think piling up without intention or staying close to every ex is a healthy way to get through life, but she said, after apologizing for having quoted his own book, “I think leaving the door open and not slamming it is healthier than that pressure to forget everyone you’ve known once you’ve fallen in love. I think it’s really disrespectful to your own life and love and New York.