Review: Sloane Crosley’s romantic caper novel ‘Cult Classic’

On the shelf

‘cult classic’

By Sloane Crosley
MCD: 304 pages, $27

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The opening essay of Sloane Crosley’s best-selling debut I Was Told There’d Be Cake is about a random collection of toy ponies that Crosley had been given over the years by men she dated. If a guy said, “I have something for you,” she would reply, “Is it a pony?” Although she credits her horse joke as “a nervous quirk and a cheap joke,” she also notes that “I’m on our second.” Date, if I ask again, I’m pretty sure I’ll get a pony.” She can’t throw them away and lets them stew in a drawer. She’s too nostalgic to get rid of, too embarrassed to show.

The Pony Problem captures many of the qualities that distinguish Crosley’s plays from the 21st-century essay glut. It’s funny and honest and emotionally resonant, and it sets the template for much of her writing: she uses a very specific and accessible premise (ponies) to explore underlying themes (her ex-boyfriends, her past, which are sometimes adorable and sometimes… depressing conventions of romanticism) ).

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 30s who, like Crosley, works in the media and struggles to contextualize and break away from her past relationships. She’s engaged to a solid but predictable guy she calls Boots, with whom she “made an agreement never to talk about our ex-boyfriends unless absolutely necessary,” which is disconcerting for someone who, as she puts it, has “received smaller denominations from the ATM romance” than others.”

"Cult Classic" by Sloane Crosley

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

One night while out with friends in Chinatown, Lola meets one of those five-dollar ex-boyfriends. The following night, while dining out again at the same restaurant (because a visiting friend read about it), Lola meets another ex. The day after, while accompanying her friend Vadis while running errands for her celebrity boss, Lola spots one other former lovers. Initially confused by these chance encounters, she soon realizes that they are not coincidences at all.

Lola and Vadis worked together for an editor-in-chief named Clive for a magazine called Modern Psychology, which is now defunct but was once “the preeminent psychology magazine in the world.” Since the magazine shut down, Clive has blossomed into “a full-blown psycho guru” who has “posted quotes from Carl Jung on social media” and briefly hosted his own TV show. Now Lola learns that Clive has started a new company together with Vadis called Golconda, a secret company run from an abandoned synagogue.

The premise behind the Golconda is a kind of remix of David Fincher’s The Game, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Through “a combination of subliminal messaging mixed with meditation” and a heavy dose of social media scrutiny, Clive’s Cabal is able to offer clients the opportunity to engage with their romantic stories through elaborately arranged encounters. A package called “In Flight,” for example, ensures that a client is “sitting next to an ex every time you get on a plane.” Unbeknownst to Lola, she has experienced the “classic” – a guinea pig chosen for her closeness and crowded love life.

Lola is outraged by the deceit, manipulation, and downright creepiness of the project, but she agrees to continue participating (and even speaking up after each clash) because her “devotion to the past” borders on obsession. If she wants to marry Boots, it’s best to reckon with her romantic history before embarking on her marital future. Is Boots the smart, stable choice after years of irreconcilable suitors? Or is it a boring over-correction of an endless series of interesting failures? Who gets the chance to graduate with the help of a well-funded secret society?

Crosley’s first novel, The Clasp, was a caper that split its narrative between three protagonists in the third person. “Cult Classic” uses the same first person style as her essays, leading to a more intimate dynamic between reader and narrator. Lola is observant, cynical, and so self-aware it’s difficult to get ahead – an observed pot who refuses to cook. “No separation,” she argues at one point, “is complete until you dig like a pair of truffle-sniffing pigs to find out what happened.” Constant self-examination, even when done seriously, can be a form of stagnation, especially when the stakes are as high as Lola imagines.

“That’s how romantic love stays alive, isn’t it?” she argues. “Like it dizziness themselves in sensation. Romance is perhaps the oldest cult in the world. It ties you up when you’re vulnerable, holds your deepest fears as security, renames you something like “baby,” brainwashes you, and then makes you think your soul will wither and die when you let go of a person who loved you.”

Lola’s wit and cleverness make her a brilliant storyteller, but it’s her emotional honesty that makes her a strong one. Crosley’s writing is as witty as ever, with a great line or wise observation on almost every page. (“May our gaslights light up the bridges we burn!”) The absurdity of the premise is made palatable by Lola’s natural skepticism, allowing Crosley to enjoy orchestrating the plot’s twists and turns. As in her essays, her intriguing ideas – entertaining and engaging in their own right – are the engines of the narrative, but her insights into contemporary life are the fuel.

The only minor misstep occurs at the ending, which while presented as cheerful, turns sombre instead. Lola’s narration instead seems to have led to a less resolved place that more closely resembles life in its disarray. I prefer the ending of The Pony Problem. Crosley eventually 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 be speaking with Judy Greer about her new novel on June 16 at 7:30 p.m. at the Mark Taper Auditorium Central Library Review: Sloane Crosley’s romantic caper novel ‘Cult Classic’

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