CULT CLASSIC, by Sloane Crosley
Of the several common New York nightmares I’m afraid of — like tripping down the subway stairs, being touched on my bare skin by a rat or sweating so hard in the summer that my eyeliner ends up on my chest — running into an ex is high on my list. It is a unique kind of horror story, one that oddly promises a juicy little thrill, but a horror all the same. Just because something’s titillating and a little bit exciting and holds the promise of something illicit and fulfilling doesn’t mean it isn’t terrifying.
In her second novel, “Cult Classic,” Sloane Crosley presents that nightmare in delicious, spooky detail. It’s a book about regret, about hoping you made the right choice, about the noxious power of our memories, but also about one of the worst things a woman can do in a big city: date men. Look, some of us can’t help it, despite our best efforts.
Crosley’s protagonist is Lola, a 30-something New York-based magazine editor who seems to be languishing — she’s engaged to a man she calls “Boots,” but she’s largely unsatisfied with him. He’s not as vivacious as her many exes; he doesn’t seem to whip her up the way she wants. “Even in the moments I wanted to kill him for being too passive, I could see the headline: ‘Woman Murders 40-Year-Old Disease-Free Man with 401(k): Waste,’” Lola says about the man no one is forcing her to marry.
But, strangely enough, she starts running into her ex-boyfriends all over the place, coincidences that prove not to be coincidental. When her best friend brings her to a meeting of a high-concept cult, run by her magnetic yet enigmatic former boss, Lola realizes these run-ins are by design. The cult is putting exes in her path, clearly with the intention of teaching her something.
The novel’s happenings are conceptual, but the feelings it inspires are pretty universal. There’s a thick ooze of malaise throughout, a pleasing sinking feeling of dread and desire and compulsion. The plot of “Cult Classic” feels less important than the writing — the story sags a bit in the middle — but Crosley’s prose crackles throughout. She refers to the daily traumas of life as “gashes,” and that’s what her writing seems like sometimes: little slashes on your skin that hurt and tickle at the same time.
The novel reads like a memoir — which makes sense, considering that Crosley is the author of three essay collections in addition to her first novel, “The Clasp.” Her writing dela defines the diverse list of small grievances and indignities that come with trying to date men. For instance, consider the rules they post on dating profiles: “No taking oneself too seriously. NO DRAMA! Men who demanded a woman have a sense of humor but showed no signs of being funny.” They are “so many bloodless creatures who wanted all my blood, who offered nothing of themselves in return.”
Reading “Cult Classic” is reminiscent of watching “Russian Doll.” It’s a discomfiting experience that you can’t stop engaging in, like grinding your molars until they hurt in a good way. If you’ve had the recent displeasure of dating in New York, or dating in general, or if your past keeps coming back to haunt you, the book may give you déjà vu. Every interaction Lola has with an ex throws her into an emotional time machine, forcing her to reckon with whatever soured the romance, or whatever she didn’t give, or whatever she didn’t receive. It’s a good thing “Cult Classic” is so funny, because otherwise it would be kind of bleak.
“Everyone is living separate narratives,” a woman tells Lola. “Marriage is agreeing to live in someone else’s narrative.” Just brutal; I’d perhaps not recommend this novel for anyone experiencing cold feet before a wedding. (Or maybe it’s exactly what I’d recommend; depends on the couple.)
The key here is a throbbing, urgent ambivalence: Does Lola want to be married, really? Does she want to connect with another person, or is she just looking to get high off the rush of falling in lust? How can anyone make a grand decision about her life if the paths not taken keep popping back up? One thing is for sure: You never really escape your past. You just learn to live around it, or, if you’re lucky, you learn how to make peace with it instead.
Scaachi Koul’s second essay collection, “I Hope Lightning Falls on You,” will be published next year.
CULT CLASSIC, by Sloane Crosley | 304 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $27