Cult Classic by Sloane Crosley Book Review

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Dedicated to “the men,” Sloane Crosley’s second novel is an unromantic comedy that satirizes start-up culture, modern dating, urban aesthetes and other millenary woes. With her gift of precision, the author makes it clear: well, “some of the men”.

Crosley’s first books, I Was Told There’d Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number, were collections of essays reminiscent of Nora Ephron, filled with tender scenes laced with sharp wit, the emotional tenor of her humor carefully calibrated, almost as if informed by an algorithm. Her first novel, The Clasp, was about similar themes, played out by a group of 20-strong sophists.

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In Cult Classic, Crosley satirizes love in a time of searchable options, data trails, Instagram-enforced memory, an ever-present past. His heroine Lola, a never-endingly witty editor, is engaged to Boots, a glassblower who went to Brown and who, as Lola remarks on more than one occasion, is 6ft 3 tall – as if his physical presence still registered to her as one List of facts, a walking hinge dating app profile. Aside from those winning qualities, Boots doesn’t have Lola’s full attention. She is busy with a box full of letters from her ex-boyfriends, which she thinks about often; it doesn’t help that her personal pages and semi-pro headshots, her grids populated by newborn daughters, the more than lukewarm reviews of her lengthy second novels are just a few keystrokes away.

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Then, in a surreal way, Lola IRL presents the all-too-present past; Over the course of a few days, she encounters a number of her ex-boyfriends, each struggling to experience anything resembling closure. There’s Amos, a curmudgeon whose dislikes include smartphones, beaches, and throw pillows; there’s Willis, a former Olympian who now lives in the Midwest with a health coach; there’s Jonathan, Lola’s college friend with whom she traded tongue-in-cheek birthday cards and Polaroids, their relationship “hampered by cuteness”; there is Oscar; there is Phillip; there is Aaron; there is Knox; there is Pierre; there are others that pile up like events in a news feed, whose stories are flattened by the expediency with which Lola flies past them, their characters’ content squeezed into the palatable form of their (often very funny) reviews.

“Could I be with anyone I’ve ever dated if only I was one hair less judgmental?” Lola wonders. Being aware of her habits may protect her from the banal accusation of dislike. But their tendency to confuse men — or at least some of them — with a tangle of micro-angsts, crudely voiced demands for non-monogamy, and unevenly split scores takes away much of the love story’s meaning or fun: what does it matter if Lola with Boots ends when their relationship, like the others before it, can be boiled down to a few superficial qualities, his height and his friends pastimes of eating grain salads at park picnics?

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Crosley’s wit and fast-paced plots lend themselves better to some of the later scenes of “Cult Classic,” set in a marble-laden opening room in an abandoned synagogue that serves espresso, but most importantly no cold-pressed juice. Here we learn that Lola’s ex-meetings were no coincidence, but part of a plan hatched by her former flirtation partner Clive, “a Fitzgeraldian character with a terrible carbon footprint.” The two worked together at a now-defunct magazine, Modern Psychology, which inspired him to start a business using Lola as an unwitting test subject. Could Immersion Therapy Cure Nostalgia and Romantic Indecisiveness? Hard to say. “It’s not rocket science,” notes Clive. “I mean it’s not that Science Neither does science.” His candor is charming, and his charm attracts a team of workers whose commitment verges on willful exploitation. “I would do it for free,” enthuses one of his buddies. To which an outraged Lola replies, “You do do this for free.”

The cult-like quality of companies that offer camaraderie rather than decent wages is an ideal subject for Crosley, who skewers the setup but gives those who fall for it a warm look. After the decline of modern psychology, Lola herself is trapped in an unfulfilled position at an art site “to cover culture rather than create it”.

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Her work inevitably affects her private life. Lola laments that she has become a superficial consumer, a “people hoarder” who “detailes flaws like I don’t have any.” In a poignant moment of sincerity, she states, “Perhaps the internet has spoiled us more than we suspected and we had already suspected quite a bit.”

In the end, although more enduring love is presented as an alternative to the glitz of the internet, Crosley doesn’t seem able to embark on this deepening of character and connection. Instead, the book is a funny house mirror in which an estranged group of city slickers appear, an endless supply of sharp shots.

Maddie Crum is a writer and editor based in New York.

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