Sloane Crosley on Cult Classic and Confronting Exes
Sloane Crosley’s new novel, Cult Classic, opens on a familiar scene: a trendy restaurant, downtown, featured in the relevant outlets, offering cocktails and a familiar cuisine tweaked contemporarily, for around $30 per entree. (“Szechuan bisque, the sweet-and-sour leeks, the General Tso soufflé.”) It’s not inconceivable that our heroine, Lola, should run into an ex at such a place. That she should run into a second ex there, the next night, is a horrible but at least story-worthy coincidence. But a third ex, jogging just down the street from this trendy restaurant, is a conspiracy, albeit one that is ostensibly targeted at helping Lola grow as a person.
It turns out Lola—who is “secretly full of misgivings” about her fiancé, Boots, and has maintained a “corrosive and insurmountably haunting love life for decades”—is the beta test for a harebrained service/“club or society”/cult (“It’s not a cult”) called the Golconda. Named after “a very famous impenetrable seventeenth-century citadel in central India” as well as, more to the point, the Magritte painting featuring dozens of raining men, the Golconda is helmed by Lola’s friend and former boss, Clive, and headquartered in a rat-infested defunct synagogue. Using a combination of the sacred and the profane—meditation and targeted ads—the organization engages in what it calls “ethical persuasion” to bring clients into contact with people from their past, at a hefty price tag. Lola is freaking out about the fact that she’s freaking out about getting married, and has “begun to suspect that my search for an inciting incident was the inciting incident.” Despite the moral dubiousness, when she’s eventually informed of her participation in this test run, she goes along with it.
While the Golconda’s high-stakes haphazardness and creepy allure feel realistic, it’s Lola’s fraught relationship to relationships, and digressive commentary on the same, that drives the book. “I wanted to seem like I had good taste, and so I accidentally became someone with good taste,” she thinks at one point, reflecting on the way we transform to fit or impress our partners. “I wanted to seem elusive and so I accidentally became elusive.”
Sloane has published five books—three essay collections and a novel, The Clasp—but Cult Classic is the one that best recreates her off-the-page narrative energy. Lola’s many exes range in significance and suitability—from the lifeguard and senior counselor at Lola’s summer camp to “an emotionally distant librettist and latent sadist from Detroit who looked like a young Daniel Day Lewis”—and they provide the ideal form for her particular blend of gossip and revelation, entertainment and inquiry. Whenever we hang out, usually at slightly less trendy bars and restaurants downtown, she always arrives with several energetic stories that, like her essays, straddle the border of believability. We first met when I interviewed her about The Clasp in 2015, but we became close through, appropriately, one of my exes.
SLOANE CROSLEY: Well, hello!
LAUREN OYLER: Hello. I never know how to start an interview, and this is particularly bad because we know each other.
CROSLEY: You’re calling from Berlin, right? I have this deeply old-fashioned conception of the world. I feel like it’s a really amazing thing that you made a long-distance call.
OYLER: I know, me too. So, let’s talk about how you came up with the idea for the book, specifically the quantity of ex-boyfriends.
CROSLEY: I think they appeared because I was sick of ignoring them. As someone who’s primarily known for narrative first-person essays and also happens to be female, I’ve consciously tried to avoid writing about certain things for a long time. Fraught things. There’s this sort of pressure that everyone feels, not just writers and not just women, to justify sociopathic behavior from men you’ve only known for a short period of time. It’s fascinating. At some point Lola is thinking about how men become more interesting with every additional slight, while women become more diligent about covering up their past wounds. It’s possible I was embarrassed to write a book on this subject until I found a structure for the quantity.
OYLER: What I like about it is that it’s both about the guys themselves, and about Lola’s confusion over why she doesn’t like any of them. I think it’s similar to The Clasp—these characters are all trying to figure out what they want. But the characters in The Clasp are around 30 and Lola in Cult Classic is nearing 40, so she’s a bit more frantic about the fact that she doesn’t know what she wants.
CROSLEY: It’s humiliating to pass a certain threshold and then to have to stay mum about how little you know yourself, or how you don’t have full control of your actions.
OYLER: Why do you think she doesn’t know herself?
CROSLEY: She’s a bit of a hollow figure in a way, an everyman, or everywoman, because I needed her to be a container for everything else I wanted in the book. So it’s not exactly her fault. What’s the Roger Rabbit line? “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” Except I’m the one who drew her.
OYLER: Because all the other characters in the book are very strong, she becomes a mirror for them. She experiences herself as very malleable, in part because she’s running into all of her exes and thinking about them, and she’s remembering these funny ways in which she would change herself to fit each relationship. She keeps thinking something like: “If only I were a bit less judgmental, a bit more tolerant, then I could be with anyone.” I wonder if you think that’s true.
CROSLEY: We’re all victims of too much self-analysis, and we can collapse under the weight of the perfect decision, which is something that happens to her. As for how I, personally, feel about it, yeah—every time I’ve ever gone on a book tour, I’ve thought, “Should I just live here? Can I live in Tulsa without a good reason?” I’ll be in a bad Holiday Inn somewhere and think, “What if I just lived here now and I never told anybody?” There’s darkness to that level of malleability. It’s also a simple fear of narrowing down choices. Lola is having these moments of thinking, “Maybe I could still do anything?” because she is petrified about having to do one specific thing: marry her fiancé. It’s a basic fear of commitment, but it’s coming out in a strange, magical realist way. Even though I don’t really consider this book magical realism, which is a different animal.
OYLER: It’s speculative fiction, right?
CROSLEY: I think so, but it’s funny. Some of the early press has talked about the blends of genres in the book: it’s this mash-up of mystery and romance, literary fiction, all these things. I don’t want to dismantle the idea of my own book as an original work, but it seems like a classic novel to me.
OYLER: What other books were you thinking about when you were writing it? I am reading, as we speak, The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch, and the main character moves to this weird house on the seaside and then all of his exes show up. Have you read it?
CROSLEY: Not until after I finished this book. This always happens, it’s like reading reviews of a restaurant after you’ve signed the bill. The other book I’m in the middle of reading is Loitering With Intent [by Muriel Spark]. Have you read it?
OYLER: Oh, I love that book.
CROSLEY: Love it. You have all these different characters that flow in and out, and it’s just such a skill to allow people to know a character well enough without getting them so attached that they’re pissed when that person gets yanked away. She does that conveyor belt really well. But the cinematic comparisons for Cult Classic are pretty clear—Her from Spike Jonze, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Groundhog Day, even Palm Springs. In each of those stories, someone learns about the error of their ways through mystical intervention, and all are about men—it’s men who need to be taught a lesson. So I like that, this time, it’s a lady who needs the help. Seems only fair.
OYLER: Lola is notorious among her friends for having a romantically haunted past. She’s dated lots of guys, she’s had maybe 15 five-month relationships. Is it because she’s too judgmental, or does she have bad taste?
CROSLEY: She’s a lazy person who thinks she has been trying hard. The book is dedicated, “For the men. For some of the men,” and although it’s meant to be an indictment of men, once you live with Lola and her choices for 300 pages, you start seeing her complicity. So I think she has…bad taste in men. [Laughs]
OYLER: There’s a moment when she’s explaining how she strung this guy along, and right before she breaks up with him, he takes a picture of her. She basically says, I knew that was the last picture he would ever take of me, but he didn’t know it. She also wields the knowledge of the experiment in a similar way: she knows she’s going to run into someone, she just doesn’t know who. What role does that kind of superior knowledge play in a relationship, and how does it relate to the idea of vulnerability?
CROSLEY: A source of tension in the book is that she’s participating in something she senses is morally questionable—these people are not on an even playing field with her. But when it comes to the guys who have hurt her feelings, she feels that a toll is being paid. It’s what creates the comedy of the book. I think the danger, both for her and for anyone in real life, is that when you’re consistently watching your own relationship from a hot air balloon, you’re manipulating the narrative of the relationship. You’re not giving yourself a chance to actually be with that person.
OYLER: There’s a very funny part when Lola’s talking about an article she wrote called “Watered Down Waterboarding,” about how to use torture techniques to get people to do what you want. Everybody got really mad about it. [Both laugh] But it’s funny because it’s true! When you’re in the first months of a relationship, you’re strategizing like crazy. You’re like, “I need to get them to do what I want,” which is to like me. There’s a sense that the mood could shift at any moment. It feels very high stakes. It’s absolutely terrible, but your brain is unable to do anything else.
CROSLEY: It feels terrible, but you miss it when it’s gone. First you feel unsteady, then you get the comfort, and then, depending on your own psychological soundness, that’s a place you can build from, or that’s a boring place that needs to be destroyed. But Lola’s annoyance comes from what she perceives as this double standard—she’s accused of not opening up fast enough by someone she’s seeing. That feels like something that women hear a lot, but men don’t.
OYLER: He wants to see her every vulnerability immediately, so that he can make a quick decision about her. But do you think that this impatience for intimacy and vulnerability is new? Is it somehow related to the boring argument about the internet, that having everything at your fingertips makes people crave more?
CROSLEY: I don’t know if the internet creates more pressure for vulnerability. I think it creates exhaustion, which can masquerade as pressure. Now we’re hyper aware that you have to go on this dating merry-go-round again and again, and that leads to a lot of bad behavior. I, personally, believe that people are ultimately good, but there’s a limit to how big my heart will grow to accommodate the messiness of others. Or maybe I wrote a whole novel to, in an unembarrassed and funny way, stab a bunch of people in the face. This is being recorded right?
OYLER: I wasn’t going to ask any questions like, “Are your exes going to read it?” But you’re getting really close to making me ask those questions.
CROSLEY: There are a couple of characters in the book whose exoskeletons have things in common with real people. But they have morphed so much that I would have trouble identifying them myself. If I actually thought that it was a bitter book, I probably wouldn’t be so cavalier about the face-stabbing.
OYLER: Obviously you are not the narrator, but you’re pulling details from your life, as we all do when we write novels. What do you get out of writing fiction, rather than nonfiction?
CROSLEY: What I get out of it is frustration and misery and then, once a month, I feel like a genius. Maybe in fiction, it’s easier to be a little more biting about certain topics, such as romance and dating and how we’re all gonna die alone.
OYLER: Are we?
CROSLEY: Yes, everyone dies alone, that’s the whole thing. This is Lola’s struggle in some ways. There’s a nihilist energy in her that runs alongside the romantic. We all vacillate. I’m also saying this maybe from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have children, you know? I have the luxury of occasional streaks of nihilism or depression. Maybe you don’t if you have kids. Many of the book’s reviews talk about New York City nostalgia, that it’s set in this world that makes you hungry for pre-pandemic downtown New York. And because this is my home, I’m thrilled to pay tribute. But I handed in this book in March 2020. There’s no nostalgia, no “let’s bring back the city.” This is a “last one out, turn off the lights” novel.
OYLER: The people saying that must not have been downtown in a while, because it’s more back to normal than it has been in ten years.
CROSLEY: Yeah, this is hardly Dresden after the bombs. This is the funny push-pull with New Yorkers—we don’t want people to feel bad for us, we want them to see our resilience. But the second outsiders do acknowledge our pain, we’re like “Actually, we’ve been through a lot, we’re gonna need you to send flowers.” Everyone’s low-grade traumatized, but also everyone’s drinking. And doing drugs.
OYLER: Speaking of drinking and doing drugs, I have a sense of you as being very diligent as a writer. You have a real schedule, almost. Is that true?
CROSLEY: It’s all fear and cocaine—are we still recording? It’s fear. Dorothy Parker once said, “I‘d like to have money. And I’d like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that’s too adorable, I’d rather have the money.” That fear is big for me, because I did not grow up with money. Then there’s the fear of irrelevance, then there’s a fear of my brain atrophying. So I tend to be quite structured when I write, but fear is only useful for starting, not knowing when to stop.
OYLER: Lola defines marriage as agreeing to live in someone else’s narrative, which again is pretty dark.
CROSLEY: Well, I don’t think that’s true. There’s a lot of blanket statements about love made in this book, and they’re not things I believe.
OYLER: The whole premise of the experiment is that Lola needs to re-encounter them in order to get over them fully and stop thinking about them as alternate realities in which she could have lived. Do you think she finds it?
CROSLEY: No. [Laughs] I don’t love an ending that’s too neat. What’s strange about writing fiction is that you’re building these artificial roadblocks so you can think your way around them. This is what writers do all day in lieu of going to meetings. You give yourself problems to solve. So you have this entire plot that is designed to give her a neat ending—the characters are in on it, she’s in on it, everyone’s in on it—and then she gets it, but on her own terms.
OYLER: In college, I was always told that you should, when you’re ending a piece of writing, think of it as a door you’ve shut that bounces back open a tiny bit. Do you feel like a relationship should end that way as well?
CROSLEY: There is something pathological about people who need to be friends with every ex they’ve had, every friend they’ve gotten in a big fight with, every single family member. Who force it. This compulsion is exacerbated by social media, because even if you don’t see people in person, their names or faces are presented to you on a regular basis. But I do think peace for peace’s sake is good. Otherwise, you end up like Lola. So if we’re going to use the door analogy, then no, I don’t think it should bounce back open. I just think you shouldn’t shut it on anyone’s foot.