Cult Classic by Sloane Crosley book review

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Sloane Crosley’s second novel, an unromantic comedy satirizing start-up culture, modern dating, city-dwelling aesthetes and other millennial woes, is dedicated to “the men.” With her gift of precision, the author clarifies: well, “some of the men.”

Crosley’s first couple of books, “I Was Told There’d Be Cake” and “How Did You Get This Number,” were essay collections reminiscent of Nora Ephron, filled with tender scenes hedged with sharp jokes, the emotional tenor of her humor carefully calibrated, almost as if informed by an algorithm. Her first novel, “The Clasp,” centered on similar themes, acted out by a set of 20-something sophisticates.

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In “Cult Classic,” Crosley turns her satirical eye toward love in a time of searchable options, of data trails, of Instagram-enforced remembering, of an always-present past. Its heroine, Lola, an inexhaustibly quippy editor, is engaged to Boots, a glass-blower who went to Brown and who, Lola observes more than once, is 6-foot-3 – as if his physical presence still registers to her as a list of facts, a walking Hinge profile. These winning qualities aside, Boots doesn’t have Lola’s full attention. She’s preoccupied by a boxful of letters from her exes, whom she thinks of often; it doesn’t help that their personal sites and semiprofessional headshots, their grids populated by newborn daughters, their better-than-lukewarm reviews of overlong second novels are a few keystrokes away.

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Then, surreally, the too-present past presents itself to Lola IRL; over the course of a few days, she runs into a string of her exes, struggling each time to experience something like closure. There’s Amos, a curmudgeon whose dislikes include smartphones, beaches and throw pillows; there’s Willis, a former Olympian now living in the Midwest with a health coach; there’s Jonathan, Lola’s college boyfriend, with whom she traded ironical birthday cards and Polaroids, their relationship “stymied by cuteness”; there’s Oscar; there’s Phillip; there’s Aaron; there’s Knox; there’s Pierre; there are others, piling up like events in a news feed, the depth of their stories flattened by the expedience with which Lola breezes past them, the content of their characters squeezed into the palatable form of her (often very funny) critiques.

“Could I be with anyone I’d ever dated if only I’d been just a hair less judgmental? ” Lola wonders. That she’s aware of her habits may protect her from the banal charge of unlikability. But her tendency to conflate men – or at least some of them – into a blur of micro-annoyances, rudely stated requests for non-monogamy and unevenly split bills does sap the love story of much meaning or fun: What does it matter whether Lola winds up with Boots, when their relationship, like the others before it, can be reduced to a few superficial qualities, his height and his friends’ pastimes, eating grain salads at park picnics?

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Crosley’s wit and fast-paced plotting lends itself better to some of the “Cult Classic’s” later scenes, set in a marble-laden start-up space inside an abandoned synagogue, with espresso, but, notably, no cold-pressed juice, on offer . Here, we learn that Lola’s ex encounters were not happeningstance but part of a scheme hatched by her former partner in petty flirtation, Clive, “a Fitzgeraldian figure with a horrendous carbon footprint.” The two worked together at a now-folded magazine, Modern Psychology, which inspired him to launch a venture with Lola as its unwitting test subject. Could immersion therapy cure nostalgia and romantic indecision? Tough to say. “It’s not rocket science,” Clive notes. “I mean, it’s not science science either. ” His frankness is charming, and his charm attracts a team of workers whose commitment verges on willful exploitation. “I’d do this for free,” one of his cronies gushes. To which an indignant Lola replies, “you do do this for free. ”

The cultlike quality of companies offering camaraderie in lieu of livable wages is an ideal subject for Crosley, who skewers the setup but regards those who fall for it warmly. After the decline of Modern Psychology, Lola herself is caught in an unfulfilling position at an arts site, “covering the culture instead of creating it.”

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Inevitably, her work affects her personal life. Lola laments that she has become a shallow consumer, a “people hoarder,” “detailing… flaws as if I had none.” In an affecting moment of sincerity, she observes, “perhaps the Internet had spoiled us more than we suspected and we already suspected quite a bit.”

Although more-lasting love is presented as an alternative to the internet’s sheen, Crosley can’t seem to commit to that deepening of character and connection in the end. Instead, the book is a fun house mirror on an alienated set of urbanites, an endless supply of sharp takes.

Maddie Crum is a writer and editor in New York.

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