In her 2008 debut, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, Sloane Crosley established herself as a humorous essayist to be reckoned with, inviting comparisons to masters of the form like David Sedaris, Dorothy Parker, and Sarah Vowell, and landing its author on the New York Times bestseller list. In the fifteen essays that comprise that collection, Crosley held forth on every-day subjects such as the irritating circus of Manhattan real estate, dating in one’s twenties, losing one’s wallet, and being single at weddings—all in a sharp, sardonic voice that managed to be laugh-out-loud funny and, at times, profoundly moving. Her second collection, How Did You Get This Number, was in many ways the same book as the one that preceded it—no less satisfying, just more well-traveled (indeed, with essays detailing trips to Alaska, Lisbon, and Paris, among other locales, it’s almost a travel book). In 2015, Crosley published her first novel, The Clasp, a Mary McCarthy-esque riff on the Guy de Mapassant short story The Necklace that was exceedingly well-written but perhaps too hilariously funny (funnier, even, than some of her essays) to be taken seriously, despite its moments of deep sincerity and pathos. Fans of Crosley will be happy to hear that her latest, Look Out Alive Out There, is for the author a sure-footed and gratifying return to the essay form.
In the decade since Crosley first arrived on the literary scene she has honed her talents considerably. She’s always been a preternaturally gifted writer, one capable of infusing her perfectly constructed, staggeringly graceful sentences with the crackle of her wry observations and savvy insights. In Look Alive Out There, she is in full command of her talents, as mordant and caustically self-deprecating as ever. She’s older now, and it shows, mostly in her subject matter. Where her earlier collections largely chronicled her social and romantic foibles as a twenty-something urbanite, these new essays find her grappling with the onslaught of her thirties and impending middle-age. “Outside Voices,” one of the longer essays in the book, chronicle’s Crosley’s years-long battle with a noisy, much younger neighbor. In “The Doctor is a Woman,” she details the invasive and expensive process of having her eggs frozen—a series of procedures she endures at the casual suggestion of her doctor, for no apparent reason other than why not. Such predicaments are not the purview of a slightly neurotic twenty-something who keeps a secret drawer full of toy ponies in her kitchen or travels impulsively to Lisbon to get drunk with a troupe of aspiring clowns. These are the predicaments of a grown-ass woman in possession of a health insurance package that affords her the privilege of being, as she puts it, “pro-active about [her] health,” however unnecessarily (her aforementioned “harvest” yielded more than 60 eggs, which I guess is a lot), who just wants to get to bed at a decent fucking hour.
This maturity is not unwelcome, or at all ineffective: “Outside Voices,” after all, is one of the best essays in the book. Its paragraphs are packed with enough laughs to serve as a comedienne’s standup set—laughs that are honestly won (elsewhere, Crosley is not above resorting to the cheap gag) and which never come at the expense of more astute revelations. Indeed, this essay, which opens the collection after the brief preamble of “Wheels Up,” (more on that later), is very much about the passage of time, of getting older. For years while living in Manhattan’s tony West Village neighborhood, Crosley was plagued by the constant noise of a family who lived in a neighboring brownstone. Most of that noise was caused by Jared, the teenage son, who, when not “watching viral videos on his phone at full volume” or playing music loudly from the backyard, was busy hosting his coterie of friends for rowdy, beer-fueled revelries that lasted late into the night. When calls and visits to her local police precinct resulted in nothing and her kindly requests for her neighbors to keep it down proved similarly futile, Crosley found herself becoming “a curmudgeon before my time,” and resorted to extreme measures to silence her neighbors. She wrote a letter, then watched as Jared and his mother laughed about it in their kitchen. Inspired by an art installation exhibit, she bought a set of 600-watt halogen spotlights and aimed them at the neighboring backyard.
Crosley’s best essays are always a little bit nostalgic, and “Outside Voices” is no exception. Crosley is initially hesitant to make too big a deal out of Jared’s noisiness, confessing that she is “mostly concerned with something mortifying: Jared’s impression of me.” “Jared was cool,” Crosley writes. “He just was. What’s worse, he plugged into some residual teenage part of me that wanted to be cool, too.” Her irritation with Jared flares alongside her obsession with him and his friends. She’s repelled by his discourteous nature but drawn in by his cool-kid appeal, Shazaam-ing Jared’s musical choices “even as I wanted to destroy him.” In the end, however, her rue overwhelms their allure. The spotlights are successful, and Crosley, officially Over It, yawns at their resultant objections and insults. The essay’s central-if-subtle anxiety—that specific brand that accompanies the late-twenty-something as they bear witness to the emerging adulthood of the generation on their heels, when one first starts to truly feel their age, specifically its accumulation—is ultimately taken in stride by Crosley, who both acknowledges and accepts the distance between herself and the young rabble-rousers next door: “Their lives were out there and mine was in here. They were forever behind me in time, as unable to catch up as I was to wait for them.”
Not all of the pieces collected here are successful. This is especially true of the shorter pieces, such as “Wheels Up,” which totals not quite three pages and is only truly funny in the final paragraphs and feels otherwise unnecessary. “Brace Yourself,” about the same length, is marginally better but likewise fails to convincingly merit its own inclusion, at least after one reading.
One aspect of Look Alive Out There that struck me is the absence of virtually any engagement with current events. I’m not sure whether I mean this as a criticism or not. On the one hand I feel obligated to confess that there was something wholly enjoyable about spending time in Crosley’s practically apolitical world (to be fair, there are passing references to feminism and a few supporting sentiments—details that suggest liberal leanings sprinkled throughout like Easter eggs), which is apparently devoid of the frustrations and angst that have been harrying much of the country and dominating most realms of entertainment. Slipping into the book was somewhat like slipping through a portal or a time-warp and being transported to a world not villainized by totalitarian-leaning oligarchs and Russian e-espionage, where black men are routinely executed in the streets and children are gunned down in schools. On the other hand, however, it did occur to me that this might be what people mean when they refer to “liberal coastal elites” (that Crosley is a New Yorker is a large part of her writerly persona, and the idiosyncrasies of living there influence much of her writing) who are out of touch with those of us in so-called “real America.” Here is a woman—occupation: “full-time writer”—whose biggest problems are the cyber-bully who unethically obtains her domain name (after SHE let it expire, mind you) (though she annoyingly refuses to accept responsibility for this) and a sudden onset of chronic vertigo. I’m not a fan of the sort of oppression Olympics that sometimes infiltrate otherwise well-intentioned investigations of privilege and power structures, but it’s difficult to muster whatever sympathy Crosley might hope to extract from her readers here, especially when the vertigo eventually goes away basically on its own and she barely balks at the nearly 5,000 dollars she has to fork over to re-purchase her domain name. In “The Doctor is a Woman,” the essay in which she has her eggs harvested, one shudders when Crosley blithely confesses to ruining fifteen hundred dollars’ worth of fertility hormones in the freezer (it is replaced by her pharmacist, at no charge) when there are people, surely, in her same city who are forced to choose between paying their rent or paying for their chemotherapy treatments or their blood pressure medications. Certainly, these disparities are not Crosley’s fault; however, her unabashed detailing of her own excesses—there’s an entire essay about her guest role as herself on the TV series Gossip Girl—whatever their true intentions, register as somewhat oblivious and tone-deaf.
Nevertheless, Look Alive Out There is as charming and delightful a book as one is likely to come across, at turns beguiling and shrewd, flippant and discerning, funny and revealing. One of Crosley’s greatest strengths is her flair for self-creation. That self is spared the fate of caricature because it is so deliberately and meticulously constructed, and so inimitably precocious. It’s hard not to imagine that the Sloane Crosley one encounters on the page is not without her fabrications; however, one is so taken by her zany, incessantly amusing worldview, one hardly cares.