REVIEW: “LOOK ALIVE OUT THERE” BY SLOANE CROSLEY

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 herself 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.

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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.

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26. Some lame things that have already happened to me today and it’s only ten am.

The Ancestors were speaking to me this morning, and they were saying, “Stay yo ass in bed, child.”

Mornings have always been a personal struggle. For most of my life I was not a morning person. All through high school I struggled to get out of bed each morning, sleepily groping for the snooze button on my ringing alarm clock a dozen times before finally summoning enough will-power to peel myself from my mattress and feel my blindly in the morning light into the kitchen, where I’d drink coffee straight from the spout. I was the kid stumbling into homeroom several minutes after the final bell had rung, grasping a to-go coffee and rubbing sleep out of his eyes. In college, naturally, I arranged my schedule so that none of my classes were before noon–telling myself, of course, that a later start to my day meant a few hours’ buffer in the mornings that would be perfect for finishing up any homework I’d inevitably neglected to tackle in a timely manner, but knowing damn well it was because even though I was a Serious Student and Committed To My Education, I didn’t want it interfering with my habit of staying up late watching Mean Girls (ON FUCKING DVD) or reading fourfour.typepad.com and chatting about it online with my friend Charlé from the comfort of our separate dorm rooms. After college I waited tables for a while, and that was perfect because the earliest I ever had to go in was usually eleven o’clock. Then I fucked up and got a job in a public library about forty minutes from my apartment, which meant I had to get up at about six am to get there by 8:30, which rarely happened. I got “talked to” weekly about my “truancy,” and that early call time definitely factored into my decision to leave the library after a few years.

Now that I’m older, I don’t mind getting up early (meaning early for me, which is like nine or nine-thirty), but I still don’t like to go anywhere. I’m back to waiting tables now, which is a job I’m technically super proficient at but which doesn’t suit my personality (or my interests) at all EXCEPT in the since that my shift never starts until 4 pm. That’s one of the approximately four things there are to like about my job, ranking just below “cash in hand” and “shifts that last an average of five hours” but just above “atmosphere among staff of sexual fluidity.” (By “atmosphere of sexual fluidity” I of course mean that there are two ostensibly straight male servers with whom it is fun to trade sexually suggestive barbs as they fondle my rump in the server station.)

Anyway, I’ve worked out a schedule over the past couple of years. Each night I pass out drunk go to bed anywhere between midnight and two am, usually falling asleep to the sound of a VHS tape whirring and squeaking in the player, practically drowning out the on-screen action because these things are fucking antiques, bruh. Who needs a Better Image sleep machine when you’ve got a TV/VCR combo from 1993 groaning rhythmically at the foot of your bed? I keep the alarm clock on my iPhone set to three times: 8, 8:30, and 9 am. I’m still a big fan of riding that snooze button like its a surfboard and I’m Kate Bosworth in Blue Crush (underrated, btw), but I’m still kind of an idiot where my phone is concerned so I’m always hitting the “stop” button instead of the “snooze” button, and setting it to go off at three different times helps with that. By 9:30 I’m usually up and tripping over my cat Bobby Brown while I pull on whatever clothes are crumbled on the floor closest to me and either stumble toward the kitchen to make coffee or stumble out of my apartment, grabbing the biggest, most-light-blocking pair of sunglasses I own, and heading down to Chicory Café to get my coffee to-go. “Grande coffee to go, please, dark roast,” is about all the conversation I can manage first thing in the morning; then I return to my apartment where I like to browse the Internet while watching the Today show until 11 o’clock or so, when I usually try to get to work on something.

Anyway THE POINT IS today did not go quite like that. Or it did, but with disruptions–which is sometimes worse than if things just go wrong altogether. I’m not someone who is in interested in the semblance of normalcy; I want normalcy. I want my schedule the way I like it and I don’t want to deviate from it in the slightest.

some lame things that have already happened to me today

  1. Well, my cunning system with the alarm clock didn’t matter one fucking iota today because they’ve been paving the street I live on, which means that each morning bright and early they’re out there with their jackhammers and their street cleaners making all sorts of ungodly noise, and I’m a poor person who doesn’t have central air and the window unit is in the living room which means I have to keep my bedroom window open WHICH MEANS there’s absolute no buffer between me and the cacophonous noises down on the street. Noises that are keeping your from your allotted amount of beauty sleep that you can’t control because no way you’re going down there in your short shorts and kimono and head wrap and morning breath and yelling at a bunch of construction workers who would probably laughingly drown you in cement if you did, are really the worst, and one of the worst ways to wake-up. (The worst way to wake up is probably to a rapid pounding on your door and an unfriendly voice shouting “POLICE! OPEN UP!” which happened to me last week, in connection with the street resurfacing and my Scion XA that was still parked on it.)
  2. Now, there were no signs when I got home last night saying anything about not parking on the street, as there had been the past few days, so when I realized what that infernal racket waking me up was, I flew into a panic, certain I’d rush downstairs only to find that my car had been towed. Yes, panic: I could feel it pooling in my gut like hot acid, because look ya’ll, I AIN’T GOT NO MONEY TO BE GETTING SHIT OUT OF IMPOUND. Plus I’m not sure I’d even know how to go about doing that if I did have money. So obviously, I’m freaking the fuck out because even though I don’t really like driving or care about cars, I got places to go and South Bend is neither pedestrian friendly nor does it have adequate public transportation. All of the many places I absolutely have to go that aren’t within walking distance–therapeutic trips to Target to spend money I don’t have on things I don’t need, for instance, or to my weed dealer’s house–flashed through my mind as sprang out of bed and threw on some clothes.
  3. I’m sort of frantic and half-cognizant in the mornings anyway, barely functioning, but considering how dire the situation was, I was extra-clumsy, and I stubbed my toe (HARD) on a 12 lb hand weight I don’t even know why I have because I’m definitely not into fitness. (Impulse purchases are myjam.net). THE UNIVERSE: 2, ME: 0.
  4. After cursing the idiot who left that fucking weight right in the middle of my walking space (me) and grumbling to Bob about how fucking rude and inconsiderate it is of the city to commence this work at such an unreasonable hour, I hurried downstairs. Thankfully, my car was where I’d left it in the night before, and I got it in and drove the few blocks to Chicory for a cup of coffee. I was glad that there was no line of faux-happy “professional types” in their business casuals not bothering to look up from their emails to order their double no foam lattes with skim milk or whatever shit they drink, but whatever blessings I thought the universe was sending my way were quickly subsumed when I saw that the barista on duty was the one I’m certain hates me, probably because I never tip more than the change from the three dollars I give her for my $2.64 coffee. When she informed me that “We’re out of dark roast right now. Do you want to wait or is medium okay?” I knew the world was out to get me. Medium was most definitely not okay but I told her it was because the only thing I hate less than coffee that isn’t a nice, robust dark roast that gives the shakes after three sips is waiting around for anything. I begrudgingly accepted it, slightly suspicious that home girl was lying to me.
  5. Back at my apartment, sipping the sub-par coffee while my friends Al Roker, Dylan Dryer, and Jenna Bush rattled on about some new app that helps you hook up with people who are dopplegangers of your favorite celebrity crush, I navigated to newyorker.com because I’m an intellectual, only to discover, after clicking on the latest by Jia Tolentino, that I’d met my number of complementary articles for the month. Say what? But I have a subcription! (Sort of.) WHAT IN GAY HELL, I muttered, checking to make sure I hadn’t logged-out by recently purging my browser history after sifting through all the porn to find that piece I read in The Believer last week made me feel like a pervert. I hadn’t. The option to purchase a subscription or link my current one only confirmed that the day I’d been fearfully awaiting had arrived: the library I used to work at had figured out that during my tenure there I’d been using the online benefits of their subscription to the magazine. Needless to say, they cancelled that shit. I attempted to get around the paywall by opening the page in an incognito browser, but I didn’t have any luck. (Which is really weird because usually that works, right?) I sat sadly at my computer, wondering what Jia had to say about From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and why–WHY–life is so endlessly awful.

I should probably just cut my losses, play it safe, and go back to bed.

Here’s a picture of Bobby Brown lookin’ all dandy in an ascot:

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