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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27. Short essay on eating out

I do not enjoy eating in restaurants because I work in one and I cannot bear to participate in putting someone else through it.

When I do eat out, I tip extravagantly. I’m the friend who checks your credit card receipt and has zero qualms about calling you out for leaving less than twenty percent or who just leaves an extra five or ten dollars on the table just in case. I always try to tip in cash because I know anything left on a credit card is going to get reported and split three or four ways between three or four other staff members who also aren’t getting any practical hourly wage.

When I’m working and people tell me I gave them excellent service it means nothing to me. All it means is that I fulfilled whatever haphazard, half-conceived idea they had about what their dining experience should be, which usually means modifying dishes until they are practically unrecognizable from a dinner they’d have made for themselves at home, only consumed in a setting where for an hour and half they get to confuse themselves for royalty and their servers for servants, apathetic to the messes they leave for others to clean up. The rest of what most people expect when they go out to eat they make up along the way, only deciding that the price of their meal entitles them to something at the point that they realize they don’t have it. And often it is that one intangible, formerly unneeded thing down to which comes the server’s entire night. So you enjoyed yourself. Good. So you were well-served. I’m glad for you. Can I go home now?

24. Incidentals–7/10/17

Often I find myself pining for the good, old, carefree days of my 1990s childhood, when Will Smith seemed a trifle more down to earth and you could smoke in restaurants. I miss those days, both as an erstwhile fan of the Fresh Prince and as someone who works in a restaurant and hates himself just enough to enjoy a nice Parliament every ten minutes or so now and again. I’m old enough that I can remember when going out to eat meant deciding whether you wanted to wait forty minutes for a table in the non-smoking section, where families dined peaceably and breathed clean, invisible air, or be seated immediately in the smoking section, where the patrons hacked bits of lung and trachea goo into their chicken Parmesans and dates were obscured across tabletops by the gray skrim of expunged smoke hanging between them. Even when I was too young to be a smoker myself, I thrilled whenever I dined out with a relative who smoked, or whenever my parents were willing to risk shortening their children’s lives in exchange for shortening their wait time. I loved the smoking section. The second-hand smoke bothered my eyes and dried out my nasal passages and left me blowing slime-yellow snot into tissues for hours after leaving, but I’m sucker: I totally bought into all those ads glamorizing cigarettes (back when there was such a thing as cigarette ads), showing impossibly cool camels shooting pool in Ray-Bans and backward baseball caps, too dapper for words in a tuxedo and black tie. I’d look at those ads, glossy in the pages of my mother’s fashion magazines, enraptured by the glamour they promised, and I guess I’d think to myself something along the lines of I wanna be that camel? Who knows. I also had phase in high school where I collected pictures of writers I admired smoking cigarettes (by “collected” I mean that I searched for these images online and printed them out behind my boss’s back at my after-school job at the local library), which probably didn’t help matters–or did help, I guess, depending on your feelings about things like heart disease and lung cancer.

The point is: I loved the smoking section. I loved the grim faces everyone had on (smokers always look grim; it’s not because they’re cranky, it’s because smoking is repulsive and you can’t help but make a repulsed face when you do it, that’s just facts). I loved the people who didn’t bother to put out their cigarettes if their food happened to arrived at an inopportune time, who were talented enough to smoke and eat simultaneously. I loved the old women with their mile-long 120’s who were still enough (because they were dying, I know realize) to keep the caterpillar of ash growing at the end of it from falling to dust on the table top. I loved the atmosphere: dirty, stinky, and with just a hint of macular degeneration. And even though it’s *heavy sigh* probably for the best that the prohibition against cigarettes is in full swing pretty much any where a queer boy of color could go without getting lynched or gang raped by six guys in an ’97 Ford-150, four of whom are named Jeremy, there comes a moment (or nine) during every shift I work where I find myself wishing there were clouds of smoke for me to walk through just so I don’t kill the woman at table twenty-one who is apparently going to die anyway if I don’t get there quickly with her fourth iced tea (with extra lemon!).

 

Round Up: June 2017

I’m about a week late, but nevertheless: here’s the run-down on what I’ve been reading/watching/listening to/etc. over the past month.

BOOKS:

MUSIC:

MOVIES:

  • ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)
  • WONDER WOMAN (2017)
  • CHRONICLE (2012)
  • THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987)
  • THE NET (1995)
  • GOSFORD PARK (2001)

TELEVISION:

  • ORPHAN BLACK, Season 4 (BBC America, via Amazon)
  • QUEEN SUGAR, Season 2  (OWN)
  • FIXER UPPER (HGTV, via Hulu)
  • SUPERGIRL, Season 2 (WB, via Netflix)
  • I LOVE DICK, Season 1 (Amazon)

Happy Anniversary!!

According to a notification I received sometime last week and promptly forgot to open until just now, I recently celebrated–or, more accurately, failed to celebrate–the one-year anniversary of Full Ashtrays. Yes, hard as it may be to believe (or not; I probably lost your attention at “according”), it was a full year ago that I launched this blog, and once thing is certain: the intervening months have brought me no closer to any totally clear idea of “what kind of blog” I want this to be than I was when I started it last July. I took a few minutes just now to browse my archives, and the posts range from somewhat myopically personal missives concerning the mundanity of my day-to-day, to formal reviews of films and books, to cultural criticism that engages (or hopes to engage) with mainstream conversations, to lists and random ephemera. Basically, Full Ashtrays, conceived, like every idea I’ve ever had, mostly spontaneously, and probably during one of my manic phases, is something of a mixed bag.

And I’m okay with that. I don’t mind that it’s incoherent and wily and digressive, that it ambles from this to that to that other thing. Perhaps the only ambition I ever had for this thing (except, you know, that it lead and quickly to a robust readership and worldwide, Beyonce-level fame) was that it be something that represented me–as a writer mostly, but also as a person. On that count, Full Ashtrays has been a success, because guess what? I’m a fucking mixed bag, too. As a writer and as a person. The truth is, I never know which me is gonna show up. All I can do is go along with whichever one does–and hope to God it isn’t the one who likes to get drunk, wear caftans, and insult people’s children. My point is, I’m going to keep rolling with this little chronicle of my experience, as it were, this diary, this account. So look out for more thoughtful reviews and directionless ramblings and, of course, more selfies–because I really like the selfies.

Thanks for reading! As a token of my appreciation, please accept this gif of Mariah Carey getting out of the pool she just dove into from a second floor balcony because she’s a secret agent on a mission and that was absolutely the only way to escape her captors in the music video for her number one single Honey, which is actually symbolic of her still-fresh divorce from record industry bigwig Tommy Mottola, who tried his patriarchal best to squash home girl’s spirit, not to mention HER DREAMS, not to mention her RACIAL IDENTITY, and keep her in a cocoon-like stasis, but Mimi was like nah bitch I’m a motherfuckin’ butterfly. May we all have the same courage to fuck our haters and demand our freedom–and flesh-toned bikinis under our little black dresses, just in case.

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work

An essay I was going to write about Rihanna’s song WORK based on a conversation I’d had one night while nursing a Jameson neat and a Rolling Rock with a friend of mine in a bar that was still gay and where you could still smoke. I had been excited about writing it. But when I sat down to work on it I realized the only thing I really wanted to say about the song was to point out how its varying incomprehensibility—the muddled vocals, the monotonous, almost mumbled lyrics—reminded me of trying to talk to you. The devolution into unintelligibility, into something that is language but not quite. Indeed, “What can I say?” Rihanna-as-narrator implores of her lover, at one point about halfway through the song. In answer, the “Work, work, work, work, work” of the chorus becomes something like “werh, werh, werh, werh, werh,” punctured by gibberish, by nonsense, on loop. I though it was smart—clever, in a way, even if it was a bit winky. The chorus even evokes the colloquial “blah blah blah” lovers on the outs often use to mock each other. As if to say, there’s nothing you can say. Please recognize I’m trying babe. But I never wrote that essay and this is not it. I’ve never been a fan of Rihanna’s but there were many songs on that album that made me think of you.