It’s no secret that staying at the fair that is New York for too long (to paraphrase Joan D.) will lead to irreparable damage. Usually of the emotional variety—though you might also need a liver transplant after all the drinking expected of you as well. Sloane Crosley is here to crystallize that fact in literary form with her sophomore novel, Cult Classic. In contrast to her debut work of literary fiction (distinguished from her short story collections), The Clasp, Cult Classic is, in many ways, actually less complicated. For behind the high-falutin concept at the source of Golconda—yes, it’s named in honor of the iconic René Magritte painting—is something very fundamental: if you stay in New York for long enough, you’ll accrue a sexual body count. As Carrie Bradshaw put it, “If you’re a thirty-something woman living in Manhattan and you refuse to settle and you’re sexually active, it’s inevitable that you’ll rack up a certain number of partners. But how many men is too many men? Are we simply romantically challenged or are we sluts?” While that’s “the question Charlotte was asking,” it’s also the question Crosley’s anti-heroine, Lola, starts to ask too. Once she’s subjected to the simulation, of sorts, that is the Golconda.
And yes, that particular work of art has plenty of significance to the core motif of Cult Classic. One in which Lola finds that the city is raining men—specifically, exes. They all look sort of different but mostly similar in terms of embodying the “intellectual New York type.” A loose euphemism, to be sure, for douchebag. In fact, sometimes meatheads seem less douchey than the so-called New York intellectual—and Lola has obviously dated an athlete in the past just to be without a doubt. She runs into him too by the time the novel reaches its conclusion.
Those who have never lived in New York might find Lola’s situation extraordinary, as it seems “slutty,” or whatever, to have had so many ex-boyfriends. That term, at times, being somewhat hyperbolic for “relationships” that barely last a month. But New York being the fuckboy (and fuckgirl) capital of the world, Lola’s newfound simulation of being met at practically every corner by someone she was intimate to some degree with is not that shocking. The “simulation” in question is the result of her ex-boss and “dear” friend, Clive. Formerly the editor-in-chief of a now defunct magazine called Modern Psychology, Clive and two other of her former co-workers, Vadis and Zach, meet regularly enough to not fall out of touch but not regularly enough to truly be considered “besties” anymore. Not the way they were at the height of Modern Psychology’s heyday. And while most people—especially those in New York—would prefer to treat past work experiences with an amnesiac’s memory, this quartet seems to relish holding on.
In truth, “holding on” is the entire name of the game for Lola—and so many women like her (whether in New York or otherwise). For one must admit that women do have a greater tendency to be “nostalgic” (i.e., harbor resentful hatred) toward the men that “got away.” Even if they were summarily “let go.” Indeed, Lola does appear to be the one who did most of the breaking up with these various men, collected like tchotchkes or baubles. Until Boots, the man she’s about to get married to, comes along and looks as though he might actually stick. “Solid” and “nice”—kiss of death words to women like Lola and Carrie B., who can’t resist a dickhead—Boots somehow managed to last longer than all the others. To pass to the next proverbial level. Though Lola seems to be questioning more and more if that ought to be the case. It’s not that she doesn’t “love” Boots (a nickname, mind you), it’s that, like Carrie, she’s not entirely sure that she’s “the marrying kind.” If she were, wouldn’t she have been able to make any of her previous perfectly “good” relationships work? Then there is the New York fallacy that because you live in New York, “normie things” like getting married and having kids aren’t necessary or important. Of course, one glance into any neighborhood will cure visiting Midwesterners of the notion that New Yorkers are any less basic in their ultimate pursuits. Settling down in the least shitty apartment they can and spawning one child, as that’s all that can really fit. Especially if there’s a pet, too. Lola knows somewhere deep down that she doesn’t buy into the fallacy. At the same time, she can’t seem to avert her runaway bride tendencies any more than she can avert her exes once Clive sets Operation Golconda in motion.
In any other town, it feels less like the universe is trying to torture you with memories of the past. In New York, there is scarcely a street corner one can turn onto without some unpleasant flashback. No matter how many or how few exes you’ve had. But again, if you stay too long, you might find yourself in Lola’s position of having to admit, “There were years of flirty text exchanges in my pocket with every man I’d entertained as a partner, however fleetingly. Vadis was right. I was a people hoarder. Sometimes I would pull up an old exchange and feel myself fall backward as if through a tunnel, coming out the other end with emotions that were meant to be memories. It was like sticking a pebble in a wound, then getting frustrated the wound wasn’t healing faster. It was also falsely communal as I reread these men’s words, which weren’t theirs anymore but artifacts of their former selves.”
While “blotting out” these sort of memories with substance abuse feels like the easy (and only) fix, sooner or later, sobriety arrives and you’re forced to reconcile with all the people you’ve collected. Living ghosts that could pop up at any moment on any corner. At any bodega. And all of them will seem to have become “proper” members of society, as opposed to remaining members of the freaks and weirdos collective that New York pretends to pride itself on.
What makes Lola’s scenario even more unique is that she is running into these men not in Brooklyn, but Manhattan. The Golconda’s location near Chinatown means that, for some “inexplicable” reason (to them), these exes will be drawn toward the nexus to have their run-in. Lola’s commitment to the borough, however, was only made stronger when one of her exes, Amos, essentially said, “Manhattan was soulless, gentrified, once for the very young and the very rich, now only for the very rich and the very soulless. Reduced to a high-end strip mall, all the city’s personality was in the past, all its pride delusional.” And yet, when Amos keeps reiterating this to her like the self-superior scum that most Brooklynites (of the gentrifying variety) are, it only seems to get her off on the borough all the more. That’s the thing with any New Yorker, regardless of borough. The more someone hates on it, the more it seems to become a point of “honor” and delight to declare unwavering allegiance. So it is that Lola adds, “What Amos never understood was that with each pronouncement of my home as a dead zone, he made me feel better about living here.”
What Lola never does feel “better” about is moving on. That’s part of why she maintains all the relics of her relationships past in a box. As though to remind herself that, for as cold as she might come across during her breakups, “Resiliency is overrated. To get hit by a truck and ride the subway the next morning is not commendable, it’s insane.” This accurate assessment also speaks to the recent phenomenon of the DSM classifying prolonged grief as a disorder. We’re all expected by society to “just get over it” within a “respectable” amount of time that will allow us to still go on without faltering so that we can continue to go to work and help fuel the capitalist machine. But what if “getting over it” is just another term for suppressing all emotion tied to a person who once supposedly knew us best.
As for Boots, he knows much more about Lola than he lets on, yet still looks the other way. Including with regard to her rather undisguised misgivings about marriage. As she describes, “Boots had come along at a time when any reasonable person would’ve assumed I had an educated stance. If I wanted to take the political route, marriage was confinement, a raw deal. People hoped for transformation but too often got lobotomization. Idealization hardened into disappointment. But life is not lived in politics, it’s lived in days.” While Boots is unequivocal about marriage, and specifically one with Lola, Lola is markedly less so. But, as she insists, “Even if I was only ever borrowing someone else’s certainty, it would become mine eventually… I decided right there and then that if there was ever anything so terribly wrong with me, it was only that I was a woman who’d spent her youth in New York and never left.” Again, it becomes a source of masochistic pride for New Yorkers—especially female New Yorkers—to stay and stay, accumulating as much unnecessary trauma and skewed perspective as possible all for the sake of the presumed “prize” at the end. Whether this means an actual enduring relationship with one of the last of the hetero males or the ability to keep claiming the badge of “honor” of “living” in New York (if one can count living as wading through the ghosts that await with each foray outside of the apartment). Worse still, the longer one stays, the less prone to actually enjoying the city they become. Lola puts it best when she says, “New Yorkers treated experiences as vaccinations. They went to the Whitney every two years, Coney Island every five, the ballet every twenty.”
What’s more, she’s been there long enough to be of the delusion that “New York was a field of tall poppies, awaiting a beheading.” No darling, they’re just the poppies with egos big enough to stay and “prove” something. To who, apart from Capitalism or Mommy and Daddy, is unclear. Nonetheless, Lola prefers to remain brainwashed about the city being the “real world,” as she comments during her jaunt to a wedding with Boots outside of NYC, “I always forgot how life outside the city had a completely different texture. The days were easier here, warmer or cooler upon command. Being picked up in a car with no screen or meter affixed to the dashboard reminded me of childhood. But for all the surface comforts, the materials that made up this world were much harsher. Everything was coins in the console, gravel in the shoe, ticks in the grass, ice in the pipes, splinters on the wood.” One supposes she prefers coins jammed in the washing machine slot, gum on the bottom of the shoe, bed bugs in the bed, still ice in the pipes and blood stains on the brick wall. Seeing New York through rose-colored glasses that are deliberately gray makes her, like so many, “appreciate” it all the more whenever she deigns to leave it for a few hours.
Even her revolving door of exes becomes a source of pleasure-pain. Case in point, Jin, one of Clive’s lackeys who works for free at the Golconda and operates a sort of post-encounter test (involving suction cups) on Lola’s anti-meet-cutes, asks why she stayed with a certain man if she saw a discrepancy in their love level from the outset. Lola explains, “I sort of always think a guy will be it.” Jin asks, “As in ‘the one’?” Lola rebuffs, “No, as in an endangered species. I’m sorry if that sounds pathetic, I’m sure it does. But it’s where monogamy comes from and no one thinks monogamy sounds pathetic.”
New York, for as “anti”-monogamy as it seems compared to other towns, still, however, expects its denizens to “finally” settle down at some point after enough “play.” And that’s, disgustingly, half the reason why a barrage of women in particular come to New York. Just look as Louise (Jennifer Hudson) in Sex and the City unabashedly answering Carrie’s question, “Why’d you move to New York?” with “To fall in love.” One can’t imagine Lola being quite so cornball, but, at the core of things, some part of her must have wanted that. To make the attempt at “feeling” (rooted in the false propaganda of NY-centric film and TV). Unaware that all feelings become numb in New York after a while.
Nonetheless, it undercuttingly bills itself as a romance capital on par with Paris. To this end, Lola seethes to Jin and Vadis, “Romance may be the world’s oldest cult. It hooks you when you’re vulnerable, holds your deepest fears as collateral, renames you something like ‘baby,’ brainwashes you, then makes you think that your soul will wither and die if you let go of a person who loved you. So you better have a good goddamn reason for saying ‘nah, not enough.’ The love lobby is worse than the gun lobby. More misery, more addiction, more heads on spikes.” So there’s one aspect of the title explained to its readers.
In addition to being yet another “love letter” to New York that openly spotlights all the ways in which the town is actually kind of shit, to a certain extent, Cult Classic speaks to the illustrious Sylvia Plath paragraph in The Bell Jar about the fig tree. One moment, it feels like all the figs—all the choices—are available to Esther, the next, they’ve all rotten and fallen off, leaving her with nothing. Crosley thusly characterizes Lola’s reluctance to make a final decision as follows: “It’s 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.” And yes, to portray a female protagonist as being so commitment-phobic is still, unfortunately, groundbreaking territory. Though not if said female happens to live in New York, where neuroses are purportedly fully embraced… so long as you still follow the unspoken manual of life sooner or later.