I Was Told There’d be Cake, Essays by Sloane Crosley. Riverhead Books, $14.
When this book was published last month, the general buzz around the internet was about how nice and well-liked its author was ("the Most Popular Publicist in New York," according to the New York Observer) and what a cool a website she had for her book. I rolled my eyes at the coverage, but the author’s name struck me. I racked my brain trying to figure out why. Then it hit me: she went to a very small New England college with one of my best friends. You don’t forget a name like "Sloane."*
So I picked up the book at McNally Robinson last week, read it in one sitting, and find I have only good things to say about it! I’m as shocked as you are.
Through all that buzz (and this episode of Titlepage) I had heard there was a "bit" about My Little Ponies, I had heard there was an essay in which someone takes a dump on her bathroom floor; but the essays are about so much more than 80s references and scatological mishaps. What I like– really like– is that Crosley’s writing goes a step beyond hipster referentiality. She’s admirably self-aware. She knows the pony thing is a weird, un-funny tick, and she spends some time thinking about why she does it and how to move on from it.
The funniest moment, for me, is when her boss throws a manuscript at
her head– all the more so because in my first job out of college (in PR, ironically) I too had a boss throw something large at my head (an office phone). But it isn’t only the relate-ability of the scrapes
she gets into, or the randomness of them, or Crosley’s way with
sarcastic commentary. What’s appealing in these essays is their mix of the specific and the
universal– the reflexive reference to pop culture (from Travelocity to
Tamagotchi) are cradled in narratives that evoke weird rituals from out of another era
altogether (the all-girls Christian summer camp she attended in New Hampshire, to which she is fiercely loyal today) or those which are intensely of our era (being asked to be a bridesmaid for a friend she hasn’t seen from high school; Bridezilla hijinks ensue).
She’s not out to postulate, to theorize, or to wax emotional, but to entertain; she is the kind of person who consoles her roommate when his bike is
stolen from their 5th floor fire escape that "if thieves had found a
way to take it, they probably deserved it: Plus they had left his
helmet, which I found to be a kind gesture." And that is funny, and quirky. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there is a questioning of the self here, a frequent attribute of the memoir genre, but rather the self on display as a very particular self. The essays take you somewhere that feels familiar– but there is always a bit of unique Sloane-ness that is a reminder of why we read other people’s personal writing. Because they ask themselves the same questions that we do, but they sometimes come up with better answers.
For what it’s worth, I’d say that the essays do seem to be so rooted in the now looking back at the past that it misses the feeling of what it felt like then. The memories seem not to be valued so much for their own sake but for the present moment’s sake. An attempt to understand the me-now without really coming to terms with the me-then. The me-then seems like a performance to shore up the me-now: another variation of the pony tick.
She is acutely aware of her readers’ expectations and levels of incredulity (on one page she mentions
she had a job interview on Sept 12 2001 and got the job; on the next
page she says "most people don’t believe it when I tell them I had a
job interview that day"). Perhaps this anticipation is the key to what makes Sloane Crosley so
well-liked– you can’t accuse her of anything she hasn’t already
accused herself of. The key to success,
Sloane-style: "Nothing was beneath me but the sidewalk." This may well be the case. But what makes her a good writer– and far more worthy of our interest than if she were simply likable, down-to-earth, and entertaining (not in themselves inherently literary attributes)– is her sense of language.
Her chapter on being a lapsed vegetarian, or a pescatarian, or whatever you want to call it, calls for an end to such labels: "The words are secondary to the sentiment." It is precisely this idea that makes middlebrow writing so tiresome, the privilege of the sentiment over the word, the plot over the language. But Crosley’s next sentence belies her previous statement: "Praise be to wheatgrass. Artichoke me with okra and baptize me in beet juice. Juices saves." Ok, it’s a bit cutesy– purposely so–but it has bite. We are far from Carrie Bradshaw-style punning, with its desperation to make pedestrian language sound witty. In Crosley’s domain the words are the things that carry the jokes. It’s not just about the obscurity of the details, or the out-of-left-field references. It’s not about the cheap laugh. There is a certain eccentricity at work here, and it will be interesting to see what she comes up with next.
* (So that’s a disclosure. In case one were needed.)