Look Alive Out There, review
BOOKS | New collection of essays by Sloane Crosley is good, but Look Alive Out There still irks me | Macmillan.
I don’t think I’m a particularly good judge of Sloane Crosley’s writing. I’ve talked about this before. Her books are good, I guess, yet they still bug me. Something always feel lacking. Something always feel wrong.
Crosley’s essays are sort of funny, though not especially so. I find it strange that she’s always hailed for being such a wonderful humourist, similar to David Sedaris. Other than the fact that they both write essays, I see very few similarities.
I think her non-fiction is strongest when it’s serious. It’s the sad bits, the touching moments, when I feel I can relate to her best.
In her first essay collection, the part I loved most appeared in the very first story, “The Pony Problem”. After what seems like a wacky, light essay about having an awkward and shameful collection of toy horses, each given by a boyfriend who thought he was making a unique little in-joke, there is a short line right at the end, about the ponies being (or rather, not being), “proof that I tried to love and that people have tried to love me back.”
I loved that. Syntax aside (I pettily want her to have written “have tried to love me in return” instead of “love me back” for some reason, and yes, I know I’m probably wrong and “love me back” probably does sound objectively better, but blah), I think this is a beautiful idea and a glimmer of real insight. Coming as it did, right at the end of the first essay in her first collection, it’s probably the reason I kept on with Crosley for all these years.
I did learn things from this book.
In the second essay, “Outside Voices”, she details her obsessive hatred of a noisy neighbour, which is deeply relatable. The key take away for me was that she ultimately foiled the noise-makers by buying two 600 watt halogen flood lights and shining them out whenever they became too obnoxious. I’ll definitely be filing that little idea away. Better than contemplating actual murder, which is what I default to when I have a shitty neighbour.
Otherwise, though, while Look Alive Out There was fine, I wanted more. More “love me back” moments. Less myopic white lady narcissism.
The central piece in the book, unfortunately, is “Up the Down Volcano” which is about her idiotically ill-advised attempt to climb Cotopaxi in Ecuador. This story is so infuriating, and her behaviour throughout not only fundamentally stupid and entitled, but incredibly, repeatedly, unrepentantly racist. (This despite a bit near the top about how one of the reasons she under-prepares, by not preparing at all, is that it seems racist not to???). It made me want to stop reading and put the book directly into the trash.
“Up the Down Volcano” is peak fucking white woman. I don’t know what she was trying to do with it. Is her behaviour meant to be cute? Was I supposed to chuckle? I shudder to think of how many people likely did. This kind of poisonous thinking, this hipster racism, is so prevalent and so fucking disgusting. It made me wish she’d died on the volcano.
For me, the strongest essay in the collection is “Wolf”, which is about losing her eponymous URL to a dickwad who then ransomed it back to her for thousands of dollars.
I don’t know why I enjoyed this essay so much. I suppose because it felt like something that could happen to me? I also use Hotmail as a graveyard. One day, if I’m not careful, I could fall victim to just such a wolf. (People who squat on domains/buy them at auction just to extort others are assholes, by the way.)
No one else seems to have made much of “Wolf”, however. I guess it seems too frivolous? The end-piece essay, “The Doctor is a Woman” has been getting a lot more attention.
The Washington Post did a Q&A with Crosley about the book, which included the question, “You tweeted that your story about deciding to freeze your eggs is the most personal essay you’ve written. Why does it feel especially intimate to you?” Crosley answered, “There’s both an emotion and an urgency to that essay, because this is exactly what is truly going on in my life right now.”
I mean, I guess so? Maybe? A 40 year-old white woman who has the means to freeze her eggs, even though she isn’t even sure she wants children, and then is lucky enough to get a HUGE extraction of more than 65 of those said eggs, when most other women would consider themselves seriously lucky to get, say, a dozen, and then is still totally wishy washy about it is just … something. Something really hard to relate to.
Crosley’s clearly grown up a lot as a person and as a writer in the decade since her first book came out.
In Look Alive Out There, that shows, but there’s also a sort of overarching sense of distance to this book. I feel like there’s a wall or barrier between me as a reader and “the real Sloane” or at least, a believable facsimile of the real Sloane. I actually don’t need it to be real, I just want it to feel real, you know?
In the end, despite a few truly gross and cringe-worthy moments, it was quick to read, and fairly pleasant to read, that’s worth something. It was also literary enough to not feel embarrassing when consumed in public, but somehow not sustaining.
Look Alive Out There was released on April 3, 2018.