Sloane Crosley, The New York Times bestselling author of three books of essays, is back with “Cult Classic,” a sidesplitting novel that serves both as a critique of surveillance capitalism and a redemptive (yet grounded) love story. Lola, an editor in her late 30s, must navigate a gauntlet of ex-boyfriends in New York City when her friends enter her into a grand romantic experiment without her consent.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Let’s set the stage. Tell me a little about who Lola is and what she’s going through.
“Cult Classic” leads with both Lola’s romantic status and with her professional status. She is a 37-year-old woman who has dated a lot in New York, but is now engaged to someone who we only know as Boots, which is her silly nickname for him. When the book starts, Lola is at a work reunion dinner in Lower Manhattan. She used to work for a magazine called Modern Psychology, and like so many old media publications, it folded. But she still has a family-like relationship with her co-workers. At some point, she leaves to get cigarettes, which is bad, don’t smoke. When she comes back, she runs into an ex-boyfriend and they have a sort of cinematic, Richard Linklater-esque evening together. It’s a chatty, funny, heady reunion. Which is fine, people sometimes run into each other and get drinks. But then this keeps on happening with other exes. Eventually, she confides in her friend who also used to work at the magazine, and it turns out her friend, as well as her former boss, are in cahoots and Lola is their guinea pig in a grand, romantic mind-control experiment that’s being run out of an abandoned shul on the Lower East Side.
But that’s not saying exactly what the book is about. It’s about commitment and thinking about where the past belongs, and it’s hopefully a socially observant and funny novel. Some of the early reviews have mentioned these top notes of magical realism or wackiness, but it’s not magic. I think if I had all the money in the world and I chose to use it by putting you and a former paramour in the same restaurant, I don’t think it would be that hard or that expensive. It’s a cult-esque private club, and I don’t want to undermine the potential originality of the book, but I feel like I could build one just like it.
Is this just what cults look like now?
What’s funny is that there is cultlike language and cultlike trappings around things that are much less serious and much less insane and much less manipulative than what goes on in “Cult Classic.” I do want to say, there is a freakish, rubbernecking, tragedy-lover reason we all have for watching shows about real cults, but this is not that. This is more of a sendup of wellness culture and technology and how we live now. But having said that, there are definitely some monochromatic outfits.
Clive Glenn, the former editor of the magazine and the person at the center of this noncult cult is this very magnetic figure. Lola sees his shtick as sort of affected, but realizes that on some level he really believes what he preaches, and the people around him really do. The cult’s project, essentially, tracks down ex-boyfriends using search history data and hypertargeted ads. He made me think of Mark Zuckerberg, who insists that despite their insidious data harvesting, Facebook’s ultimate goal is noble because it aims to connect people. I’m wondering what you think about Clive and Mark’s reasoning.
What are my thoughts on Mark Zuckerburg? Pick a different water sport.
There are experts in this field that are not me, but it is a juvenile idea at this point to think that your likes and interests are what they are harvesting. It’s actually you that’s being sold. It’s your behavior that’s being studied. It’s how long you’re spending on a page and every profile you’ve ever had. I’ve gone through periods of time where I prefer to use Signal or WhatsApp, and it’s not because I think my data is so worthy of encryption, but it’s just because you want to know what you’re a cog in the wheel of.
I think it was Bernays or someone like that who originally thought of the concept of ads selling people things they don’t need, which is not the original purpose of advertising. The original purpose was to remind people about what they actually needed, but to say that ‘you need this because your neighbors have it, your life isn’t complete without it’ — that’s a phenomenon of the late 20th century. When I look at Clive, I see someone who doesn’t think he’s doing something bad. His lines of boundaries and morality have all been blurred.
Lola clearly does see through the cult’s grand claims about her love life, but despite being creeped out, on some level she seems to take it for granted that half a decade’s worth of exes can be lured to this five-block area. Is this because it’s benefiting her, or is it that this level of instruction is so banal at this point?
It is so banal. I think she goes through it because her own curiosity of what this could get her personally overrides any hesitation she might have about what it means morally. This is turning the dial up on something you signed up for when you signed up for social media and agreed to give your information to the internet. In the book it’s treated quite satirically and is not necessarily held up as the downfall of our civilization, even though that and carbon emissions totally are.
One of the big concepts of this book is closure. There is a line where you say “no breakup, even an okay one, is complete until you dig like a pair of truffle-sniffing pigs to find out what happened.” Do you think there is any utility in revisiting the past?
I don’t personally think that you need to carbon-date every incident, or that everything needs to be shoved in an evidence bag and waved in the other person’s face. Part of the reason I wrote the book is to talk about dating and romance in a way that isn’t just “the rent is too high.”
There is a line towards the end of the book where Lola says if closure exists, “it’s to be found in letting the doors swing open.” It’s the pressure to constantly keep your hand against the door that potentially keeps you from moving on with your life. I’m not a relationship expert, but that sounds right to me.
Clive has a nice line about love being “a network of associations.”
I think that the idea that we’re programmable is a big question in the book, but also how much of what you experience is how much is being manipulated from the outside and how much is coming from inside of the house.
Are you going to feel guilty if this kind of cultish dating center really comes to exist someday?
I love that question. Do I get stock in it?
Maybe it will be named after you.
The Sloane Crosley Foundation for Romantic Betterment. I feel like Seattle has a lot of people that are very open to venture capital and startup culture. If they want to give me money to start a cult, I will not fight them.