One of today’s masters of the personal essay, Sloane Crosley, brilliantly explores a wide range of topics, from elementary school grudges to fertility, in her new collection, Look Alive Out There (MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2018). Crosley’s third book of essays, published ten years after her first, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, maintains her signature wit while offering stronger self-reflection.
Perhaps one of the most striking essays in this new collection is “Outside Voices,” in which Crosley describes her one-sided relationship with a noisy teenage neighbor in her West Village apartment. Crosley sets the scene by introducing the neighbor, Jared, from her distant perspective.
How do I begin to explain my relationship with this creature? Is it a relationship if you’ve never met? Certainly this is an acceptable dynamic online, but played out in real life it’s called stalking. All five of the windows in my apartment faced Jared’s house. And for as many years, I heard every word this kid said.
Crosley crafts the character of Jared with humor and ease—the reader simultaneously knows everything and nothing about him, just as the narrator does. While much of the essay discusses the idiosyncrasies of New York City life, it strays from insularity and exclusionary language. New Yorkers, in particular, may commiserate with the author and the standard of claustrophobia in New York apartment living; but fundamentally, “Outside Voices” is about privacy and perception. The author’s tangible frustration comes not only from the invasion of her own privacy, but also from her inadvertent invasion of Jared’s. She doesn’t want to know as much about Jared’s life as she does, but the fact of the matter is that she does, which ultimately drives her intervention in his life. Through dialogue and her sharp-tongued narrative voice, Crosley invites the reader into her mind and effectively expresses the terror that Jared has caused her. In one scene, the she describes an instance in which Jared and his friends witness the narrator and her boyfriend, who is referred to as “the emotionally unavailable man,” naked through a window.
“What’s the relationship?” [Jared] shouted up, making a megaphone of his hands.
“You have to admit,” said the emotionally unavailable man, “that’s some sophisticated heckling.”
Staying low, I opened the window further.
“Shut up, Jared!” I snapped.
Jared’s friends snorted and slapped the table.
“Oh shit, man,” said one of them, “she knows your name!”
It was the first time I’d used his name, a treat I had been saving for myself. I lay on my back and grinned at the ceiling.
Without much of a physical description or other basic information, it would seem that Jared is initially a difficult character to connect with, although Crosley provides just enough characterization for readers to understand who he is and what he represents. Similarly, the lack of characterization of the narrator’s boyfriend, an authorial choice, emphasizes the discrepancy between perception and true identity, a common thread throughout the essay.
There is also the issue of Jared’s name. The repetition and sonic presence of his name is such an integral part of the essay, and finding a pseudonym for this character to do justice to the havoc he’s wreaked is no small task. Is it a coincidence that the name Jared is one currently circulating the media with disdain, thus catching readers up to speed with a similar sense of frustration? For Crosley, a known lover of wordplay, it would be hard to believe that this wasn’t a conscious choice. By the end of the essay, the author, exacerbated by neighbor-induced mania, comes to a realization that despite Jared’s, and later his younger sister’s, unwanted presence in her life, and vice versa, their existences are ultimately separate. “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.”
While much of the essay is light and energetic in tone, this excerpt in the last paragraph of the piece suggests the true toll that this relationship, or lack thereof, has taken on the narrator. The author uses imagery to form a juxtaposition between Crosley’s identity in an enclosed, indoor space and Jared’s in a presumably freer, outdoor space. As a woman in her thirties, Crosley has earned a degree of security in her life, as evidenced by her five-windowed apartment, while Jared, his friends, and his sister, all teenagers, lack certainty but have a degree of freedom, which is part of what instigates the author’s disdain. Although, as Crosley soberly puts it, her life and Jared’s will continue to exist on different planes, emphasized by their spatial separateness.
Crosley transitions between tones from essay to essay, from the comical to the deeply introspective. The personal essay format lends itself well to tonal shifts, and with that, the opportunity to shed the limitations of more traditional memoir. Take the final essay in the collection, “The Doctor Is a Woman.” While much of the collection is dedicated to the author’s adventures—and misadventures—this essay delves deeper than others in this book, as well as her previous two collections. The author examines the culture of the fertility world and, ultimately, her decision to freeze her eggs.
What makes this essay so remarkable is the author’s description of medical procedures, both from a clinical and a deeply personal perspective. Crosley details the steps of freezing one’s eggs with candor, but uses more casual language to remain true to herself as a writer:
You inject vials of drugs into your abdomen to persuade that one egg to let everyone have a chance. At the end of two weeks, you are briefly knocked out while your eggs are popped in a freezer.
By employing a conversational tone about a serious life event, Crosley invites the reader to join her in this experience. The use of the present tense gives the reader the sense that they are experiencing these events alongside her, rather than being told the story long afterwards. At the same time, this essay includes introspection that allows Crosley incredible vulnerability. “[The eggs] are just floating fractions of an idea. I know that. But I had never seen a part of my body exist outside my body before. I felt such gratitude.” Crosley writes “I know that” after the previous declarative statement, as if she’s addressing the reader directly. While many of Crosley’s essays use language that speaks to her readers for comedic effect, this essay is particularly noteworthy because of the candor and Crosley’s step away from self-deprecating humor. By putting herself at the center of this essay, she is able to provide a genuine account of what the fertility world looks like today while simultaneously exploring greater themes of self-identity and social expectations.
In an essay titled “The Chupacabra,” one of the shorter pieces in the collection, Crosley examines the life of a writer through a reflection on a unique assignment from a magazine—to find a creature, the chupacabra, in rural Vermont. “I am a less-than-ideal candidate for the job. I don’t specialize in mythical-creature hunting or even run-of-the-mill hunting.”
The narrator’s self-deprecating voice is a hallmark of Crosley’s writing style, as is the conversational tone used in this essay. The use of rhetorical questions, like when the narrator examines a flyer offering massage services that is “printed in Comic Sans (is there any other kind?),” offers a sense of familiarity that grounds the more outrageous subject matter of the essay in reality. Surely not all of the experiences Crosley writes about will be relatable to her readers, although her reflections on the unpredictability of the human experience, often expressed through quips, transcend subject. Similarly, in the penultimate essay in the collection, “Our Hour Is Up,” the narrator uses the rhetorical to add her mature sense of wit and perspective to a piece centered on a childhood memory: offering therapy sessions to her elementary school classmates—on Tuesdays specifically. “Why Tuesdays? Because Monday is too loaded, Friday is not loaded enough, Thursday is charged with anticipation for Friday, and Tuesday is essentially a less popular version of Wednesday. And ‘less popular’ is exactly where I belong.” The addition of this clever retrospection helps Crosley reconcile the relationship between the subject of the essay, her younger self, and her present-day narrative voice.
The conversation between the speaker’s two selves serves a major role throughout this collection. Whether it be the child and the adult narrator in “Our Hour Is Up,” the rational and the irrational self in “Outside Voices,” or the writer and the civilian in “The Chupacabra,” Crosley is constantly cracking open the vault of human hypocrisy and duality through the examination of her own experiences.