Observational Essays on Neighbors, Health, Gossip Girl Gossips, and Sometimes the Mundane

Book review: Look Alive Out There, by Sloane Crosley

Sloane Crosley’s new essay collection is the first of her work I’ve read, despite her popularity, particularly for her personal essays, and having recognized her name when she made a cameo on Gossip Girl (I’ve recently admitted my shame over this, let’s not dwell on it.)

I definitely needed a lighthearted essay collection when I read this, as I’ve been swamped with work and the few minutes I found to read every other day last week absolutely needed to be light and distracting.

These essays definitely met those requirements, even when she was addressing more serious topics like egg freezing, the death of an acquaintance, sudden onset of recurring illness, the unexpectedly stressful experience of having to negotiate the repurchase of one’s domain name from an unscrupulous stranger, or the sadness in combing through an older porn star relative’s life choices (yeah, yikes.)

Unfortunately, I wasn’t all that engaged with every story being told. That’s often the case with essay collections – there are big hits and big misses, but I felt pretty middle of the road about most of these.

A sometimes wonderful and yet sometimes boring element of these stories is that they’re not always about something. If Seinfeld was a show about nothing, I’d say these essays are about nothing too, even when there’s a core topic at the heart of them, in the same kind of mildly enjoyable way. But for my tastes, and I love some meandering nothingness in personal essays, they just didn’t always captivate. She tells stories about her experiences which are sometimes interesting and insightful to read, elsewhere feeling too much ado about nothing.

I liked “Outside Voices” best, maybe self-centeredly because I can relate, I didn’t like reading about bad mountain climbing experiences in Ecuador because it felt strangely over-described without all that much actually happening. There’s a lot of observational filler that’s sometimes fantastic, sometimes winky see-what-I-did-there with a turn of phrase but never making an effective point.

“Outside Voices” is a gem though, where Crosley describes becoming obsessed with her noisy neighbors, including a teenage son who regularly gathers with his friends in the yard, unfortunately well within earshot of her apartment.

His cackle was like one of those purposefully ugly sculptures, the kind of art that considers your irritation an accomplishment. Really, I can’t say enough bad things about it.

They say smell is the strongest trigger of memory, but let us not underestimate the bone-chilling power of sound. The sound of cigarettes being packed against a table. The sound of tracks being skipped. The sound of a porch door banging. These were the harbingers, the sounds of my torturers clearing their throats. Sometimes Jared would leave the music on after he left, a tactic generally employed by war criminals.

She has an excellent way of making a completely hilarious joke or reference like that, that feels like it appears so quickly in the course of a story. And as I said, maybe as a fellow city dweller living all too cramped together with neighbors all the time, I understand her here sadly too well. I know this neighborly war criminal nonstop music tactic well. I think if you find that common ground with her here and there throughout her personal storytelling, these’ll strike you as much as this one piece did me.

It did seem there were a lot of neighbor-themed stories though, which I guess underscores the fact that she works at home and that’s her world. I just found my interest straying here and there.

I was curious about her Gossip Girl story and the hidden treasure of it actually ended up being her recollection of an awkward interview she’d done years before with Chace Crawford. I kept rereading it and laughing, I wish she’d have done a whole separate story just on how weird and disastrous that was. I’m smiling even remembering it. She gets a lot of writing mileage out of relatively short, quick events, sometimes making them feel overblown in the telling, but even I would love a two-part Gossip Girl-themed essay despite her seconds of screen time and hilariously awful interview.

Part of her Gossip Girl story is annoyance at the one line they gave her, an awkwardly phrased play on her first book’s catchy title, I Was Told There’d Be Cake. As a writer, she certainly had every right to be annoyed, but this leads me to another reason I couldn’t love this book: I felt like there were plenty of instances where the phrasing was clunky and awkward, trying hard to sound clever.

Granted, I was very tired while reading this so my brain wasn’t processing at normal speed, but sometimes I found myself rereading lines that seemed so purposely yet pointlessly overwritten. I started to pull annoying examples (then stopped, because why focus on the negative) but trust that some were not dissimilar to her maligned Gossip Girl line.

But here just one, in a quote from one of the multiple (I lost count) essays about various neighbors: “He left sandwiches for the crack addict who sometimes slept in our vestibule with her knees tucked into her T-shirt, the scent of her lack of other habits seeping into the hallway and under my apartment door.”

“The scent of her lack of other habits”? Huh? I got it eventually, but I didn’t get anything from it.

Now for some better, and funnier, examples:

That which does not kill us makes us stronger: an idea that started with Nietzsche, got laundered through a century of throw pillows, and came out through the mouth of Kanye West.

I made a mistake and paid for it by wrestling with a pig. Not only did the pig like it, the pig has moved on to other troughs. But I have not.

It’s a good light, usually distracting read for a glimpse into someone else’s life. Humorous, experiential essays from an urban woman with a sharp, critical eye for the world around her, leading to sometimes wonderful, sometimes mundane observations. Verdict: 3/5

Look Alive Out There: Essays
by Sloane Crosley
published April 3, 2018 by Farrar Strauss & Giroux

Affiliate links included from Book Depositorya great site (I’ve bought there) offering free shipping, worldwide. I get a small percentage of the sale – you pay nothing extra – if you use my links to buy books seen here. I’m never paid to promote or review any title.

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