Crosley’s 38-year-old narrator Lola is as brilliant and risqué a wit as Mrs. Maisel, and though she could similarly be a successful stand-up, Lola is an editor, having worked for nine years at Modern Psychology, a magazine she describes as “a scientific periodical, the oldest and most prestigious in the nation, if not the world,” and her editorial team as “the gate-keepers for the profession, the legitimizers of research, the debunkers of myth.” Its editor-in-chief was Clive Glenn, and after the “print-media world evaporated” before their eyes and the magazine folded, Clive became “a full-blown psych guru,” with trademarked meditation kits and talk shows.
Yet his staff didn’t fare as well, with Lola’s awkward colleague Vadis going to work at a “‘bedding and lifestyle’ company,” while Zach oversees “the editorial page of a headhunting agency.” Lola now runs the arts and culture column of a site called Radio New York, where she “farmed out bite-size nostalgia in the mode of lists of popular books and movies and podcasts, or assigned essays on popular books or movies or podcasts or think pieces responding to widely circulated essays on popular books or movies or podcasts.” As you can see, Cult Classic mocks the vacuous state of our digital media landscape and ever-shrinking American attention span, but all of this is simply contextual fodder for Crosley’s real interest — commitment, specifically marriage, which one character dismisses as “agreeing to live in someone else’s narrative.”
Yes, Lola has finally become engaged — to a man named Max, whom she calls Boots, a nickname he received as a child. Crosley accordingly presents him with childlike simplicity, making him puritanically loyal, and giving him a practical artistic profession (glassblower). He’s good for Lola, but she’s not sure if she’s good for him: the scales of their love are lopsided. Perhaps Lola has a fear of commitment, or perhaps she simply stayed in New York too long, but the fact is she’s had so many relationships that Zach calls her “the town bicycle.” And she still keeps a box of ex-boyfriend mementos. In other words, she’s not quite ready to give up living in a narrative of her own.
The story begins during a dinner with Lola’s old Modern Psychology colleagues at a restaurant in Chinatown, when she heads outside to smoke a cigarette and sees one of her ex-boyfriends, Amos. They go to a bar, and their easy intimacy over late-night drinks reveals that Lola is not as fully committed to Boots and the idea of marriage as she might want to be. But it was a random, one-time occurrence, she tells herself the next morning, and the past is the past. Yet the next night she finds herself in the same Chinatown restaurant, where she runs into another ex-boyfriend, Willis. When a third run-in happens with another ex, Dave, Lola knows well enough that coincidences can only go so far, and she suspects that something Twilight Zone–ish is happening to her. And she’s right.
Not to expose too much of Crosley’s plot, but it turns out that her ex-colleagues Vadis and Zach still work for Clive, who has created a company — if not a cult — he calls Golconda, which is the title of that Magritte painting in which dozens of men in suits and bowler hats rain down from the sky. The painting hangs in Clive’s office, and the company uses direct-ad marketing, meditation, the power of suggestion, and good old-fashioned behavioral psychology to manipulate people (in this case, Lola’s ex-boyfriends) into going to a certain area of New York (where they will run into Lola). Now, why would they do that? Because Lola’s love life is a test case for the company’s product — a beta version, if you will — and the product is the experience she’s having, all those run-ins with her exes.
But what would be the point of such a company? Especially if it costs $250,000 to have them create such an experience? Closure. The point is closure. Before someone like Lola says “I do,” they want to make sure they’re making the right decision. They may still harbor romantic feelings toward one ex or another, thinking what if. What if I had been more tolerant, would that relationship have worked out? Or, alternatively, what if lingering anger towards an ex is causing unwanted behavioral traits, such as a fear of commitment? If you could only confront your ex and let go of those feelings, you’d be free of them, and thus free to finally commit. It doesn’t sound like such a crazy idea, but the exorbitant price? As Clive says, people pay more than that for a lifetime of therapy, so why not offer them “a chance to confront their demons in the span of minutes”?
If you’re confused about how Golconda works, Clive tells Lola to “think of it as A Christmas Carol,” to which Lola responds, “Yeah, by way of The Exorcist.” Later, she says she “felt like a human Etch-A-Sketch — all I had to do was blink and a new chapter of my past would be waiting for me.” But it’s really more like This Is Your Life, that old reality show in which the host surprised guests by taking them through a retrospective of their past, bringing in old colleagues, friends, and family, all in front of a studio audience. In Cult Classic, it’s ex-boyfriends. And though I appreciate Crosley’s satirical style and sharp wit, the relentless skewering of one ex after another becomes problematic.
Let’s look, for instance, at what Lola calls the “One Great Big Pile.” In this pile “were men whose dating profiles had read like rules at a public pool: No tattoos. No couch potatoes. No heavy drinkers. No picky eaters. No taking oneself too seriously. NO DRAMA! Men who demanded a woman have a sense of humor but showed no signs of being funny.” Men who Lola says broke up with her because she was too good for them, but “[a]h,” she adds, “when do we send our food back to the kitchen because it’s too delicious?” There were “men who didn’t think they were misogynists because they defended the actions of famous women. Or famous minority women. Or famous trans women.” She goes on to say that these “men were like tropical fish, easily stressed by too much communication or too little.” In short, men are always, intrinsically, wrong, not to mention stupid, and this sort of misandrist belittling continues throughout the novel.
I imagine many readers will nod along with Lola’s mockery of men, wondering what’s the problem. The problem, it seems to me, is a rather embarrassing lack of empathy. After all, many critics claim that reading fiction creates empathy. As Zadie Smith argued in a 2019 essay in The New York Review of Books, fiction is not about judging people but understanding them. “I am fascinated to presume, as a reader, that many types of people, strange to me in life, might be revealed, through the intimate space of fiction, to have griefs not unlike my own,” Smith writes. Fiction, she continues, allows us to see “what invisible griefs we might share, over and above our many manifest and significant differences.” If this capacity to create empathy is the purpose of fiction, or at least one of its greatest benefits, then Crosley’s Cult Classic fails in a crucial way.
Despite the too-clever “it’s not me, it’s you” conclusions Lola comes to, Clive’s Golconda project ultimately seems to work. Lola is able to process the feelings she has for the men of her past, sometimes by merely seeing them, determining she doesn’t want them, and concluding that it’s best they’re no longer in her life. But does that mean she’s ready to marry? I won’t say. Because really the book’s conclusion isn’t as important as its idea — the metaphor of Golconda itself.
Crosley is at her most insightful when she captures the way certain moments and feelings mark our minds forever: “Every second of our lives,” she writes, “is pressed from two sides — the present and the past — like coal. Mostly we don’t notice it. We don’t notice we’re in a continuum. Other times the pressure gets so intense, it turns all existence into a diamond.” Whether she means existence becomes something hard and permanent, or something valuable and beautiful, she doesn’t say. But I’d like to think she means that every moment of existence, if we think about it with the proper perspective, is rare and precious, and that we should treat our lives accordingly.
Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications.