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Look Alive Out There

By Sloane Crosley

HarperAvenue, 256 pages

It’s been a decade since the release of Sloane Crosley’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake, the full-length debut that helped kickstart an era now (slightly) richer in female first-person narratives. And in those 10 years, a lot has changed: The political landscape is increasingly terrifying, the rise of social media has spawned controversy and social movements and the end of Gossip Girl (an important fact when you find yourself transported to the CW network in one of Crosley’s pieces) has signalled a new and (sort-of) improved taste in pop culture. The thing is, humanity has remained as it was. Which is where Crosley steps in to remind us of that.

Sloane Crosley has a gift. In a single piece she can find a way to be funny, familiar, removed and generously personal. She’s built a career on writing warmly and without condescension; hilariously, and without punching down. Within minutes of reading with her work, you feel as if you know her. Within the next hour, you’re convinced that you’re somehow kindred spirits.

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Writing this way is rare. And it’s the type that makes Crosley’s third book of essays – her first since the release of the 2015 novel, The Clasp – feel compelling and fresh. The magic of Look Alive Out There is its celebration of detail. Whether writing about her childhood-crush-turned-nemesis, the British businessman who swindled her out of thousands, or the complex social life of her teenage neighbour, Crosley takes time to zoom in close enough for us to see ourselves in their eccentricities (or even sometimes her own). She gives us their mannerisms, their voices and their reactions to her and whatever she’s doing. And in painting such detailed pictures, she makes each person seem real; like we know them and have met them or even worse: like we’ve been them, too. Which is easy to imagine because Crosley never depicts herself as her stories’ heroine – she’s not our champion, outsmarting the cast of characters she meets in New York, in Ecuador, or in the middle of nowhere. Instead, she merely opts to exist among personalities so vivid I hope they end up writing books, too. Which, when you’re writing from your own perspective, can be impossible. Usually, we’re the stars of our own stories, whether we’re writing them down or using them to entertain pals at a party.

It’s rare that we pause long enough to lend empathy to an antagonist or to look inward enough to recognize how our own actions or words have been interpreted. I mean arguably, if any of us found ourselves hiking a mountain with a guide who seemed in no way sympathetic to our increasingly severe altitude sickness, we’d portray them as a monster. Or, if we found ourselves on the set of a CW show where the only wardrobe offered was in the form of shapewear, we’d condemn the costume department and maybe even its network. But not Crosley. Instead, she illuminates the picture so brightly we can see the full thing and garner our own interpretations of it. She is an active participant in – and narrator of – her own life.

And that’s what gives Look Alive Out There so much texture and makes you trust (and root for) Crosley so enthusiastically. She’s not trying to paint herself as anything other than a person who’s lived and experienced things. She tell her stories realistically and hilariously, making anyone reading them (hi) jealous of how warmly and effectively she shares.

Because a lot has changed in 10 years. After all, Crosley herself has gone on to become a contributing editor to Vanity Fair – on top of appearing in what seems like countless publications. We’ve seen so many changes across so many platforms that it’s not possible to acknowledge them all in a single review. But despite all of them, we continue to be persons. We continue to exist and to pay rent and to put up with people we’re forced to hang out with sometimes. Ultimately, we continue to try our best. Which is where Look Alive Out There flourishes. Because in the midst of political and social turmoil or breaking news, all we can do is try to live.

And Sloane Crosley understands that. Which is part of her gift.

Anne T. Donahue is the author of Nobody Cares, to be published in September.