If Sloane Crosley republished her 2008 New York Times–bestselling debut essay collection, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, in 2018, it would still be dark and rich.
“There’d just be more layers to it,” Crosley says by phone from New York City. “Let’s not ruin something that’s beloved, but I think it would be even better, have a little more dimension...that comes with the realization that you don’t have to be the dancing monkey all the time.”
Arriving nearly 10 years to the day after its eldest sibling, Look Alive Out There joins a burgeoning brood including How Did You Get This Number (2010) and the novel The Clasp (2015). Like the easygoing change-of-life baby who, in adulthood, smokes everyone out at the family reunion, it is the groovy beneficiary of more confident and relaxed parenting.
“I’ve eased up on making sure that everything is a pun, everything is a joke,” she says. “It works a little bit more when you’re younger, like stand-up comedy in print. But now, because I have a tiny bit of wisdom, a little bit of experience, and a little bit of depth, it seems weird to not use it.”
Look Alive Out There’s wisdom is often hard-won. In “Up the Down Volcano,” the costs are physical: Our dangerously underprepared heroine gets severe altitude sickness in Ecuador, attempting to climb Cotopaxi on the recommendation of a hardy (terrible) Australian friend for a travel magazine assignment.
“More than experiencing dehydration as your feet punch through the very substance that might otherwise hydrate you,” Crosley writes, “loneliness is one of the elements. And no mountain guide in the world, good or bad, can protect you from that.”
The costs in the collection’s ultimate essay, “The Doctor Is a Woman,” are more emotional and financial. Contemplating potential parenthood, Crosley decides to freeze her eggs, a process that includes attending a mandatory fertility-treatment preparatory class.
“We arrived in the order of what kind of parent we would be,” she writes. “Women who got there early and sat up front would be the kind of mom who put notes in their children’s lunchboxes. Women who sat in the second row would remember it was Purple Shirt Day the night before and do a stealth load of laundry. Women who sat in the back would let their kids drink in the basement.” (She arrives second to last.)
There’s a reason this essay—“the blood-on-the-field essay,” she calls it—is the collection’s conclusion.
“I feel like you have to earn it, before you start spilling your guts,” says Crosley, who alternates hearty courses with crisper, more palate-cleansing interstitial fare in Look Alive Out There.“You have to sing for your supper, entertain people for a long time, before you get [to those] heavyweight essays with meat on the bone—then it’s sort of got dynamite strapped to it at the back end.”
It seems the older Crosley gets, the more her sight’s improving: “A smart, droll essay collection that is all over the map but focused by Crosley’s consistently sharp eye,” Kirkus writes (starred review).
Look Alive Out There bestows laughter with tiers.
“What humor does, a little bit, is say, you’re not alone,” she says. “Here is your army of freaks that think the same dark things are funny.”
Megan Labrise is a staff writer and the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.