To older generations, the children of the Reagan and Bush I years must seem aesthetically impoverished. We don't have memories of soda fountains or dashikis. The bell-bottoms we wore were sadly derivative of a more rebellious era. The palette of our nostalgia is less sepia, less psychedelic and more Hypercolor. In other words, a little tacky and entirely commercial.
This, presumably, would flatten out our memoirs. But "I Was Told There'd Be Cake," Sloane Crosley's debut collection of essays, gives vibrant voice to the mall-rat generation. With piquant prose, Crosley brings bite to reminiscences of a comfortable childhood in suburban White Plains, N.Y., and her salad days in Manhattan. Crosley is a privileged but familiar narrator. Most of us know a Sloane: that smart, sardonic friend who homes in on the ridiculous aspects of any situation and amplifies them to maximum hilarity.
Crosley's essays treat recognizable benchmarks for children of the '80s and early '90s. In "Bring-Your-Machete-to-Work Day" she writes about the bland but hypnotic computer game Oregon Trail. "It's like watching some brilliant independent film where there are no cuts and no scene changes, only a wagon and a little thing called destiny. It's also like watching a lost ant crawl across the kitchen counter." Using her wagon as a vehicle of schadenfreude, young Crosley would load it up with stock adolescent enemies -- such as her math teacher -- and subject them to starvation and dysentery.
In "Christmas in July," Crosley remembers the Christian summer camp to which her Jewish parents sent her for eight consecutive summers. It "inspired a kind of intense mass psychotic loyalty and the kind of bonding normally catalyzed by negative experiences -- plane crashes, hostage situations, concentration camps." This arch tone permeates the entire book. Avoiding the typical pitfalls of autobiographical writing, Crosley doesn't try to woo readers with sweetness or posturing. Rather, her writerly persona is a blend of candor, wit and self-deprecation. The title, which sounds like the utterance of a bemused latecomer to the French Revolution, conveys the sheepishness with which Crosley engages the world.
In other essays, she writes of her verbal tics, the origins of her first name, of being a bridesmaid for a former classmate who is off her radar, of the horrors of moving from one New York apartment to another and of being a half-hearted volunteer at the Museum of Natural History.
In "The Ursula Cookie" she chronicles her first grown-up job as an editorial assistant at a publishing house. Under her exigent boss' withering gaze, Crosley melts into a puddle of incompetency, leading her to desperate, confectionery atonement tactics. (Despite this traumatic initiation, Crosley continues to work in the publishing industry, a fact that no doubt helped her score enviable blurbs from Jonathan Lethem and Colson Whitehead.)
Though the book begins with a disclaimer (some names have been changed, identifying features blurred, timelines compressed), the unresolved endings of Crosley's essays suggest a certain veracity. Just as life doesn't unfurl in a series of classical narrative arcs, neither do these essays. The journey toward these sometimes unsatisfying conclusions, however, is a pleasure.
Megan Doll is a recent graduate of New York University's graduate program in cultural reporting and criticism. She lives in Brooklyn.