Forget Boyfriends, I’m Reading for Cults
I’m done caring about the color of my outfits because I want to focus on the color of my aura
The age of the boyfriend has ended. Give yours away. Donate him to charity or, if he doesn’t have too much wear and tear, maybe you can sell him on The RealReal. Your girlfriend can be a boyfriend, too. If I’m making proclamations about tired conventions then I’m definitely getting rid of gender. Whoever your boyfriend is, show them to the door.
Up until now, the quest for the perfect boyfriend has driven so much of my favorite fiction, both on the page and on the screen. How long I spent chasing Mr. Darcy, grumbly old Rochester, Edward (and Jacob, to be honest), every man (and a few ladies) in Hamilton, Heathcliff, any character played by Cate Blanchett, and even John Proctor. Don’t get me started on Jordan Catalano! These characters, and the other great boyfriends of fiction, balance beauty and danger, and we will follow our protagonist through every circle of Hell to find our way into his arms.
But a number of recent novels have pointed me in a different direction. In Amina Akhtar’s Kismet, Rafael Frumkin’s Confidence, and Matthew Binder’s Pure Cosmos Club, each of the protagonists comes into close contact with a cult, and now the cult is the new toxic driver of my literary obsessions.
After all, what is a cult if not a fuckboy persisting?
Cults, overt and implied, have always been stimulating fodder in entertainment. The change has been in me. I have a new understanding of the allure of the cult. I thought, being a thoroughly damaged queer person, that I could never join one—because I don’t trust anyone—but I’ve come to realize, through great recent fiction, that cults can account for that, too.
Other recent novels have considered cults – Bunny by Mona Awad, Eleutheria by Allegra Hyde, Godshot by Chelsea Bieker, Samuel J. Miller’s The Blade Between, and Rainbow Rowell’s Simon Snow trilogy are a few favorites—so if you’re looking to immerse yourself in literary cultdom, this is the time.
Cults are sensitive topics, and for a good reason. Victims of cults aren’t simply naïve young people who were swept in by a charismatic leader. Many cults rely on psychological, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse to create complex systems that are impossible for those in the grip to escape.
But as a literary device, it’s hard to resist the appeal of the cult. Lately, I’ve found myself reading everything through a pandemic lens. And I read everything through a queer lens, because my eyeballs are 100% gay. Cults are appealing in both the “post” pandemic sense and in the queer sense. Cults offer a community of like-minded souls, a chosen family of sorts, while also offering security.
And who doesn’t want security? Adulthood is a scam. I’m tired of being in charge of my own life. It’s exhausting. I’m so isolated that I barely even call my closest friends because I worry that I can’t give the conversation the time it deserves. And now, as a parent, I find myself changing diapers and making chicken nuggets and wondering: if it takes a village to raise a child, then where is my village?
The United States of America, in some ways the ultimate cult, welcomes wayfarers with the famed Emma Lazarus sonnet inscribed upon the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” I am tired, I am poor, and, after years of huddling and waiting to breathe free – after so many years of consistency, bone-cracking uncertainty – I would love for someone to tell me with absolute certainty what I need to do to persist. What I need to do to transcend. What I need to do to win.
Each of these novels begins with its protagonist cut off from the central figure in their life and searching for this same security that I myself currently crave. The paths they each take towards transcendence are dark, deadly, and preposterously funny, but it’s always understandable why they’re willing to go to such lengths in order to level up.
Ronnie, the complicated lead of Amina Akhtar’s second novel, Kismet, asserts that “real, honest-to-god change [takes] work,” as soon as we meet her on the sunbaked trails of Sedona at the beginning of the novel. Through Ronnie’s experiences, we witness that insidious, slippery path that real cults like Nxivm use to lure people in. In Ronnie’s case, she decides to take “leadership courses” under the wealthy life coach Marley, who encourages her to take the reins of her own life and leave everyone and everything behind. When she does so, however, she gives Marley control rather than taking it for herself.
Anyone who has leapt from a helicopter parent into a controlling relationship (or graduate program) will recognize Ronnie’s plight. As a self-described American-Born Confused Desi (ABCD), she is already an outsider. And when she cuts ties with the abusive aunt who raised her, she doesn’t know what to do with the freedom. White, wealthy Marley takes advantage of that, and she convinces Ronnie to follow her to Sedona, where the lifestyle will surely suit both of them.
Akhtar’s Sedona is a cult in itself, and one of the existential battles within the novel asks who and how many should have access to Sedona and all of nature’s splendor. Lives are dictated by yoga schedules, diets revolve around smoothies, and no outfit is complete without a crystal. And while this may sound satirical, Akhtar deftly resists making outright fun of the Sedona’s inhabitants (characterized by members of the Kismet Center), choosing instead to show the population through Ronnie’s eyes. As she sees it, they are privy to something that she cannot quite grasp.
In our age of extreme and instant comparison, thanks in part to the digitization of our lives (and particularly our achievements), I often feel like other people had an instruction manual that I never received. Because we so often only post about good news, it can seem as if everyone else is achieving instantaneous success while I toil away. And we see this in Ronnie, this yearning to be a part of a vague “something” that will fix everything and transform her into a real adult.
Ronnie is also a woman of color entering into a bone-white space. Whiteness is, of course, the biggest cult of all, indoctrinating its members with a false sense of purpose and protecting all of its members. Akhtar portrays this subtly, both by imbuing many of the book’s wealthy white characters with reserves of confidence and entitlement that approach the absurd and by showing the ways that Marley treats Ronnie like an accessory (and the ways in which Marley feels justified in doing so).
There’s also an unkindness of ravens who make increasingly insistent demands, because of course there is.
Though Marley serves as Ronnie’s entryway into this space, Akhtar brilliantly places cult atop cult, each consuming yet containing the prior like the old woman who swallowed the fly. New Age is within Sedona which is within wealth which is within whiteness. Cults all the way down.
Rafael Frumkin’s second novel, Confidence, opens with our protagonist, Ezra, in jail and trying to recreate the success of NuLife, the cult he and his partner had formed previously, on the outside. When describing Synthesis, the central tenet of the cult, Ezra’s co-conspirator says that “your self-doubt goes into remission.”
Ezra and this partner, fellow cult leader, Orson, had met years before – in a bit of kismet – when both were put in the same youth detention center. It is their relationship, rather than the cult, that drives this propulsive novel.
Frumkin’s story follows the rise and fall of two queers who create NuLife, which vows to eliminate fear and raise self-worth, a beautiful inversion of how queer people, or at least me, are often made to feel in society. It’s also an inversion of the grim melancholy that overtook many during the pandemic, those creeping thoughts that nothing really mattered, that we were all going to die. The fear that we don’t matter.
Of course, this is complicated by the fact that NuLife is a lie—sort of. It works on a few people, so who is to say? Ezra and Orson take on the cult of American wealth and find, of course, that this is a cult that does not easily extend offers of membership. The 1% is a club in which lifetime membership is bestowed at birth, and yet it’s always looking to reduce its number of members. Frumkin cleverly skewers the idea that you can buy your way into happiness, but he also mixes in complex questions about the nature of love, friendship, and class.
Out of all of these questions, the most fun one is: if a really hot guy wanted to start a cult with you, would you do it? (Yes!) Especially if you throw some Robin Hood action in. Frumkin is interested in the ways that people use everything at their disposal to get ahead. For Ezra, that means being smart. For his business partner, Orson, that means being the man of everyone’s dreams. And we’ve all met this type in real life, haven’t we? The kind who feel like ASMR boyfriends who’ve come to life?
Pure Cosmos Club, Matthew Binder’s third novel, begins with two men arriving to clear out main character Paul’s home at the behest of his ex, Janie. On his own (aside from his dog, instant icon Blanche), Paul is the perfect mark for a cult. Though mostly oblivious, Paul is skeptical, but desperation trumps skepticism.
“I’m weary of this mystical voodoo,” Paul says, “and yet I have nowhere else to go.”
Just as Kismet’s Ronnie rejects her guru-roommate’s beliefs but finds herself working in a crystal shop and feeding magic ravens, and the boys of Confidence sell lies of self-actualization as they themselves self-actualize on the back of their sales, Paul sets out to reach Pure Cosmos Club’s Ultimate Level even as he fails to understand it.
“Life isn’t calculus,” he tells a young boy on the subway. “Not every equation makes sense.”
One thing that Binder does across throughout his terrific oeuvre is that, through heightened language and zany hijinks, he convinces the reader that he is writing satire while he is actually holding a mirror up to real society—real behavior perpetrated by real people.
In the same famous essay in which he told us to never use metaphors, George Orwell rails against “inflated language,” particularly cases in which a “mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details.” He follows that with “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” Binder’s heightened style brings this to mind, as the wealthy deviants in his novels constantly manipulate others and obscure their true motives with honeyed words.
The last thing we hear from James, the guru at the center of Binder’s titular Pure Cosmos Club, he says, “It’s up to you now to create your own heaven on Earth…and I can no longer protect you.”
If anything explains my recent fascination with cults, it’s the thing James accuses Paul of letting go of. As I age and as the world becomes more terrifying, I want that assurance of heaven while I’m still here on Earth. I want protection. These literary cults are so appealing because they provide a salve to threats, both external and internal. I want to silence the voice in my head that says nothing really matters with the voice of someone who is absolutely certain of the afterlife. Preferably a heaven I can get to in five easy steps or four payments of $49.99. And I want protection from the world. Acceptance has never been freely given to me, so why wouldn’t I have to earn it? Why shouldn’t I have to Level Up?
While Kismet finds Ronnie slowly sucked into cult-like circumstances and Confidence follows the foundation of a cult from the inside, Pure Cosmos Club finds its main character constantly knocking on the door of the cult, wondering what it is that he has to do to reach nirvana. As a survivor of an advertising career and current member of academia and the writing world, I understand what it’s like to think that doing just one more thing will mean I’ve finally made it. But, of course, the mythical meritocracy that we live in is that there is no ultimate level. There will always be someone more successful, someone happier.
Spoiler alert! While these novels satirize cults and their surrounding behaviors, the cults also succeed. Ronnie finds the agency and belonging that has eluded her since childhood; Ezra and Orson improbably find a way to be together; and Paul breaks out of stasis and sets forth into the wider world (and Pure Cosmos Club itself Hale-Bopps itself right off the planet).
Who doesn’t love a good chase? While pursuing bad men used to be enough to drive my readerly tastes, men—particularly destructive men—are a dime a dozen. Give me the mystery of the cult. The potential. The community!
I have dozens of online boyfriends, and I’m kicking them all to the curb. I’m deleting Grindr. Evelyn Hugo can keep all seven of her husbands, Colleen Hoover’s toxic hotties can fuck off, and I’m finally letting go of George Clooney. Instead, I’m reading for cults. I want sun, sand, community gardens, and ancient esoterica. I want to ascend, level up, and self-actualize. I’m done caring about the color of my outfits because I want to focus on the color of my aura. We’re entering the golden age of the literary cult, and I’m diving right in.