For fans of Canadian literary fiction, fan-fiction, grunge, Nirvana, and pop music in general, the arrival of Lynn Crosbie’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night was accompanied by a considerable amount of buzz. In my orbit, as it is with a few notable CanLit figures (Douglas Glover, Tony Burgess, Zsuzsi Gartner, and certain others included), the publication of a Crosbie book is kind of a big deal. And while some very hip Torontonians rushed to embrace this new novel at its launch at the boozy Cadillac Lounge, I started to feel like most would be pointing at the wrong things – in other words, that the book is indeed about Kurt Cobain, and drugs, and decadence, but that fixating on such “selling” features might conceal the real risks the novel takes – unsexy, unfashionable risks that you just can’t sell.
All the essential plot details are spelled out on the jacket copy, so bear with me while I go over the premise. In short, Where Did You Sleep Last Night is the story of Evelyn Curtis-Anne Deleuze Gray, a girl named after four famous suicides (people figured as “tragic heroes” by her horrible mother, Marianne). Living in Carnation, Washington doesn’t exactly help Evelyn’s prospects for a long and happy life. Everyone in town seems crushed by sadness: local teenagers commit suicide in droves and teachers collapse, weeping, in the laps of students. In the spirit of Larkin’s “This Be the Verse,” misery gets handed down from one unlucky generation to the next. Evelyn’s father was an alcoholic, knife-wielding painter who spent his childhood as a malnourished orphan, pinballing between evil foster homes before dying in prison. Her mother had her own parents tortured to death (!) by a deranged admirer, an event that shoved the girl into adoptive care and then on to Seattle, where she landed as a bartender, exotic dancer, and groupie in the exploding grunge scene. Once a knockout, Marianne Gray is now a furious and desperate drunk who blames her failed relationships and has-been status on her daughter, whom she calls a “parasite.” Viciously abused by her mom, sexually exploited by teen brute Page Marlowe, and slashed by her female peers (who carve the word “SLITCH” into her guts – a portmanteau of “slut” and “bitch” that later becomes the name of her band), Evelyn longs to escape her loneliness and pain, and composes a suicide note every day.
Death is also a way for Evelyn to join her fantastical crush, the late Kurt Cobain (who, it turns out, once owned a cottage close to Evelyn’s home – a place of great psychic resonance in the latter parts of the book). Her fatal infatuation with the deceased musician (she reads and fills notebooks about him, listens to his songs, and makes out with a poster of his face) becomes an all-consuming ache – and one her mother both inspires and ridicules. It’s as Courtney Love tells Kurt Cobain in the 2015 documentary Montage of Heck: “Girls don’t masturbate over their teen idols. They make up much more intricate, schematic plans. Girls are a lot more complex than boys.” When Evelyn overdoses on heroin while in the pit of despair, her expiring desire conjures a dead ringer of the Nirvana frontman back from the dead, albeit stripped of memories, addicted to heroin, and renamed Celine Black (the novel’s first nod to Celine Dion, but not the last).
This is all quite literal – as are the best, silliest, and most outrageous of teen fan-fictions, which happily mash up genres, reincarnate the long dead, and do so totally unselfconsciously. Celine simply wakes up beside Evelyn in the hospital and they immediately embark on a hallucinogenic odyssey while recuperating, sharing visions of a lush Underworld beyond the physical realm. As Crosbie informs us in the afterword, this resurrection is one of the book’s core experiments, and an imaginative fulfillment of Courtney Love’s elegiac appeal to her husband from the song “Malibu”: “Oh, c’mon, be alive again.”
Chronically entangled by smack and the strange magic of his resurrection (they live in Carnation, after all), the two escape from the hospital, crisscross America in a Crown Vic, form separate rock bands that both skyrocket to unlikely commercial (and “indie”) success, and become embroiled in an on-again, off-again love affair so torrid and public that they become infamous tabloid darlings. A modern Paolo and Francesca, Antony and Cleopatra, Bonnie and Clyde, Sid and Nancy – with all the attendant flourishes of cruelty and bliss. And yes, Evelyn and her band can be read as somewhat Courtney Love-and-Hole-esque, respectively: no matter what Evelyn does (or doesn’t do) as a musician or lover, she incites a tsunami of public scorn and ridicule, whereas Celine is unanimously embraced for indulging in the same depths of debauchery – much as Love was, for a time, seemingly the most reviled woman in the world, and Kurt (still) the sympathetic victim of conspiracy and manipulation.
Here we enter the meat of the book: their relationship is everything there is to the plot, which takes us through some two hundred pages of serpentine twists and tumultuous knots: what feels like dozens of reunions and separations, fights and reconciliations across a backdrop of travel, fame, drugs, and delusions, starring a cast of single-named grotesques like Misty, Luscious, Mercury, and Q. Rape, infidelity, murder, miscarriage, rehab, and thousands of syringes later, Evelyn and Celine teeter on a treacherous peak: a fall on one side means their destruction, while the other promises endless union – a life-or-death predicament for those terminally in love, and one hauntingly prefigured by Evelyn’s murdered grandparents: two tortured, disfigured lovers, forever captured in photographs, hands fused even in death.
If this all sounds a bit over the top, it is. Crosbie’s most frequently used devices are surely hyperbole and the grotesque: techniques well suited to a book about sex and drugs and the devil’s music, but also to maintaining her particular aesthetic, which is at once metaphysical, baroque, and unapologetically sincere.
Narrated mostly by Evelyn (with a handful of chapters by Celine), the voice is nevertheless excessive only in image and scenario. Like Crosbie’s 2012 memoir Life Is About Losing Everything, the novel unfolds in a fragment-rich, line-by-line crawl. Sentences get their own tiny paragraphs; lines are often only two or three words – terse little pricks. An uncharitable reading might see this as a quirky mannerism, or the means to stretch a slight, dialogue-heavy book to nearly four hundred pages. On the other hand, Crosbie’s slow, measured pace also speaks of control: it’s a confident way to manipulate pacing, to let readers absorb each of Evelyn’s thoughts or observations as they come.
This isn’t minimalism, but a collection of off-the-cuff digressions and anecdotes that take on a lurid opulence, forcing us to pause and savour the repellent, the sublime, and the hilarious with equal attention. It’s maybe strange to say how funny the book can be. As in many of Crosbie’s other works, a gallows humour enlivens and alleviates the darker, unrelenting play of Evelyn and Celine’s melancholy and schmaltz. Most laughs are based on some excessive form of grotesque ineptitude, intoxication, or loneliness: again, hyperbole and decadence. Highlights include self-texted smiley-face emoticons; JonBenét Ramsey face tattoos; a play in which Leatherface dates Ariana Grande; and – my favourite – a USB home pregnancy test that plays Paul Anka’s “(You’re) Having My Baby.” Not everyone’s cup of tea, surely, but the darkly absurd is always an unsettling LOL.
Evelyn is a scrupulous diarist, lending credit to the novel’s claim that it’s a “True Story” (or only true in a Fargo sense, or in an elemental way; remember, a legion of people still dream of Kurt Cobain’s death-destroying return to the living world). Nothing goes unnoticed or unrecorded, and while she throbs with the impulses and idealizations of youth, she’s also a poet, gifted with a gorgeous sense of image and style and given to outlandish, grandiose metaphors. She describes Celine’s “mercurial eyes [drenching her]with warm rain”; and later, that their “tears turned into visions of torrid lakes and ice cold rivers” – as if she were riffing on the famous, world-drowning teardrops of Donne’s “A Valediction: of Weeping” (I called her metaphysical for a reason!).
Evelyn also expresses an oddly encyclopedic appreciation of pop and classical music, religious iconography, classic Hol-lywood, ancient myth, and literary history: a multilingual sponge in the body of a teen, and with a whopping vocabulary to boot. Celine notices, and remarks on how she won’t stop rambling:
About Captains America, Beefheart, and Ahab; La Traviata and Travis Bickle; moon rocks, moonstones, the Apollo moonwalk, and moonwalking at the Apollo; my ass in her hands the deluxe by-product of an irritated oyster who, having reached Ithaca at last, says, simply, ‘Meh.’
With a head so brimming with the high-and-lo strata of the western canon, it’s no wonder that the America Evelyn encounters along the way is part fetish, part postmodern pastiche. In their initial, dizzyingly happy road-trip as a couple (the dashboard compete with “tinny radio” and “fuzzy dice”), they live in motels, wander boardwalks, and collect junk from thrift stores – “he and I would drive in his old Pacer,” Evelyn writes, “and buy things like maps and glass medicine bottles, wedding suits and lace kerchiefs; paintings of flowers and deserts he would caption, later, with a ballpoint pen.” This is an old-timey, carnivalesque America rocking with stories of “Chet Baker, Syd Barrett, and John Berryman,” of an “old prospector [moving]a gigantic girl slowly around the dance floor”; a place of Russ Meyer-themed drug parties clashing with TMZ and Tumblr stalkers, where Evelyn can dress like Betty Paige some days and Aaliyah others. Evelyn makes a quilt as a “portrait” of her affair: a literal patchwork of juxtaposing materials like “Brushed cotton, calico, raw silk. Puppy-patterned flannel, nude chiffon . . . Lies and opiates . . . Ground glass and poison.” Fragments shored against the ruin of their relationship, and culture. Neither here nor there, present nor past, living nor dead, but some other state of mind – post-history, perhaps. A place where the past is never past, and “memories [are]“ghosts” – or “vampires.”
It’s comes as no surprise that Where Did You Sleep Last Night began, as Crosbie confesses in the afterword, as a young adult novel. The palpable friction between the protagonist’s wide-eyed, adolescent fantasies and the novel’s historical awareness, imagistic bravado, and raw carnality creates a strange, unsolvable dissonance (as if trapped in a limbo, much like the empty places of light Evelyn and Celine enjoy while on the brink of narcotic oblivion). Those of us who like our novels a bit weird and broken will find this a source of delight, but those seeking a realist “tale well told” (whatever that actually means) might be frustrated with this central juxtaposition. Crosbie’s gamble is also not without it hiccups. Despite its tragedy-bedraggled characters, its refrain from Van Gogh – that La tristesse durera toujours, or “the sadness lasts forever” – it doesn’t have the throat-punching, eye-raking sadness of Life Is About Losing Everything. The scandalous antics of the rock star addicts can sometimes feel like clichés, and the nebulous plot can be exhausting (perhaps for good reason, given the subject matter).
However, it’s certainly one of the most distinctive, and peculiar, books by a Canadian author released in recent memory. And as I hinted earlier, its most winning aspect has little to do with the spectacle of celebrity, or Kurt, or cool. In its dreamy excess, the book is its own rough beast: imagine a bedazzled baroque fountain, cherubic spigots gushing purple sizzurp. And while such gilded over-opulence invites an ironic reading, the book’s most striking quality is that it’s so goddamned sincere. Like the goofy appeal (and drag drama) of a good pop or rock opera: charged with the hip edge of a cultivated pose, all the danger and jaded cool of affectation, but somehow howling about plain old love and love’s terrible absence all along. Or rather, sincere avowals of lust, possession, and mercy, dripping with saints and virgins and holy blood. When Evelyn speaks of “evil” and “misery,” calls Celine Black “Sadness,” or claims that “love flooded through [her]barren heart” (or blasts pop music, Celine Dion’s “The Power of Love,” for that matter) she certainly means it – but so does the author, and that sole quality keeps the book from falling victim to its own grand ambitions. Juxtapositions riddle and electrify the protagonists’ journey, and demonstrate how Crosbie has remained a humane recorder of life’s essential duality: after pages of sexual frenzy, “velvet mornings,” and the bombardment of love’s “celestial sensations,” Evelyn is still equal witness to the world’s cold horror – “children left to cry in their piss and shit for hours; animals cowering; women flattened by punches, men being screamed at until they wept.” To be sure, there is nothing ironic about pain, and capturing this duality might be the author’s chief obligation: to face the cruelties of hell, but to so love the world that we remain unbroken by them.
Like so much of pop music, real love is schmaltzy (“My little schmaltz queen,” Celine says to Evelyn, in one of their many tender moments). It’s easy to disparage pop’s sentimentality, its clumsiness and broad strokes, but in song after song – from Celine Dion to Taylor Swift to Nirvana – we see the same doomed reach toward beauty. And when you are bereft, in grief or in lovelorn sadness, beauty matters; sincerity is life. In other words, no one reads ironic Psalms, an insincere Song of Solomon (there can be no sarcastic gold, wine, beams of cedar . . . )
Depending on where we stand – even in the Cadillac Lounge, when the jukebox is spinning something old and dumb and perfectly gauche – sometimes beauty can be too sincere, too personal, too embarrassing to stomach. Maybe it feels too oppressive: how do we live with such bald emotion? And how do we live without it when it’s gone? Where Did You Sleep Last Night reminds us, in its unfashionable honesty, in its strangeness, and as a love letter to a man who touched so many but who is irrevocably gone, that maybe we were never “oppressed” by beauty to begin with. Maybe we’re just so exhausted by ugliness – such relentless, brutal ugliness – that beauty seems obscene.
From CNQ 95 (Spring 2016)