I bought Where Did You Sleep Last Night almost on launch day, something I never do. I’d heard about the book from my illustrator friend Lola Landekic, who designed the absolutely spectacular cover,1 which is incredibly polished, on point thematically, and successfully, refreshingly, bucks a ton of boring, outdated trends in cover design. Lola has also illustrated several of Crosbie’s pieces for the online magazine Hazlitt. The premise was just as interesting as the cover: a suicidal Kurt Cobain fan named Evelyn Gray wakes up in a hospital room next to a young man named Celine Black2 who seems to be either Cobain himself, reincarnated, or somehow possessed by Cobain’s spirit. The two of them fall madly in love almost instantly and proceed to create their own drug-fueled interpretation of Kurt and Courtney’s tragic romance. What could possibly go wrong?
I’m glad you asked.
This is only my second encounter with Lynn Crosbie’s work. Way back in 2006 I tried to read Liar, her book-length poem about romantic betrayal,3 but despite the great reviews about its searing emotional honesty and rich detail it turned out to be… really goddamn boring, if I’m being honest. I attempted it during a period when I didn’t finish every book I picked up, as I do now, and thank God, really. I should have remembered my experience with Liar and tempered my excitement for Where Did You Sleep Last Night a bit more, but I thought that her prose fiction might be different, and I really was in love with both the cover and the premise.
I’m not always so great with identifying genres and traditions by name. There’s a style of novel, which is sort of halfway between stream of consciousness and magic realism, with a heavy emphasis on language that you might call poetic, that so far as I know emerged from feminist literature in the ’70s. Some examples off the top of my head include work by Daphne Marlatt, Claudia Dey’s Stunt, and most importantly, Jeanette Winterson’s novels.4 Where Did You Sleep Last Night seems to want to embed itself pretty firmly in that tradition, whatever name you want to give it. There are certainly magic realist elements, and the narrative slips in and out of stream of consciousness on almost every page, but despite usually being a big fan of this style, it never quite worked for me here.
At first I thought I was just having difficulty getting past some of the little things, like how nearly every single sentence in the entire books gets a paragraph to itself, or some awkward comma placement in the early pages. Eventually I realized that the little things were piling up and becoming big things, and that hey, maybe the things that were supposed to be big in the first place weren’t working out so well either.
Despite pop culture being nearly the whole raison d’être for the novel, so many, so, so many of the pop culture references in Where Did You Sleep Last Night felt clumsy and superficial, or at the very least poorly integrated into the text as a whole, despite how much sense it makes that the characters would think in terms of such references.5 Only a few6 approached anything like the depth of the material being referenced, and eventually they became something to be endured more than anything else. There’s a list of references at the back of the book that spans more than two pages and is more than a bit Douglas Coupland in its preciousness.
So, forgetting who Lynn Crosbie is, I went into this hoping for a realist novel with an interesting premise and instead got a bit of a mess. Now here’s the thing: this style, whatever you want to call it, is not always super accessible. That’s fine—great, even. I get very excited when writers, Canadian writers in particular, decide to subvert conventions and expectations. But the key to pulling that off is convincing me that you’re in control of the subversion, that you could play it straight if that was what interested you. Where Did You Sleep Last Night doesn’t even come close to convincing me that Crosbie could work in the straightforward realist mode. The book is loaded with sentences and phrases that seem to do no work of any kind, with the possible exception of helping maintain tone. I love rich, surprising images, but in a novel they need to tell us something about a character or setting, advance the plot in some way, or at the very least be thematically relevant. Crosbie’s novel is full to overflowing with sentences that do absolutely none of those things. They are simply very striking images that seem to just float by, devoid of context or even any relationship to each other. Can you imagine a poem that worked that way? Turns out it doesn’t work so well with novels, either. I’m not a particular fan of Daphne Marlatt, but damn, she has control over what’s happening on the page, and so her work is fascinating. And Jeanette Winterson, who I am very much a fan of, has the whole toolbox as well. It never feels like Crosbie has that kind of control over her material, which makes for a lot of frustration.
Finally, we get to Celine Black and Evelyn Gray in their roles as Kurt and Courtney. Nirvana and Hole weren’t my scene back in the day, and Cobain died before I really had a chance to assimilate his music and celebrity into my worldview in any meaningful way, so I’m not especially clear on the shape of their relationship as known to the public, either at the time or after the fact. Crosbie tries to sell us on their relationship as a kind of latter-day Johnny Cash & June Carter, which I think it might have the potential to be, as far as musical myth-making goes, but nothing about the path Celine and Evelyn take through this novel says anything to me other than “hot mess.” In Adam Nayman’s Quill & Quire review7 he said the book could be read as “an extended homage to Courtney Love,” and while I agree that it’s possible, responsibility for almost everything either of these characters do—all the mistakes they make, the drugs, the violence, the hateful selfishness they inflict on everyone in their lives—is somehow externalized.8 Their love/relationship is just too intense. It’s their shitty families, or jealous friends, or the callous, uncaring world. Which is fine, you know? I mean, bad shit happens to these people, and there’s some leeway there because it’s okay to hurt, and to break because of it, on top of which, well, some people are kind of just trash fires—Cash certainly was for a really long time—but if you’re going to build your narrative, such as it is, around making us feel sympathetic towards these characters—and Where Did You Sleep Last Night very clearly pushes the reader in the direction—then you’re going to have to give us something more than them being relentlessly and repetitively shitty to everyone all the time and blaming that behaviour on someone or something else. After 372 pages I’m either not going to give a shit anymore, and/or I’m going to actively hate your characters and resent your attempts to manipulate how I feel about them. Which is actually exactly how I felt after reading this book.