In November of 1993, six months before his death, Kurt Cobain performed a searing cover of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” during an acoustic show for MTV in New York. Perched delicately on a stool on a darkened stage lined with candles – the funereal arrangement was at the singer’s own request – Cobain burrowed deep into the song’s obsessive despair and imbued the narrator’s grief about the whereabouts of his beloved – and the bad, bad thing he may have done while waiting for her to come back – with more than mere rock-star gravitas. On the television broadcast of the concert, the camera catches Cobain looking up suddenly before delivering the final lines, and there is an expression of wild surprise on his face, as if he can’t believe the power of his own performance. Or maybe he’s just watching the things he’s singing about flashing before his eyes.
Lynn Crosbie’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night is a novel that looks out from that gaze and casts it at the reader. In the afterword, the author describes her original intention to write a kind of young adult novel in the slash/fiction mode – a delirious love story between a lonely teenaged girl and a beautiful boy who looks and sounds (and plays guitar) like the reincarnation of Kurt Cobain. And ultimately the only thing that would keep Where Did You Sleep Last Night from being filed under YA is the intensity of its violent and sexual imagery, because the sensations it conjures up – the giddy rush of infatuation; the goofy tenderness of first love; the out-of-body dislocation of heartbreak – would hardly seem out of place in the Twilight universe. That’s meant as a compliment, even if abstinence advocate Stephenie Meyer would probably put the book down after catching the Pixies-inspired double entendre in the title of chapter one: “Here Comes Your Man.”
Crosbie likes her pop music references – from Neil Young to Katy Perry – but she doesn’t use them as a crutch. It makes perfect sense that her two narrators would keep citing favourite bands and lyrics, because they’re both characters defined by their love for rock ’n’ roll. The main voice in the book belongs to Evelyn Gray, a self-described “Walmart goth” with a long list of enemies at her high school and a family history so fucked-up it could be a B-side to Nirvana’s “Sliver.” Seduced by her former punk groupie mother’s stories of grunge-era hedonism, Evelyn cultivates punky tastes in fashion and music, as well as several dangerous addictions, and winds up in the hospital where she meets a fellow patient she christens Sadness. She recognizes Sadness as the spitting image of the fallen angel on the Nirvana poster she’s been sleeping under for her entire life.
As the book goes on, Sadness – who gets renamed Celine Black in mocking honour of Canada’s most obnoxious pop star – gets his own opportunity to tell the story of his and Evelyn’s amour fou, but Crosbie stays mostly inside Evelyn’s cluttered head, where rhapsodic thoughts about her lover (“he was the fucking dragon”) are dragged down by bouts of intense self-loathing. The magic realist aspects of Where Did You Sleep Last Night are used casually and the stream-of-consciousness narration helps to blur the line between what’s actually happening and how it’s being perceived by the novel’s heroin-addicted characters. If Crosbie’s prose is occasionally overwrought, that excess is easily reconciled by the anguished, adolescent diary-entry aesthetic of the entire novel, which the author takes pains never to undercut with evident irony or judgment.
There is, perhaps, something exhausting about Where Did You Sleep Last Night. The plot slowly and cleverly takes on the contours of the eponymous song – it’s a murder ballad – but also keeps getting bogged down by Evelyn’s solipsism. One way of reading the novel is as a kind of extended homage to Courtney Love, in whose train-wrecked image the protagonist seems to be unconsciously remaking herself. The book’s most affecting passages are the ones where Evelyn’s reverence for Celine bumps up against her desire to be a rock star in her own right. Whether or not these are fantasies even more outlandish than the idea of being crazy in love with a ghost is hard to say – the question of Evelyn’s musical talent is left very much open – but the sense of being caught in thrall to a self-destructive genius and trying to match him, note for note and mistake for mistake, is resonant.
Crosbie is a resourceful enough writer that Evelyn and Celine speak in very different voices even as they communicate on their own wavelength, and while she says that her book is “for all the girls and women who have written stories like mine,” she’s also taken a risk by trying to speak through – but never for – a brilliantly talented and bottomlessly sad man who silenced himself 21 years ago. When R.E.M. released Monster in late 1994, Michael Stipe said that the 10th track, a stark, fuzzy, organ-driven hymn, was “for, about, and to Kurt Cobain.” The song is called “Let Me In.” With Where Did You Sleep Last Night, Crosbie finally gets inside.