Where Did You Sleep Last Night, by Lynn Crosbie, House of Anansi Press
During a recent talk at the Sydney Opera House in Australia, the renowned physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking was asked the following question: What do you think is the cosmological effect of Zayn leaving One Direction and consequently breaking the hearts of millions of teenage girls across the world?
Hawking, appearing as a three-dimensional hologram streamed from England (and thus adding to the surrealism already inherent in having one of the world’s most famous scientists comment on Zayn Malik’s decision to quit one of the world’s most famous boy bands), began with a joke. “Finally, a question about something important.”
As the audience’s laughter began to die down, Hawking continued in more earnest fashion. “My advice to any heartbroken young girl is to pay close attention to the study of theoretical physics because, one day, there may well be proof of multiple universes. It would not be beyond the realms of possibility that somewhere outside of our own universe lies another, different universe. And, in that universe, Zayn is still in One Direction.
“This girl may like to know that in another possible universe, she and Zayn are happily married.”
While we await the discovery of other universes, we must content ourselves with the infinite alternatives that live within the imagination. And springing from the imagination of Lynn Crosbie comes Where Did You Sleep Last Night. In her fantastic new novel, Crosbie fashions a universe based on a creative possibility: that Kurt Cobain is alive again.
Evelyn Gray, Crosbie’s protagonist, was born three years after millions of hearts were shattered by the news of Cobain’s suicide in 1994. By 2013, Evelyn is a lonely, tormented sixteen-year old; daughter of an alcoholic and emotionally abusive single mother, relentlessly bullied and teased at school, she seeks comfort in the drugs she takes and in the Kurt Cobain poster on her bedroom wall that she talks to.
While recovering in hospital following an overdose, Evelyn finds the patient in the bed next to hers to be Cobain, now named Celine Black. The two escape the hospital together, fall in love, get married, forge meteoric music careers (his more glorious than hers – more on that later), and embark upon a relentless course of self-destructive behaviour.
The story is built on a series of unhappy, tragic, and disastrous episodes, with moments of joy and passion sprinkled in. Juxtaposed with Crosbie’s exquisite poetic style and a sense of humour both intelligent and delightfully bizarre, misery is transformed into something beautiful, while still retaining the essential sadness it was born of. Take, for example, Evelyn explaining why, claw hammer in hand, she destroys a gift sent to her husband by an adoring fan: “Because I loved him so much, it was like a Shirelles song, but violent, more violent.”
A powerful commentary runs throughout the novel on the differences between the ways women and men in music are perceived. Things start on what seems like equal footing, with each member of the couple adopting the hyphened Gray-Black name following their Las Vegas desert wedding. However feminist on the surface, though, Evelyn’s husband benefits significantly from male privilege. He is revered by critics and fans, and hailed as a musical genius. Evelyn, with her own band, songs, and ambitions, is judged on her looks and on the size of her ass. She is seen as both dragging on and profiting from her husband’s talent. When it comes to opportunities, she describes a “desolate trend”:
Where I was asked to do a print-only Maybelline ad, to be
a panellist on a Canadian television show, and to join Pat
Benatar’s reunion tour; he was invited to work with Jack
White on a duet, to be sampled by Marshall Mathers, and
to be caressed with feathers and fur-covered flatware by
Evelyn is faced with a choice between “relax(ing) into being his devoted wife” or taking a more difficult but more genuine path.
Stephen Hawking advises the heartbroken to look to theoretical physics for solace; scientific proof of the existence of multiple universes would come with a theoretical map to a place where each of our particular anguishes might not exist. With Where Did You Sleep Last Night, Lynn Crosbie reminds us that multiple universes are already here, and have been for a long time, in the endless possible scenarios and outcomes offered in our books. Hers is a universe well worth the visit.
Mark Paterson is the author of the short story collections A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine and Other People’s Showers.