In the Blog
Fanfic Talks Back: A Review of Where Did You Sleep Last Night by Lynn Crosbie
Illustration: Shelby McLeod
Anyone who’s taken a creative writing class will be familiar with short story prompts. The instructor will say something seemingly random—“Stick three strangers who absolutely hate one another in an enclosed space. Have them be stuck there for an hour”—ready, set, go! Pens start flying.
Until I looked more closely at the genre of fanfiction, or “fanfic,” I assumed it operated in pretty much the same way. The settings, plots and characters of existing novels, movies, and TV shows provide a cornucopia of prompts—and the fanfic author feasts on that bounty, sticking Jay Gatz and Daisy Buchanan in a Sandals resort, sending Ross and Rachel from Friends to Gatsby’s party, uninvited.
I thought of FanFiction.net (one of the largest fanfiction websites) as a membership in a creative Gold’s Gym. An ingenious way of exercising your creativity, of insuring you never run out of story ideas, while at the same time participating in a fun community of likeminded prompt trolls whose work you review and who review your work in turn.
Turns out there’s more to fanfiction.
Even a cursory reading of critical literature on this genre (I recommend The Fan Fiction Studies Reader, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse) reveals that it’s an incredibly rich area of study, especially for gender and queer issues. For one, fanfic is dominated by women authors, for the most part in the 13 to 17 age group. Another subject that gets significant critical attention is fanfiction’s preponderance of what’s called “slash,” or writing about same-sex relationships.
The fact that this massive store of output is much more than just creative muscle flexing is perhaps obvious. Fanfic authors, after all, rewrite established, commercially marketed stories, including canonical giants like The Catcher in the Rye or Casablanca. And most of these source stories—popular films, bestselling novels, famous musicals—were not authored by women, by members of the LGBTQ community, or by racial minorities. Whether consciously or not, fanfic is a reclamation movement. I’m not sure why it took me till now to figure that out.
Enter Lynn Crosbie’s new novel Where Did you Sleep Last Night (Anansi, 2016). I was immediately captured by its blurb, which describes it as a work of “haute fan fiction” about Kurt Cobain — but with a point of view centred, for the most part, on a 16-year-old girl who loves him.
Unlike FanFiction.net postings, Where Did you Sleep Last Night has the benefit of being published by a commercial press. It’s a work that has the potential to reach a wider audience. Because of this, I was especially interested in seeing just how or what Crosbie would “rewrite,” and what would be reclaimed from the story of a famous, dead rock star. As a former bona fide grunge-teen, I hoped Crosbie wouldn’t let me down. And she didn’t. Like the 16-year-old girl at the centre of the novel, I fell in love, too.
In Where Did you Sleep Last Night, Crosbie (who is a poet, novelist, journalist, and professor of creative writing) gives us the story of Evelyn Gray, a self-destructive teenager, who, upon landing in a hospital after an overdose, meets and falls for a fellow patient named Celine Black. Celine and Evelyn start a love affair, run away from the hospital, and lead bona fide rock ‘n’ roll lifestyles, each at the front of their own band. The curious thing is Celine looks “exactly” like Kurt Cobain. Acts like him, too. He’s a Pisces, he’s left-handed, and his band becomes extremely popular. Maybe he’s a reincarnation. Maybe he’s a ghost. It’s even possible that the entire story is Evelyn’s dream, conjured as she sleeps beneath the Kurt Cobain poster in her bedroom. The best part about it is that it doesn’t really matter.
Crosbie’s narrative breaks dams with its richness. It’s fitting that in this story about people living in perpetual need of excess, Crosbie’s prose takes language to its imagistic limits. It’s the originality of her prose (“I unearthed pay phones and called her as I walked” says a despondent character who imagines a confrontation while cruising city streets) that pushes the reader forward through a narrative that is fairly—arguably necessarily—repetitive in terms of plot. The story is, in essence, about a junkie musician couple that separate, get back together, separate, and so on, as they treat and fall back into and again treat their drug addiction.
Crosbie’s words, like the best kind of verse, are well chosen and awesomely inventive. For instance, speaking about the early stages of her relationship with Celine, Evelyn says, “One night in the back seat of a burned-out Volvo on a patch of immense daisies, he pressed his mouth to the word carved into my skin, leaving a trail of sugar.” Just before Evelyn overdoses, she speaks to her stuffed rat named Señor Loco, who has “a handlebar moustache and pinwheel eyes.” He tells her, “Buen Viaje!” and waves his checked kerchief as she falls unconscious.
And, for the fans, like the best imaginable Easter egg hunt, there are the countless references to unearth. There are the expected references to Cobain and his wife Courtney Love, his band Nirvana, her band Hole. There are shout outs, too, to other artists who died prematurely, like Ian Curtis and Amy Winehouse. There are song lyrics to track down. There are TV commercials (“Hurt in a Car? Call William Mattar!”). Even Snooki, the short-statured New Jerseyite, makes an appearance.
The relationship that the novel follows is a thinly veiled Cobain-Love relationship. While there are plenty of differences, there are even more similarities to the iconic 90s couple who, at their best, graced Sassy magazine covers and, at their worst, made for chilling newspaper headlines. Since the perspective is primarily Evelyn’s, I’d argue, we are able to get reclamation, a point of view that is for the most part missing, or at least not promoted in mainstream depictions of the real-life Cobain-Love tale.
“He is the best musician in the world. And if love doesn’t kill him, he’ll stay that way,” says the final line of a NME article on Bleach, the Nirvana-like band in the novel. The pun on Courtney Love’s name is hard to miss. Though Celine Black’s antics, promiscuity, and heroin addiction outmatch Evelyn’s by a long shot, she is somehow left carrying the brunt of the criticism, blame, and insults. In the final quarter of the novel, Evelyn grows hyper aware of the discrepancy in how she and Celine are treated. Everyone loves him, everyone hates her. When she asks a friend why that is, he says, “He has that quality… And you don’t.” And when the bassist from Bleach calls Evelyn a “weaponized Yoko,” it’s rather clear what that “quality” might be.
Evelyn is blamed for causing Celine’s addiction. People say he wrote all of her band’s best songs. When Evelyn talks about women and punk or sexual violence, male magazine reporters and audience crowds shut her down. When she gains weight, her career plummets. Anything that goes wrong, including her miscarriage, is an opportunity to shame her.
A lot of Hole songs speak to the issue of shaming women: Love often sings about whores, witches, bitches, girls who smell like pee. These are all acts of reclamation. She calls the “I” in her songs by these names, but in doing so—screaming so, usually, over severely distorted guitar—she is throwing it back in the face of everyone who’s ever said it to her, or to other women.
Crosbie’s focus on the female half of the toxic relationship in Where Did You Sleep Last Night definitely makes the novel not strictly Kurt Cobain fanfic. He is at the centre of Evelyn’s obsession, yes, just as he was at the centre of a lot of people’s obsession. But Crosbie is clearly throwing flowers of gratitude at Love as well, at her musical oeuvre, maybe even more widely, at all the punk rock girls out there who did not make it—girls that remained stuck (and one reading of the novel is that Evelyn was in fact only stuck) obsessing about escaping life through music and art, but not getting past their bedrooms, and the posters of the men and women they’re in love with that hang over their beds.