There are few authors who can get away with using words like “limbus,” “moiré,” and “souse” on the first page of a novel. Acclaimed poet and journalist Lynn Crosbie is one of them. Chicken, Crosbie’s fifth novel, revels in the sensuality of language in unfolding the story of two celebrities whose love for each other is challenged by the vicissitudes of fame and public exposure.
Set in Los Angeles, Chicken follows Parnell Wilde, a 67-year-old actor living poorly on the embers of the notoriety he garnered 30 years ago. Wilde is best known for playing the lead role in Ultraviolence, a derivative B-movie that borrows from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in its glorification of rape and violence. His life changes when Annabel Wrath, a 21-year-old art-house filmmaker and YouTube celebrity who harbours an intense fascination with Ultraviolence, enters his life. Her intent is to “fix” him so that she can then cast him in her short films.
Told in the first person from Wilde’s perspective, Chicken is simultaneously mean, delicate, and immersive. Consider Wilde’s first impressions of Wrath, who has bribed his landlord and paid his rent in order to gain access to his apartment: “Watching the criminal who claims to care for me; whose story is ludicrous; who is so ugly she looks like she is in costume. But she is more than a little bit cute. She is a girl in my living room dancing barefoot. It is enough.”
Wilde is volatile, inconsistent, and opportunistic (as is Wrath), and Crosbie employs dynamics of violence and desire at the level of the sentence. Her careful regard for gradual shifts in perception provides us the complexity not only to understand her two main characters but to interrogate the thematic glue at the heart of the novel: what ineffable force draws people together to the extent that being separated appears insufferable?
In Crosbie’s milieu, violence is one answer, in particular as it intertwines with sex. But the narrative is not presented as a simple sadomasochistic fantasy or a history of mutual voyeurism, though it includes plenty of descriptive sex. Chicken is ultimately about cycles of violence that come full circle within generations and relationships. It is most essentially about trauma and abuse, narrated without resorting to sentimental sob stories or self-righteousness. Crosbie’s tactic, by contrast, is to make the reader complicit in the events of the novel, especially through Wilde, who is both victim and perpetrator.
The novel’s various provocations and delicious perversity are no doubt discomfiting, but Crosbie’s prose is seductive and deft, and imbued with yearning. By showing us the lives of two celebrities who long to see one another as they truly are – that is, to see past the personae that have become stand-ins for their essential selves – Crosbie makes them fully human. In the process, she reminds us of the ways that pain and hardship can bind us ineffably to one another.
Chicken sounds a clarion call for the necessity and potential of transgressive literature – the kind that allows difficult, conflicting truths to exist simultaneously. Crosbie defiantly acknowledges both the deviant and the sacred, the romantics and rebels that exist in all of us.
Correction: The print version of this review mistakenly stated that Chicken is the author’s third novel. It is her fifth. Q&Q apologizes for the error.