David Byrnes first bookyes, pop musicians do sometimes write books, but thank God Byrnes isnt an exposé of CBGB-70s NYC punk-pop fusion that lead to his (via Talking Heads) popularityis titled The New Sins and is published, not surprisingly, by McSweeneys Books. By not surprisingly, I mean only that it is no surprise that David Byrne (DB) has aligned himself with Dave Eggers (McSweeneys Books founder, writer of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), as McSweeneys is the latest and freshest breath of fresh air in the NYC literary community. Actually, more than revitalization (as this is what the cliché fresh air connotes), McSweeneysthrough Dave Eggers successhas managed to communitize the young/hip voices of American fiction. These past few sentences may sound like Im being ironicas "not surprisingly" in my lead sentence could imply negativity, therefore the use of the cliché fresh air could be construed as ironicalthough Im not being ironic. In this essay, you wont get complicated twists of irony, etc., etc., but you will find my opinion on one, DBs book, two, its place in the McSweeneys family and three, the reason Dave Eggers and DB are both more than ironyists. Okay, here we go.
DB called me for his interview forty-five minutes early.
This deserves a pause. First off, I was interviewing DB, and usually the interviewer calls the interviewee. However, for whatever reason, I was told that DB would call me. This was how the first ten seconds of our interview wentit was Friday, October 12 at 11:15 a.m. The phone call should have come at noon.
DB: Hello, Im supposed to be calling someone there for an interview. Who am I calling?
ME: Yeah (nervous), Im Ryan. Youre calling me.
Now, let us pause and reflect.
DB has to know that I know exactly who he isanyone with the power of hearing knows precisely who David Byrne is. However, who the hell am I? Who is Ryan Bartelmay? David Byrne doesnt know; you most likely dont knowunless, of course, youve clicked to the contributors' page on this website and read my bio and seen my picture where Im wearing a mustard yellow shirt, brown hat and sunglasses and have a joie de vie shit-eating grin on my face. Still, you have no idea who I am. Why does this matter? It matters because its important to know where the writer is coming from. Context (knowing your writer)+expectations=FULL DISCERNMENT OF PRESENTED MATERIAL.
It was important to know who DB was when I began reading The New Sins. (Ill get to this later.) Throughout the whole experience of reading, I heard Byrne (in his "Once In A Lifetime" voice) reading to me. (I fully believe this enhanced my enjoyment of the book.) I also, because of my simple Byrne knowledge (a few Talking Heads CDs), knew to expect wit, irony, irreverence and confusion. However, DBs book is not credited to David Byrne anywhere. Where the authors name should appear (under the title somewhere), the cover reads, "TRANSLATED OUT OF THE ORIGINAL TONGUES WITH THE FORMER TRANSLATIONS DILIGENTLY COMPARED AND REVISED". To fully understand why DB put this on his book and not his name, I should digress and give you a brief description of the book. This may get long-winded.
A DESCRIPTON OF DAVID BYRNES THE NEW SINS
- The book looks like a pocket Bible. It is smallish: 4 1/4" X 6 1/2". It is made of red, fake leather. It has gold writing on the cover. The pages are thick and have highlighted text (in red) and italics throughout. It is fun to hold and easily transportable. (Obviously, this physicality is reason for the book not being credited to David Byrne.)1
- The book was originally conceived as an art project for a bi-annual art festival in Valencia, Spain. Like the Gideons Bible in the U.S., the book would be hidden in nightstand drawers in hotels around the town. Also, the book would be handed out on the street by conservative-looking religious folkshowever, this "handing out" never happened. The books were put in drawers.
- It is shortish90 pages. There are pictures on every other page; some are disturbing: a straight-faced clown, a crucified vegetable Jesus. The pictures were mostly taken by DBtrust me, I asked this question during the interview. The book is split into two parts: the second part is the same text in Spanish (different pictures). DB did not do his own translationagain, I asked.
- The book does not read allegorically, like the Bible. Rather, it reads like a religious diatribe. Here are a few questions about the form of the book I asked DB:
RB: The book is packaged like the Bible, but the book is not allegorical like the Bible. Did you think about making it allegorical?
DB: I think I got more inspiration from various religious tracts that are put out mainly in the South. A lot of churches and religious organizations pass them out and get on their stump and go on and on about something they perceive as wrong in the world or the wrong perception or a wrong point of view. I got more inspiration from those things than from the Bible.
RB: Did you hear any buzz from people finding the books?
DB: No, I never did. But, of course, I dont have spy cameras in the hotel roomsand thats the moment you want to catch. Somebody comes home late at nightand the Spanish do keep late hoursthey seek a little solace and they reach in the drawer and think Ill just read a little bit of this before I go to bed. Then, I would imagine, depending on their state of mind, it could have a surprising effect.
The major and obvious irony of the book is that it does not attack religious sin. Sin as we commonly think of it (coming from religion and tied to morality and the Ten Commandments) plays into the book only as a foundation for understanding the guilt attached to sinning. DB attacks capitalism and, more importantly, conformity and unification of like-minded, same-looking, identical identities: skinheads, punk rockers, indie rockers, yuppies, Gen-Xers, etc. To attack this identicalness, DB lays out what he calls the new sins. They are:
Sense of Humor
From the book, "The new sins described herein have emerged under cover, so to speak, of the old sins. They are usually mistaken for virtues. What are currently accepted by an older generation as virtues are revealed, upon closer examination, to be vices. Sins of the most insidious kind, for they pretend to be good for younice, sweet, cuddly."
Can this guy possibly be serious? We are supposed to avoid Charity, Sense of Humor, etc? He is partly serious; hes not being obviously ironic; he does want us to treat the aforementioned as sinful.2 There is an agenda, there is a social consciousness, there is soul, there is sincerity, there is the communication between people (living, breathing people) at work in these works.
Most criticism of DB, I presume, will tend to be of the "too much tongue and cheekness, not enough soulfulness" variety. These accusations have been piled high, very high, against the McSweeneys camp. Recently in The Guardian3 critic James Wood swung his axe against (fill in nom du jour here) writing. He called upon writers in some way associated with McSweeneys and in general the American fiction jet set (the grandfathers of this writingPynchon, Delillo, Wallacewere mostly referred to) to write more heartfelt and humanistic fiction. As for whatever reason, Wood believes American writers are not writing about real people but about, I dont know, something else: fish possibly. It is possible Im misconstruing Mr. Woods point here, but I believe hes swinging his axe so broadly as to include this little equation: unreal people=nonhuman=heartless writing=lack of sincerity, and I disagree with this entirely.
Let us break from my diatribe and question DB's agenda in his book. What is his agenda? Is he simply being funny? I asked him a few questions about humor, and here are his responses.
RB: Do you think you hid behind the humor?
DB: I tried to strike a balance in this book. Theres certainly humor in there, but I think if it was just humor or just a diatribe people wouldnt like it. I think it flip-flops back and forth between one and the other so that, hopefully, the reader feels like they get a chuckle but sees that I have a point.
RB: What do you think of the humor and irony in our age in terms of the art world, especially the McSweeneys writers?
DB: I enjoy a lot of the humor and fun in the McSweeneys stuff. I know from reading the appendix that has been added to Dave Eggers book, he goes on and on about how it is not ironic, and he refuses to use the I-word. He gets into definitions of what irony is and how its not technically irony. Aside from that, yes, theres a certain amount of humor in a lot of it. Theres a sense of playfulness and openness to unconventional approaches to writing. But in doing something unconventional, it still needs to be entertaining.
In the above two questions, DB proves the point Im going to make about his book and about McSweeneys, about ironyand the reason I think every book/fiction/academic critic is missing the intentions of this writing. Heres my point: Irony is a way to communicate; it is the language we younger folks understand. (If you want to know why we younger folks choose irony as our primary mode of communication, see David Foster Wallaces 50-some page essay, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction".) In the past, irony was employed to jolt the audience (humorously, offensively) into looking at the world in a different way, but not here. This is not the case with the DB book or in DEs book; both are utilizing irony as a very intricate and delicate language to speak to the younger masses. It is, for lack of a better term, telespeak. It comes directly from the fact that younger folks tend to watch massive amounts of televisionand are trained by said television watching to speak/understand irony, as it is the common speech of the sitcom/commercial/etc. nation.
So, backing up a few paragraphs, allow me to clarify whatthrough the use of irony/telespeakDB is urging us (the reader) to do when he tells us to avoid the "new sins". He does want us to avoid those very "sins" (listed above). We are "following" them simply because weve been told to or feel guilty if we dont follow them. Deprogram the programming. Question your values. Dont do things because Jimmy Nextdoorwiththenicehaircut is doing them. Dont do things because David Byrne is doing them. Do things because you want to do them, because they are part of you and your personality. Dont be shaped into a mold by guilt of nonconformity.
This, of course, brings me back to why DB left his name off the cover of the book. Possibly Im simplifying this, but here goes: he doesntin a reflexivity to the nth powerwant people to do the things hes suggesting simply because they were suggested to them by David Byrne pop musician/artist/now book writer/and all-around cool guy in his new/hip/fun-to-read book The New Sins. Although the problem, of course, is that many, many people are going to read this book, simply and unavoidably, because David Byrne wrote it. Here weve reached a paradox. DB could have upped his ante and riffed on the fact that he is David Byrne writing a book about "sin," and what the hell does he know about "sin?" Well, he knows quite a bit about the "sin" (i.e., social conformity) he is trying to delineate. He is, of course, responsible for much of the moldism our culture has done via pop music and the reason every frat party in the USA plays the song "Burning Down the House." However, nobody is perfect, and this is my pointthis book isnt perfectalso, point number two, this flaw doesnt detract from the books "heart."
The "heart" here in this writing is the social agenda, the urging to break social norms. I have no problem with urgings, as long as they arent megaphoned into my ear. Of course, theres a volume control on DBs megaphone that reads: IRONY. Does any of this social agenda sound familiar? See Dave Eggers AHWOSG, especially the end where DE writes: "
if youre going to sleep all day you motherfuckers oh when youre all sleeping so many sleeping I am somewhere on some stupid rickety scaffolding and Im trying to get your stupid fucking attention Ive been trying to show you this, just been trying to show you thiswhat the fuck does it take to show you motherfuckers
"4 These writers are talking to the younger folks of this country, who for too long have been apathetic, detached, programmed by TV commercials/pop culture/music/movies into molds of Coke drinking, Nike shoe trotting, Gap hooded sweatshirt warmed, identity identicals. DE and DB are saying, "Get off your ass and dance; that folding chair youre sitting on isnt that comfortable. Get-up, get-up and risk looking like a buffoon with two different colored shoes!" If this axiom was couched in straightforward sincerity, DE and DB would both be, of course, sneered at by the very people they are speaking to. When in Rome, speak telespeak, speak ironically and just maybe, just maybe youll get through to a couple listeners. To me, its damn smart, and it rings absolutely true and heartfelt.
1. In relation to this noncredit, my editor, Jayson Whitehead, e-mailed this question for me to ask David Byrne.
Q: Why should people care what you have to say about sin?
A: Yeah, why should they? I asked myself the same question and in response removed my name from the cover. Either you're interested in the subject and feel of the book or you're not. However, some felt that my reaction was a little too extreme.
2. A few illuminating questions:
RB: Why sin? Do you believe in sin?
DB: I wouldnt say I believe in it, but Id say the idea of sin is part of our culture. In many cultures its such a foreign concept, they cant grasp it at all. Its something we understandwhich is that [sin is] an abstract notion of guilt detached from an actual action. Its something that is part of our culture, where as in other places actions and how they relate to an immediate community is what modifies your behavior, not some abstract notion detached from an action. Even if one is not religious, its a concept that is part of our culture. Even if you deny it and say, "I dont believe in sin," its part of your culture. So you cant escape.
RB: Would you consider this book sinful?
DB: No, not at all. It might be hard explaining that to a devout or conservative religious person, but somebody who is serious about their spirituality has to question it. They have to poke it and prod it and threaten it and ask what it means and ask whether its true. If you just accept it, youre not accepting it on a deep level because you havent really had to challenge it. I dont know if devout or conservative people would understand that.
3. James Wood, "Tell me, how does it feel?" The Guardian, Saturday, October 6, 2001.
4. Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Simon & Schuster, 2000), p. 375.