By Ryan Bartelmay

David Byrne’s first book—yes, pop musicians do sometimes write books, but thank God Byrne’s isn’t an exposé of CBGB-70’s NYC punk-pop fusion that lead to his (via Talking Heads) popularity—is titled The New Sins and is published, not surprisingly, by McSweeney’s Books. By not surprisingly, I mean only that it is no surprise that David Byrne (DB) has aligned himself with Dave Eggers (McSweeney’s Books founder, writer of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), as McSweeney’s 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), McSweeney’s—through Dave Eggers’ success—has managed to communitize the young/hip voices of American fiction. These past few sentences may sound like I’m being ironic—as "not surprisingly" in my lead sentence could imply negativity, therefore the use of the cliché fresh air could be construed as ironic—although I’m not being ironic. In this essay, you won’t get complicated twists of irony, etc., etc., but you will find my opinion on one, DB’s book, two, its place in the McSweeney’s 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 went—it was Friday, October 12 at 11:15 a.m. The phone call should have come at noon.

DB: Hello, I’m supposed to be calling someone there for an interview. Who am I calling?

ME: Yeah (nervous), I’m Ryan. You’re calling me.

Now, let us pause and reflect.

DB has to know that I know exactly who he is—anyone with the power of hearing knows precisely who David Byrne is. However, who the hell am I? Who is Ryan Bartelmay? David Byrne doesn’t know; you most likely don’t know—unless, of course, you’ve clicked to the contributors' page on this website and read my bio and seen my picture where I’m 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 it’s 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. (I’ll 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, DB’s book is not credited to David Byrne anywhere. Where the author’s 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.


  1. 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
  2. The book was originally conceived as an art project for a bi-annual art festival in Valencia, Spain. Like the Gideon’s 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 folks—however, this "handing out" never happened. The books were put in drawers.
  3. It is shortish—90 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 DB—trust 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 translation—again, I asked.
  4. 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 don’t have spy cameras in the hotel rooms—and that’s the moment you want to catch. Somebody comes home late at night—and the Spanish do keep late hours—they seek a little solace and they reach in the drawer and think I’ll 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 you—nice, sweet, cuddly."

Can this guy possibly be serious? We are supposed to avoid Charity, Sense of Humor, etc? He is partly serious; he’s 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 McSweeney’s 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 McSweeney’s and in general the American fiction jet set (the grandfathers of this writing—Pynchon, Delillo, Wallace—were 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 don’t know, something else: fish possibly. It is possible I’m misconstruing Mr. Wood’s point here, but I believe he’s 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. There’s certainly humor in there, but I think if it was just humor or just a diatribe people wouldn’t 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 McSweeney’s writers?

DB: I enjoy a lot of the humor and fun in the McSweeney’s 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 it’s not technically irony. Aside from that, yes, there’s a certain amount of humor in a lot of it. There’s 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 I’m going to make about his book and about McSweeney’s, about irony—and the reason I think every book/fiction/academic critic is missing the intentions of this writing. Here’s 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 Wallace’s 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 DE’s 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 television—and 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 what—through the use of irony/telespeak—DB 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 we’ve been told to or feel guilty if we don’t follow them. Deprogram the programming. Question your values. Don’t do things because Jimmy Nextdoorwiththenicehaircut is doing them. Don’t 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. Don’t 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 I’m simplifying this, but here goes: he doesn’t—in a reflexivity to the nth power—want people to do the things he’s 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 we’ve 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 point—this book isn’t perfect—also, point number two, this flaw doesn’t detract from the book’s "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 aren’t megaphoned into my ear. Of course, there’s a volume control on DB’s megaphone that reads: IRONY. Does any of this social agenda sound familiar? See Dave Eggers’ AHWOSG, especially the end where DE writes: "…if you’re going to sleep all day you motherfuckers oh when you’re all sleeping so many sleeping I am somewhere on some stupid rickety scaffolding and I’m trying to get your stupid fucking attention I’ve been trying to show you this, just been trying to show you this—what 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 you’re sitting on isn’t 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 you’ll get through to a couple listeners. To me, it’s 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 wouldn’t say I believe in it, but I’d say the idea of sin is part of our culture. In many cultures it’s such a foreign concept, they can’t grasp it at all. It’s something we understand—which is that [sin is] an abstract notion of guilt detached from an actual action. It’s 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, it’s a concept that is part of our culture. Even if you deny it and say, "I don’t believe in sin," it’s part of your culture. So you can’t 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 it’s true. If you just accept it, you’re not accepting it on a deep level because you haven’t really had to challenge it. I don’t 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.