Sonic Youth as muse
The origins of the severed hand in the park were uncertain. Some were convinced it was fake, an especially convincing rubber facsimile with elaborately painted muscles and tendons. Another thought it was evidence of a prank gone wrong at a nearby medical school, where corpses, students and alcohol might have added up to a grisly practical joke. Still more blamed an eager Labrador retriever or sea gull for dropping a find on the lawn, and one particularly morbid theory suggested a homeless man cut it off after his buddy's gangrene infection drove him to madness.
That mutilated limb in Katherine Dunn's short story "That's All I Know (Right Now)" doesn't appear in the Sonic Youth song that inspired (and shares a title with) her work. But those familiar with the famed noise-rock band's two-decade-plus career might nod in recognition at some of what the image conjures up: intrigue, antagonism, violence and the accidental poetry of the inscrutable.
"Noise," an anthology of new fiction inspired by the New York band's catalog due for release Tuesday, has many such uncomfortably commanding moments, but the collection also captures a particular cultural cross-pollination. Writers like Jonathan Lethem, Lavinia Greenlaw and even Stephen King seem ever more fascinated with pop music, and many ambitious songwriters are packing high-minded allusions and images into their songs (or, like Ryan Adams and John Darnielle, crafting books of poetry and novellas about Black Sabbath).
"You have this idea of the writer in their Parisian garret, but so many of them need something to stir them," said Peter Wild, the editor of "Noise." "When I can't figure out how to get from point A to point B, I always play music, and Sonic Youth is like a puzzle that offers many different routes for an author to travel."
"Noise" is Wild's third anthology of stories inspired by bands after similar collections based around cantankerous U.K. post-punks the Fall and swoony romantics the Smiths. What could have amounted to a very nerdy love letter to a group with a labyrinthine catalog is given extra literary weight by notable figures from the flintier ends of contemporary fiction like Dunn, Mary Gaitskill and Shelley Jackson. True to the joke that all writers are failed rockers, it's never been hard for Wild to solicit contributions to his series.
"These things almost commission themselves," Wild said. "[Band members] Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo [who wrote the introduction to 'Noise'] are both enthusiastic and massive readers and made a lot of introductions. Some of the writers have been into Sonic Youth for decades, and then there are some like Emily Roiphe, who used to live across from Sonic Youth's practice space and they would drive her crazy."
The task of capturing in fiction Sonic Youth's obliqueness leaves lots of room for obtuse experiments. The Fall and the Smiths offer plenty of easy entry points for writers as both of those bands have notoriously high per-song word counts and conversational syntax, but Sonic Youth's feedback calisthenics and tossed-off teenage cynicism is less readily evoked on the page.
The best pieces in "Noise" are the ones that mine Sonic Youth's tension between pop and chaos more than the actual source material. Dunn's story precisely captures the kind of disruption of expectation that makes the band so innovative. Scott Mebus' "Bull in the Heather" involves a bleakly funny trip to a sex-toy store in which a lesbian wrestles with the implications of her lover's request for a more phallic device, an aid called "The Bull," a tweak on the song's title. It's a story about negotiating between love and debasement, a classic Sonic Youth-y gesture.
Some took the job of evoking the band's sound more literally -- Jackson's "My Friend Goo" is littered with raw, Joyce-ian peals of repeating sounds.
"I saw an analogy between the way Sonic Youth pushes music toward sheer sound and my interest in how tongue twisters, foreign languages and speech impediments emphasize the 'stuff' of language -- whistles, clicks, the tongue thrashing behind the teeth -- over against its meaning," Jackson wrote in an e-mail. "Noise prose, you could call it."
The diversity of approaches is half the fun of "Noise." The band can move between Glenn Branca's sheets of white noise, Suicide's nihilist bomp and the dinosaur-rock leanings of its grunge-era peers, so it's no surprise that writers try wildly different tactics while staying true to the group's ethos.
"There's a real center around the band around which so much seems to move," Wild said. "Noise" also might answer one of fiction's most intractable questions: How does one write convincingly about something so defiantly anti-lingual as music? Plenty of otherwise able writers, such as Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo, have whiffed at attempts to capture the physicality and ecstasy of performing or listening to music. "Noise" suggests that the best way to write fiction that feels like music is to write about something else entirely.
"[Sonic Youth's] music showed that you could combine intensity with ambiguity -- that you could stir an audience on a visceral level without pandering for easy answers," Jackson wrote. "And they proved that it was possible to combine avant-garde tastes with street cred. So I pierced my nose, got a tattoo and started writing experimental fiction -- my own way of making a weird noise on the fringe of culture."
By giving so little direction to fans, the band offers listeners the opportunity to wander into bigger ideas and for a writer to find a striking turn of phrase or grimy groove that makes emotions smolder.
"I want Sonic Youth fans to think, 'Ah, I should read more short stores,' " Wild said. "And then I want Mary Gaitskill fans to say, 'I didn't know this about Sonic Youth.' "
EXUBERANT: Kim Gordon and Sonic Youth’s lyrics offer writers a lot of entry points. Credit: Getty Images.