All Systems Goo: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth


A cursory look around the Internet turns up little Sonic Youth–inspired fan fiction, so let’s invent some. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon as battling vampires, say, re-enacting millennia’s worth of frustrated, undying love in the post-apocalyptic ruins of 2110 New York City; Lee Ranaldo, Russian spy, taking unwitting government employees as lovers for sport; Steve Shelly leading the Knicks back to glory. After all, if David Browne’s recent Sonic Youth bio, Goodbye 20th Century, revealed anything, it was the fact that the four bandmates, in their blank, reflective cool, are perfect for all sorts of wishful projections. Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth, a new, ungainly anthology edited by Peter Wild, takes further liberties still: Way out past fan fiction, Wild’s anthology invites 20-odd writers to dress up and play rock band.

Wild has been down this road before, it turns out, with 2007’s Perverted by Language: Fiction Inspired by the Fall. One likes to imagine that collection as a kind of reprint of various Mark E. Smith lyrics—”The boy is like a uh-uh!” But alas, the two anthologies share the same design: Writers cop song titles from a band with a lot of back catalog, and the rest is, well—not even Lee Ranaldo knows. “Are they responding to the music itself?” the SY guitarist asks in Noise‘s foreword. “The work ethic? Some epiphany they had at a gig out in a cornfield somewhere, as we played on in the furious distorted bliss of rapturous feedback?”

Wild has recruited an excess of talented writers to supply answers to these questions, among them Tom McCarthy, Mary Gaitskill, Shelley Jackson, and Eileen Myles. To them goes the task of writing around such impossibly overdetermined song titles as “Kool Thing; Or Why I Want to Fuck Patty Hearst.” Like cigarettes and French kissing, Sonic Youth have served since their inception as an instant litmus test of teenage cool, and this too becomes a burden for Noise‘s writers. The residual anxiety about measuring up to such famous cultural outlaws is often palpable. Why else begin a story with “Sue Carlyle was shopping for a penis”?

In fact, it’s possible to construct a kind of high-school-cafeteria typology of the various contributions to Wild’s book. First, enter those writers who mistake the famously countercultural Sonic Youth (a clean-cut, well-mannered foursome if there ever was one) for Mötley Crüe, and who therefore up their own shock quotient accordingly. Include here Scott Mebus’s dildo-checking “Bull in the Heather,” a story about an ailing lesbian love affair and a big, black prosthesis; Rachel Trezise’s “On the Strip,” which takes the Mulholland Drive route and features a trick-turning, smack-shooting runaway; and Steven Sherrill’s “Flower,” a tale that conjures up a churchgoing prude who manages to be offended by a teenager with a tongue-stud and a propensity to sing Kim Gordon’s mildly profane lyrics out loud.

Then there are those contributors who seem unhealthily enthralled by their chosen titles—the idea being, I guess, that they’ve signed up for a Sonic Youth cover band. In this variation, success looks something like a faithful rendition: “Sunday comes alone again,” begins Hiag Akmakjian’s “Sunday,” a story that lifts the original song’s downer vibe, dead-end plot, and first four words.

Sonic Youth, of course, are a band that knows something about inspiration. To get into Sonic Youth was to get into, at one point or another, Dodie Bellamy or d.a. levy, Gerhard Richter or Glenn Branca—all the various artists name-checked in song titles and liner notes, cover art and cryptic lyrics. The band’s myriad, notorious influences—Richard Kern, Dan Graham, Raymond Pettibon, and so on—often become collaborators: music-video directors, roadies, baby-sitters. Authors like Shelley Jackson, who take the band’s assimilative model as their own, fare better in Noise. Jackson’s “My Friend Goo” creates a fanciful, doomed outpost of civilization, the murky titular mass looming on the other side of the wall: “It spindled up, then collapsed back on itself till the tip touched, forming arches that thinned to threads and snapped. It slung a cord up at a gull and yanked it back, burped up feathers like foam.” In a brief introduction to her story, Jackson writes: “Sonic Youth does to songs what I want to do to stories: pulls back the plot, ups the gurgle and squawk.” Sonic Youth’s goo becomes in Jackson’s story emblematic of the ineffable in the art we love.

Wild’s concept, as helplessly constricted as it leaves most of the writers in Noise, can yield startling results. Laird Hunt’s “Kissability,” in its distillation of inchoate teenage longing, is in its own way as lovely a passage as anything in pop music. A young girl in a small town bristles with boredom and excitement, “balancing on the roof of the long-empty doghouse under the stars, then back on the couch in the living room . . . then down in my room, in the basement, where the posters stared at me and the walls creaked and some motherfucker cricket went to work.”

A short story is no substitute for publicly lighting a guitar on fire, and those stories in Noise—the majority, unfortunately—that shoot for such an alien effect tend to fail, often miserably. Literature has its own capacity to mutate and feedback: “Even now, if you’ve noticed,” writes Jackson, “I sometimes sound more like a storm than a person.” Fiction can do anything, really, except play the chords to “Teenage Riot.” And for that, thankfully, we still have Sonic Youth.