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January 21, 2009

REVIEW: Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth

(Edited by Peter Wild. Harper Perennial, 240 pgs., $13.99.)

Can any rock group compare to Sonic Youth as underground icons? By most any standard (except lineup longevity), they make Velvet Underground seem like community pillars from the Rotary Club. It makes good sense that Sonic Youth’s ability to build charismatic, multi-faceted albums on a foundation of feedback squalls and oddly offhand lyrics should lead to a short story anthology. Editor Wild has actually done this shtick before, with a book of stories based on songs by The Fall (who may be more obscure than they deserve, but definitely don’t seem like literary inspiration).

“Noise” is uneven in direction, though the general high quality makes for a solid read for anyone who likes post-modernists experimenting with short forms. Each of the 21 entries is preceded by an introduction wherein the author speaks to either a relationship with the musicians (some are first-name pals; many have crushes on Youth bassist Kim Gordon) or why the story is based on a given song title. Some stories took a title and didn’t consider the band or its scene at all. On the other hand, some participants put some skin in the game. One of the best-established figures here, Mary Gaitskill, feels indebted to the band’s music; perhaps that’s why her short-short says a lot.

Wild’s own story is one of several that grab onto an affected intensity that aligns well with his inspiration’s music. Those pieces work best when interleaved with work from stylistas like Shelley Jackson, who unravels layers of playfulness. Fortunately there are few pieces like Matt Thorne’s lame alienation study (with cop-out ending).