David Byrne's The New Sins/Los Nuevos Pecados couches social critique in mock theology and includes 80-odd photos, diagrams and a faux-leather cover replete with bellyband. The edition is bilingual (English and Spanish) and, like countless other articles of faith, pocket-sized.
The Valencia Biennial, a multi-media event that took place in Spain last June, commissioned the book. In accord with the Biennial's theme, The Passions: Vices and Virtues Inherent in Human Behaviour, the ex--Talking Head proposed a book that he said would "describe ... the New Temptations, many of which ... may actually be virtues -- but I will present these virtuous qualities ... as ... full of danger and dread."
Byrne collaborated with literary wunderkind Dave Eggers, who designed TNS/LNP and distributes it under his publishing imprint, McSweeney's. Eggers, primarily known as the author of last year's bestseller A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius, is also an accomplished graphic designer. (He designs every issue of McSweeney's journal.) Eggers, coincidentally, has an abiding affection for scripture chic. He drew exemplars for TNS/LNP from his private collection of 19th-century bibles.
TNS/LNP begins with a series of instructional chapters, such as "How To Use This Book" and "How To Read This Book." The latter sets the tone of satirical dogma. "The whole is contained in all and all parts are contained in the whole. No one part is any better than any other part, and there is no right order in which to read the book."
Then, TNL/LNP elucidates The New Sins (Charity, Sense of Humor, Beauty, Thrift, Ambition, Hope, Intelligence/ Knowledge, Contentment, Sweetness, Honesty and Cleanliness) and their inherent malignities.
At its best, acerbic wit suffuses TNS/LNP. One passage condemns Charity for establishing a "power relationship" between the giver and the recipient. Because "no one likes to feel inferior, except some S&M party people," Charity consequently breeds rebellion, malaise and self-pity. "The hidden agenda of charity is ... invisible to the giver," Byrne continues. "Poor sinners [are] unaware of [how] ... they trample on the weak with their acts of kindness."
Byrne indicts the gravity of political and religious zealots by, ironically, denouncing humor as an opiate of the masses. "Whole groups at bars, restaurants and in theaters [are] being tortured and [are] pretending that they are enjoying it ... . Society encourages [humor] to ... desensitize the population ... TV Writers and Comedians keep a helpless population in stitches."
Overall, though, the prose is inconsistent. The incessant sarcasm preaches to the choir of NPR-listeners and stoned undergrads who already get Byrne's joke. The "How To Use This Book" section invites the reader to "dip into the book" and add it "like a seasoning to ... a moment in the ladies room or a brief elevator ride." An excellent suggestion; TNS/LNP's burlesque is sometimes turgidly abstract and indirect, which makes prolonged reading impossible.
While wordiness can be excused as satire (the Old Testament has its share of erroneous conjunctions), Byrne's ever-shifting tenses, singular-plural disagreements and knotty passive-voice constructions are unjustifiable. Compared to books issued by larger publishers, TNS/LNP seems rife with typos.
But TNS/LNP isn't just about the text. It is an art book: a neat object. And, with greater craftsmanship than the text, Eggers' design also satirizes spiritual propaganda.
A fake gold-inlay cover imprint reads, "Translated out of the original tongues with the former translations compared and revised." Pages of text alternate with visual aids -- primarily Byrne's photos but also historical diagrams based on Dante's Divine Comedy. One map of the universe details hell's location, vis--vis the Earth's core. A foldout schematic revises the architecture by depicting specific infernal circles for "motivational speakers" and "market researchers."
In total, the visuals gesture toward a new dark age, a sort of "modernaeval." One photograph of empty cubicles conjures a contemporary vision of God's wrath. Other pictures, like one of a perched raven, seem inexplicably portentous.
TNS/LNP is apt for coffee table and, respectfully, bathroom -- anywhere careful scrutiny won't ruin its charm.
McSweeney's Books are available in limited release at The Tattered Cover in Denver and online at
I read an early draft of Ghostland in 2014 that was written by Jon Orr…