Post-Punk Goodreads: Joy Division and Nikolai Gogol’s ‘Dead Souls’

It’s doubtful that I was the only teenage punk to pick up Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, who was born on this day in 1809, after realizing that Joy Division’s Ian Curtis borrowed the name for the title of a song. Since I wasn’t around to snatch one of precious few singles on which “Dead Souls” was a B-side in 1980, my introduction to the song came through the Nine Inch Nails cover that was part of the alt-rock touchstone soundtrack for 1994’s The Crow, which must have been how legions of other angry-at-whatever teens first encountered the song — and possibly Joy Division as well.

When you’re young and different, you naturally gravitate towards the weird. The NIN cover led to a friend’s older brother giving me a cassette tape with all of Joy Division’s songs, and I was listening to that mix in a chain bookstore (long since closed) when I happened upon a copy of Gogol’s Dead Souls and decided that by virtue of its title alone, it was something I wanted to be seen carrying around to let people know how dark and mysterious I was. I did the natural thing and shoplifted the Penguin Classic.

Contemporary writers like Gary Shteyngart are still borrowing tricks from Gogol’s most famous work, but the thing I recognized reading Dead Souls for the first time as a teen was that it isn’t the goth classic I’d hoped for; it is, instead, a darkly comical novel. Chichikov is more a greedy trickster than Byronic hero, and while the title of the book is an important part of the plot, Dead Souls doesn’t end up the book you may have been expecting if you didn’t know anything about it other than that it shares a name with a Joy Division song. It doesn’t provide the same kind of psychological workout you’d get from reading Kafka (another author from whom Ian Curtis borrowed, titling the song “Colony” after Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony”), but there are few things more fulfilling to a bookish young punk than picking up a novel that was basically recommended by a band, finding out it isn’t what you expected, and then realizing it was actually better than you’d imagined.

productimage-picture-dead-souls-259Joy Division was one of the many bands that I like to think of as the late-1970s, early-’80s post-punk version of Goodreads: You had Josef K also taking from Kafka to name the band, Camus getting a nod from The Fall and The Cure’s “Killing an Arab,” Television Personalities had a song titled “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” and Gang of Four should have credited Marx and Engels as co-songwriters. Robert Forster and Grant McLennan thought L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between sounded like a good name for their band. And, of course, you had Morrissey dropping literary reference after literary reference in Smiths songs. All of these groups, whether they truly cared about these books or not, were basically suggesting these writers to their fans. But Curtis, more than almost anybody, saw a title, applied it to his own work, and it fit so perfectly that every uninformed fan of his band would feel obligated to read the book if they came across it — something you hardly see happening these days, save for Beyoncé sampling Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Of course, she’s a much bigger artist than Joy Division ever were, but they’re both proof that the effect some musicians can have on our reading lives can be monumental.