THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME: Prophecy and the American Voice

Greil Marcus
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($25)

by Michael Lindgren

This diffuse, frustrating, and occasionally brilliant book continues in the vein of cultural criticism that Greil Marcus has made his own over the last thirty years. Starting in 1975 with the now-classic Mystery Train, Marcus has spent his entire career working variations on one fairly simple idea: that the story of American culture, its central truths, are communicated in diverse, sometimes public, sometimes private ways. By finding common ground in the voices that speak from the margins of art and society, he hopes to uncover truths that are inaccessible to the mainstream.

The Shape of Things to Come brings the same strategy to a different set of voices. Marcus's themes tend to resist compression, but the organizing principle here is the delineation of a peculiarly and identifiably American voice that speaks in the Puritan tradition of prophecy—not as a prediction of future events, but as an apocalyptic expression of the sometimes contradictory promises the nation has made to itself. With the freedom that comes with these promises ("life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness") also comes a sense of terror and dislocation as they are broken; these promises and their betrayals comprise a chain, a narrative that Marcus traces through an idiosyncratic mix of high and low cultures and media. Late in the book, near the end of the chapter on David Thomas of Cleveland avant-punk band Pere Ubu, Marcus gives a succinct description of his credo:

Movies, records, concerts, novels, poems, paintings, can seem to vibrate with an energy repressed but not stolen by time . . . you begin to create a personal culture of maps and talismans, locks and keys, within the greater culture of which you are a part...when you approach the greater culture with a personal culture, you do so with the knowledge that the greater culture can never satisfy you.

The texts in which Marcus chooses to locate the "personal culture" germane to this particular narrative are the Puritan pastor John Winthrop's sermons, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches, Philip Roth's mid-1990s novels, David Lynch's films, Thomas's music, and Allen Ginsberg's long poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra." It is quite a list, defiant in its heterogeneity; such sources seemingly have little in common, and indeed Marcus has mixed success in tying them together.

The book starts out promisingly, with the comparison between Winthrop, Lincoln, and King, who share the Puritan idea of America as a "city on a hill." Through close reading of Winthrop's sermons, Marcus shows that the city on a hill was a utopian ideal, a challenge and test from God, not a blanket endorsement. The same idea manifests itself in Lincoln's speeches, which viewed the horror of the Civil War in radically eschatological terms, with failure or success equally in the balance. King picks up on the theme, not least by force of the rolling Biblical cadences of his peroration, emphasizing how deeply short of the covenant American society has fallen. The chapter is a brilliant piece of synthesis and a radical reclaiming of the image of a "city on the hill," hijacked by Ronald Reagan and his conservative successors as a symbol of untrammeled American exceptionalism—a fundamental misreading of a covenant that could be, and has been, repeatedly broken, with grim consequences. This section of the book is nearly as fine as anything Marcus has written, and is worth the book's price and the reader's time alone. Unfortunately, he drops this particular thread when he moves on, and never really picks it up again.

The examination of the stubborn, haunted characters of Roth's novels I Married a Communist and American Pastoral and the surreal, violent landscape of Lynch's Twin Peaks and Fire Walk with Me is the heart of the book, yet it is here that the reasoning becomes chaotic, somehow both repetitive and difficult to follow. Marcus faces here a very basic and probably unconquerable problem. Since he can't assume that every reader of this book has read all of Philip Roth and seen all of Twin Peaks and loves Pere Ubu, he is forced to expend a lot of his energy—and the reader's patience—in exposition and recapitulation. Reading a blow-by-blow encapsulation of a book or film that one has not read or seen, even from a critic as articulate and expressive as Marcus, is rarely engaging. At bottom, it is a conundrum of intention and of audience: if this were an academic work—Marcus is a professor of American Studies at Berkeley—then his audience would be familiar with his sources, but in a commercial publication intended for broad readership the sources are too obscure to be common pop-culture property. Thus does he try to split the difference, ending up with the worst of both worlds.

The long rehashes are not the only drawbacks, either. Marcus tends to repeat himself, suggesting that parts of the book were stitched into place after the fact; much of the Philip Roth material, for example, had originally appeared in nascent form earlier this year in The New York Review of Books. In addition, Marcus is fond of overreaching hyperbole: is a shot he remembers of Chris Isaak as an FBI man in Lynch's Fire Walk with Me really "one of the most complete and uncanny images of America ever produced"? Is it accurate to say of an early Pere Ubu single that "there were holes in the music and there was room in the sound: it made its own gravity, and it pulled you in"? Such grandiosity has the effect of dulling the passages where he reaches more legitimately for profundity.

Reading The Shape of Things to Come, one comes to understand that Marcus's intellectual existence--his whole life, one imagines—consists of mentally absorbing and cataloguing an ongoing set of impressions from a wide variety of sources, from Melville and Lincoln to forgotten rock 'n roll songs and bad B movies, and then searching out the themes that unite them. His method, then, is essentially inductive—trusting that the diverse cultural artifacts that compel his interest will yield a telling pattern—rather than deductive—applying a set of presumably objective standards to a finite work at hand. Marcus's writing is thus a poetic act of self-expression, not an evaluative or analytical one, and its effectiveness rests on whether one finds his intuitive selections fruitful, and whether one perceives that he has successfully united these extremely disparate elements into a coherent narrative. If your sensibility is not in tune with his, if your personal barometer registers a different stratus of cultural atmospherics, then you're probably not going to be willing to follow him very far along the path of The Shape of Things to Come.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006