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The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice Hardcover – September 5, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Marcus plumbs the depth and breadth of American exceptionalism through his unique lens of cultural criticism, forging often astounding links between people, places, works of art and miscellaneous phenomena, as he has in most of his previous nine books. The independent scholar posits that the United States of America is a cultural construction, grounded in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Without those bedrocks, Marcus believes, the nation would be "little more than a collection of buildings and people who have no special reason to speak to each other, and nothing to say." Marcus builds his own erudite vision upon John Winthrop's 1630 speech "A Modell of Christian Charity," Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address in 1865, Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 exhortation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, the later novels of Philip Roth, the films of David Lynch and the music of David Thomas with his band Pere Ubu. More than most books, Marcus's latest tour de force is quite likely to divide readers into two camps: those who find it brilliant and those who find it baffling. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Marcus, perhaps America's most imaginative social critic, here attempts to define America as "a story told more in art than in politics" by yoking together the works of several disparate artists and linking them to three speeches: John Winthrop's 1630 sermon "A Modell of Christian Charity," Lincoln's Second Inaugural, and Martin Luther King's address to the March on Washington. American exceptionalism, Marcus posits, can be traced in stories as wide-ranging as Philip Roth's late Zuckerman novels, the films of David Lynch, the grade-Z film noir Detour, the "avant garage" music of Pere Ubu singer David Thomas, the poems of Allen Ginsberg, and Steve Darnall and Alex Ross' graphic novel Uncle Sam (1997). Marcus has tried a similar trick in previous works, most successfully in Mystery Train (1975), which traced rock 'n' roll from past strains of Americana, musical and other. This time Marcus sews the threads together but fails to produce a wearable garment. But if the book is disappointingly inchoate, the reading is consistently exhilarating, thanks to Marcus' vast understanding of American culture. Gordon Flagg
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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By Greil Marcus
For many years now Greil Marcus has been readdressing what it means to be a "cultural critic." His books - this is his 10th - have become cornerstones for the analysis of popular culture. Marcus' 1975 analysis of the mythos of Elvis Presley, Mystery Train, arguably remains one of the best books ever written on The King, if not rock'n'roll in general. His 1989 Lipstick Traces - A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, managed to draw parallels between heretical movements of medieval Europe, the Parisian-based Situationists of the 1960s and the advent of the punk movement in Jubilee England. The result was a staggering, albeit very weird, alternate history of the world as we know it.
Marcus' razor-sharp radar scan of popular culture is unique in its breadth. Early in his career he became renowned as a rock critic and journalist for Rolling Stone. Reading his profile of Francis Ford Coppola and the making of Apocalypse Now was like breathing in the steamy air of a fetid jungle. But, reflecting the seething culture of post-'60s America, his intellectual restlessness and curiosity saw him embrace almost any subject. His recent Like A Rolling Stone - Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, released in 2005, was as much an excuse to analyze American current socio-political crises as it was a loving recreation of the recording of one of Dylan's major works.
Alongside his cultural and political savvy, what sets Marcus apart from his contemporaries is his sheer enthusiasm, which sparks from the page in electrical surges of lyrical description. In short, Marcus is a fan, albeit a highly selective and eccentric one.
Which brings us to The Shape of Things to Come - Prophecy and the American Voice. It's most certainly an ambitious title, and one that Marcus sadly struggles to address. Marcus has never set out to be a futurist. If anything he is an historian who brings the past to life with rock'n'roll adrenalin. But the title of this group of writings on contemporary culture inevitably leads the reader to await an analysis of current `prophecy' and just where that will lead us. This element of the title remains unaddressed.
Where he does succeed in his analyses of the "American Voice," - albeit with some terrible omissions. However he does begin his book with a cornucopia of myriad voices, with quotes from Noam Chomsky and The Reverend Jerry Falwell, Bob Dylan and Herman Melville. He immediately moves into the most lively account of the speeches of Martin Luther King imaginable, a brief but poignant history of the Puritans and the politics of Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, the voices of King and Lincoln, along with Kennedy, Clinton, Presley and Dylan haunt these pages like an unseen and unruly choir against a backdrop of the traumatic vision of 9/11.
But, as always, Marcus' own voice comes through the idiosyncratic selection of subjects that The Shape of Things embraces. At its core it is a strange grouping indeed. Essentially, and this is simplistic at best, Marcus focuses his discussion on the novelist Philip Roth, the filmmaker David Lynch, the avant garde rock musician David Thomas and the poet Allen Ginsburg.
The chapters are essentially vastly expanded versions of articles and essays that Marcus has penned in such outlets as The New York Times and Esquire. But the selection seems unwieldy in many respects. One wonders whether the author Don Dellilo, especially his sprawling 1997 epic Underworld, would have been a better subject than Roth's somewhat conservative American Pastoral. Similarly, as a filmmaker David Cronenberg's recent A History of Violence would seem more pertinent to Marcus' discussion than Lynch's surreal Twin Peaks.
But, as with Marcus' selection, this is a subjective reading. Where The Shape of Things truly soars is in his discussion of the works of David Thomas and Allen Ginsburg.
Marcus has long been a fan of the work of Thomas and his band Pere Ubu and only Marcus would have the guts to put Thomas in a selection of great American narrative voices. Pere Ubu, a pre-punk, aggressively avant-garde band who claim to be `mainstream pop', have long huddled in the dark shadows of being `experimental' in the day and age of saccharine popular music.
Only Marcus could start a chapter on a Cleveland-based industrial band like Pere Ubu, which formed in 1975, with references to a 1953 essay by the historian Edmund Wilson on the American Civil War along with quotes from Moby Dick and Abraham Lincoln. But there can be little doubt that the juxtapositions work. Titling the section `Crank Prophet Bestride America', Marcus raises Thomas into the pantheon of great American voices.
And David Thomas should be up there. But so should Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace and Philip K. Dick. But with all things cultural, it comes down to subjective obsessions and Marcus' obsessions are rich indeed.
In typical Marcus form, this is a sprawling investigation into contemporary culture. Idiosyncratic, at times maddening, but more often simply uplifting, this is what cultural criticism should be.
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