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'The Shape of Things to Come': Listening, broadly, deeply, for the real America

Dan DeLuca
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Among American rock critics, Greil Marcus is the titan whose brilliance is taken for granted even though few of his readers can tell you just what it is he's talking about.

Marcus has earned his place at the mountaintop. In cultural critiques such as "Mystery Train" (1975) and "Lipstick Traces" (1989), he's dug deep into pop music, literature, film, philosophy and 20th-century art movements such as dada and situationism to tell "secret" histories that uncover unseen connections that impact the American (and European) experience.

With "The Shape of Things to Come," Marcus is after some big fish. He uses Puritan settler John Winthrop's 1630 invocation of America as a "Citty Upon a Hill" along with speeches by Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to broach the topic of American exceptionalism, and explore the nation's covenant with God and its people.

In analysis that is often dazzling, seemingly profound and head-scratching at the same time, he closely reads poems, movies, novels, performances, and punk-rock songs by an array of subjects ranging from grrl-rockers Heavens to Betsy to everyman actor Bill Pullman to novelist Philip Roth.

With the events of Sept. 11, 2001, as a starting point, he writes that "more than any place on earth, America can be attacked through its symbols because it is made up. It is a construct, an idea, and as from the beginning to this day it is still seeking to construct, to shape, whoever finds himself or herself on its ground."

The story he tells is "of a country inventing itself, staging the old play about a chosen people and their covenant with their god -- but as the country took shape and announced itself as a nation, the ground shifted." The ground that Marcus is interested in is the shaky moral terrain where the citizens on the hill break the promises they've made to themselves, or find out that -- as in the case of slavery -- those promises were a lie in the first place.

He quotes Thomas Jefferson's "Notes on the State of Virginia," from 1781 -- "I tremble for my country, when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever." And Allen Ginsberg's 1966 anti-Vietnam War poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra" -- spoken "into a tape recorder in the back of a Volkswagen bus in Kansas, dead center in the U.S.A.": "A lone man talking to myself ... / Imagining the throng of Selves / That make this nation one body of prophecy."

Marcus announces that his intention is "to travel through that throng of selves" to "attend to a conversation of gestures, exclamations, whispers, damns and praises and jokes." And in so doing, to listen for "a single American, claiming his or her birthright, as a single body standing in, if only for a moment, for all Americans."

The idea of Marcus' locating a voice that speaks for all America is noble, if usually entertaining folly, particularly since Marcus' tastes are singular and the listening choices that he makes wholly subjective.

Old Marcus faves Bob Dylan and Herman Melville turn up, naturally, though in "Shape," they don't predominate. Instead, Marcus -- who developed this book out of a class he taught at Princeton in 2001 -- homes in on David Thomas, of Pere Ubu, the dadaist punk band from Cleveland, in a chapter titled "Crank Prophet Bestride America, Grinning."

And Roth, whose late novels, from "American Pastoral" to "The Plot Against America," Marcus correctly, grandiosely calls "a patriotic literary project that in the United States had no match in any field." (Though so as not to upset Dylan -- the subject of two previous Marcus tomes -- he allows that the Bard's 1997 album "Time Out of Mind" is almost as good.)

Even as he goes relentlessly over the top, Marcus is sharp and shrewd on Roth. And in his closing chapter, he does an excellent job on conflating Steve Darnall and Alex Ross' 1997 cult graphic novel "U.S. -- Uncle Sam" and Ginsberg's "Wichita Vortex." (I'm not sure what the latter has to do with Duane Allman's guitar solo on Boz Scaggs' 1969 recording "Loan Me a Dime," but Marcus has smart things to say about it.)

Marcus is often guilty of believing his own balderdash, though, and he goes off the deep end over David Lynch's "Lost Highway, and loses it completely in a chapter called "American Berserk: Bill Pullman's Face." The nondescript leading man turns out to be the ideal tabula rasa for the manically purple interpretations of the critic at large.

Here we go: "His face concentrates motives and events so suggestively that it becomes its own landscape: a window opening onto an America defined not by hope but by fear, not by reason but by paranoia, not by mastery but by sin, crime and error. At its root it's a Puritan drama played out in God's country -- a country, the face says, that God long ago left to its own devices, a judgment the face doesn't question, doesn't doubt."

If you say so, Greil. Guess I'll have to go back and watch that movie again.

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"The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice" by Greil Marcus; Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($25)

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