Greil Marcus is one of America’s great listeners. Over 30 years and nine books, he has reshaped the possibilities of criticism, departing from questions of taste and tailing instead grand, nation-sized mythologies of heroes and villains, promises and betrayals, and our need to believe in the whole thing. He takes everything seriously. Lyrics become talismans, melodies are engines for change, and the gut’s reaction delivers visions beyond the known world. He hears things differently, in ways that can sometimes confound but almost always inspire one to lean a bit closer.
Marcus’s latest, The Shape of Things to Come, is a provocative and demanding book about “prophecy and the American voice.” It amplifies the last pages of 1997’s Invisible Republic, a book that was ostensibly about Dylan. It closed with a look backward at the mighty speech-acts of John Winthrop, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr., and their common willingness to offer “a prophecy of national salvation and a warning of national damnation.” It was a striking renewal of energies 10 years ago, when boomers and liberals might have spied victory; it seems fraught and terrifying now, as that holy language—prophets, judgments, American ideas, “the urge of the nation”—has been ceded rightward.
Shape revisits this triumvirate of thinkers and preserves two contentious, somewhat unpopular (among liberals, at least) assumptions embedded in their powerful language. From its opening pages, when Marcus writes of sure things dissolving “in American air,” Shape basks in the possibilities of American Exceptionalism. Perverted, moralized, and armed, such claims easily slope toward visions of Manifest Destiny and citadels-on-a-hill—visions where one land’s peculiarity is justification for war. But for Marcus, slippage is no reason to abort. This nation’s errand into the wild—and all the weird, wonderful ideas and contradictions that followed—stands unique, and one should be unafraid to note this, even if it was all merely a circumstance of timing.
Covenants and prophecies often require refereeing beyond mortal means, and to this end Shape is a deeply spiritual work. Marcus’s metaphysics are provisional and scattered—it’s not so much religion as the kind of belief system one might piece together from reading the Bible alongside Moby Dick. But it is a work that coheres around the possibilities of faith—in God, history, or both.
The chapters hang on four moments: the intergenerational betrayals and personal-as-national politics of Philip Roth’s masterful late-’90s novels; the nihilistic disharmonies of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (with strict scrutiny paid to Bill Pullman’s face); the northwestern wastelands shared by Lynch’s Twin Peaks and the riot grrrls; and the lonely crowd of David Thomas, most famous for his time with Cleveland para-punks Pere Ubu. The syllabus is bold and random: in a few pages, a minute-by-minute dissection of a 24 episode feeds into John Dos Passos’s “riot of modernism,” Roth, and W.T.O. protestors. Decades-old lecture notes, e-mails from friends, and comments from un-Googleable undergraduates from his courses sit alongside Lincoln and MLK, with no apology to either side. He re-peoples scenes from Melville and Hawthorne with characters from American Pastoral and wonders what is left over; they all bear witness to actual history.
There is a democracy at play here, one that treats all texts as equals and averages out the state of the nation. Initially, this can be somewhat maddening. (I have read this book twice, trailed references off the page and into the library and video store.) But what ultimately matters isn’t the quality of Marcus’s foundational texts—there is no accounting for taste, and his enormous force as a critic has never been in merely divvying good from bad. It is in telling you why something matters—be it the Declaration of Independence or a Sly and the Family Stone record. Or, in the case of Shape: why the exceedingly average contours of Bill Pullman’s face are worth the long gaze; why, in the moral panic of the Clinton Era, Roth discovered some of the greatest insights into the American story’s 20th-century episode. One needn’t worship at Marcus’s altars to hear what he hears (though it helps). But the willing and patient will hear something—if not in Lynch or Roth, then maybe in Blood Meridian, or pre-riots Ice Cube, or HBO’s The Wire. The book is a method, not an answer.
His project—the same that he has pursued for decades—is coherence, the coming together of a public sphere forged between the lines of great speeches, or the common humming of a song. All of which delivers us back to the present: 9-11 and the seemingly inexorable calamities here, there, and everywhere. Even if Marcus’s words are dismissed, what remains is the arc of many voices—the “shape” the title describes. This is a powerful, confounding, and disturbing book about taking the nation literally, at its word. It might seem an old-fashioned pursuit to some. But the past does not go gently, Marcus warns. It haunts. Listen carefully: There are mummies in the archives, skeletons in the closet, Indians in the cupboard, ghosts in the attic, and invisible-inked secrets on the backs of founding documents—but there are no monsters under your bed.