The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice | Greil Marcus (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Five years after 9/11, Americans are still hammering away at the question: “What did we do to deserve this?”

In his new book, The Shape of Things to Come, Greil Marcus directly discusses 9/11 only in the prologue, but his answer is implied throughout: we had it coming. Apparently we’ve known we had it coming since the country’s inception, and we’ve been warned again and again–by John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon “A Modell of Christian Charity,” by Lincoln’s second inaugural address, and by Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. At root is the same biblical tale: Upon making covenant with a cranky Old Testament god, the chosen people build a city on the hill where, if they hew to God’s directives, they will live as a shining example of the power of his grace and love. Should they betray the covenant, however, their wretchedness, evil, and vanity will be on shameful display to the whole world.

It’s a familiar story line–that the promise of our country has never been fulfilled; that America’s founding documents now stand, hundreds of years later, as little more than grim reminders of our failings. But Marcus’s book, a speculative examination of prophecy in the work of several American artists, is also a promise unfulfilled. Marcus is a widely respected American rock critic.

His signature critical technique is to draw parallels between disparate ideas or movements, and he clearly delights more in connecting points than in making them.

In his 1990 punk history, Lipstick Traces, this made for an enticing challenge, but in The Shape of Things to Come it results in 284 pages of repetitive jumble in which no historical event, band, book, or TV show can’t be traced back to a 200-year-old poem, letter, or event–like an endless game of Six Degrees of Abe Lincoln.

The 60-page essay that serves as the first chapter is the book’s worst. Great criticism, even when it tears its subject apart, makes you eager to seek out and judge the source material for yourself, but this epic–which centers on Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and John Dos Passos’s “U.S.A.” trilogy–made me just want to read those books rather than bother with Marcus at all. That’s not saying much for Marcus, as the essay is already about 40 percent quotes from Roth and Dos Passos and another 30 percent plot synopsis. Here, as he does throughout the book, Marcus just gets in the reader’s way rather than act as a critic or interpreter, as if he intends to prove his thesis through endless repetition. Every bit of material he can get his hands on is enlisted in a frantic flow of questionable tangents and citations to shore up an idea unsurprising to anyone coming up in the age of Guantanamo: that this country isn’t monolithic, it’s a dichotomy–“America the Beautiful” b/w “Bad to the Bone.”

Still, Marcus stalls–stopping to draw a tenuous parallel between his point and, say, a “prophetic” quip from Moby-Dick. Or Lincoln’s second inaugural (again). Or a blues song from 1927. This sort of thing is Marcus’s stock-in-trade: it’s occasionally brilliant, but usually just frustrating. By not letting a single idea land without first being fancifully linked to another–the two often separated by centuries, continents, or culture–acts and words of minor significance become freighted with the weight of history. Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon, for example, is cited as an antecedent of riot grrrl fanzines of the 1990s–a thought that might send Kathleen Hanna to an early grave.

Marcus asserts again and again that certain figures “stand in for all Americans, living and dead.” The Swede of American Pastoral becomes Johnny Appleseed. When the Swede projectile vomits on his terrorist daughter’s face, she becomes Moby-Dick. The first Pere Ubu seven-inch is Daniel Boone. David Lynch is Davy Crockett. Actor Bill Pullman’s face somehow represents both “a mute affirmation of the Declaration of Independence” and later a “nihilist kingdom,” and Lincoln’s second inaugural is compared to a Sleater-Kinney song–which only works if you accept the release of Dig Me Out as a historical landmark on par with the delivery of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The rest of the book is not quite as maddening as the beginning, especially if you’re willing to suspend disbelief enough to play along when Marcus uses people and their art as blackboards on which to scribble theories. His reading of David Lynch is convivial and comfortable, and it’s a pleasure to see him place Lost Highway and Twin Peaks in a grander body of work that calls America out on the true perversity and lack under its gleaming facade.

Marcus’s continual nagging about that facade, about America as a dream rather than a reality, passes as stern but reasoned cynicism until about halfway through the book, when it betrays its true nature: nostalgia. He’s nostalgic for the founding fathers’ vision that we the people still haven’t made good on. But also, more aptly given his generation, he’s nostalgic for the aborted hope of Kennedy’s America. Marcus’s big idea, that there is “in each American a lost republic,” is an altruistic and fundamentally patriotic longing for America the fantasy, where the lost people reclaim the ghost town on the hill.