The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice

Just as jumbled, challenging, and frustrating as Lipstick Traces -- and nearly as brilliant

By Greil Marcus

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (September), $25

Anyone (me, for instance) who read and grokked Lipstick Traces at a tender age is predisposed to adore Greil Marcus, so please attach a grain of salt to this review. The Shape of Things to Come, Marcus' new treatise on the conceptual basis of the United States, is just as jumbled, challenging, and frustrating as Traces — and (salt alert!) nearly as brilliant. He begins with this country's founding as a New Jerusalem, specially blessed and specially judged by God, a beacon and a promise. Marcus sees us telling ourselves this fable over and over in our speech and our art, struggling with that promise and its betrayal. The dude is an academic, after all, and most of his readers are not, so you'll have to decide before you buy: Am I willing to chase the American idea deep into the diary entries of Twin Peaks' Laura Palmer, the novels of Philip Roth, and the thorny discography of Pere Ubu? Marcus takes our cultural output dead serious, and if you allow yourself to roll your eyes at him, you'll miss something amazing in every paragraph. Like Traces, this book is an impossible fever-dream conversation, in which Abraham Lincoln, Sleater-Kinney, obscure bluesmen, old punks, characters from 24, Sinclair Lewis, and Martin Luther King Jr. speak to each other on some frequency only Marcus can hear and transcribe. The cacophony is us, and in such scary times it's imperative that we listen. Frances Reade

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