With his close-cropped white hair, owlish black eyeglasses, and smart dark coat, Greil Marcus cut a sharp profile against the softly lit contours of the Wilson Library Manuscripts Department. It was an apt setting for a conversation with the polymathic cultural critic, as if the prodigious contents of his mind were made manifest in the stacks around him.
When I asked about his tour and why many authors don't seem to like touring, Marcus, as is his wont, answered with an anecdote: "One day, I walked down the street from my house in Berkeley, and there was a dumpy little bookstore, and there was an author sitting in the front window with a table and a big pile of books. He looked really unhappy, because nobody was there to see him or get an autograph. He looked familiar, and I realized it was Robert Parker, someone who for 20 years has had every one of his books go instantly on the bestseller list."
In terms of mass popularity, Marcus is no Robert Parker, but his influence arguably runs deeper. Marcus came to prominence in the 1960s as the first reviews editor for Rolling Stone. He went on to write for influential publications such as CREEM, The Village Voice and Artforum, and to publish several books, including 1975's Mystery Train and 1989's Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, which would help expand the scope of popular music criticism to include the whole of Western history.
Marcus came to UNC-Chapel Hill last month to give a lecture on murder ballads, but I came to talk to him about his latest book, a high-stakes game of cultural billiards called The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice. He establishes his thesis at the outset: America was founded on exceptionalist ideals that contained promises so great that their betrayal was inevitable, and that the voice of prophecy calling America to self-judgment is "the bedrock of American rhetoric." This is a voice of truth, but also of paranoia and dread.
"When I taught the course that this book grew out of," Marcus explained, "one of the things I did was to use three different versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I really thought that movie captured the theme. You saw an entire society being dissolved, and behind it there was a sense that there was a reason for this. Nobody knows what it is, but nobody's totally surprised."
Marcus makes his point repeatedly, in a diverse chorus of voices, and the book begins to resemble a fugue. He locates the prophetic voice first in the Old Testament, then in orations by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. (which he likens to songs by Sleater-Kinney and Nirvana: "The straight, well-built verse, the chorus in flames, the song blowing up in your face"), and, finally, in Philip Roth's novels, Pere Ubu's music, David Lynch's films, the actor Bill Pullman's defeated face, and points beyond.
While the book's thought is crystal clear, it has a circumambulatory quality. In hounding the trail of his idea, Marcus is wont to suddenly forsake the beaten path and cut into the brush, and his conversational style followed suit. Eloquent and steely, he moved seamlessly over varied intellectual terrain, fixing me with a polite, receptive smile whenever the rolling coin of his thought finally exhausted its momentum and came to rest.
The answer to a question about Michael Haneke's film Caché, which conceptually overlaps with Lynch's Lost Highway, might begin with Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe, wend through D.H. Lawrence, and somehow make its way back to the mental wastelands both Marcus and Lynch regard as the cost of the break with history implicit in America's creation myth.
"From the very beginning," Marcus explained, "when people came here and said, 'We've come to this land to establish a new world,' this was a terrible mistake. Look at what we've left behind. We have walked into a wilderness, psychic as well as physical, and even after you settle the physical wilderness, the psychic wilderness remains."