BOOK REVIEW / Going 'Wow!'

The Dustbin of History by Greil Marcus Picador, pounds 15.99; A study of 'history's excluded' is high-class guff, says Gilbert Adair

Greil Marcus made his reputation as a rock critic, which is strange because, when he writes about popular music, his writing, never all that rigorous, turns to pure mush.

Here he is, for example, on the composer Deborah Chessler and the group she managed in the Fifties, the Vibranaires (later renamed, thank heaven, the Orioles): "As the Orioles, they sang her songs, among them 'It's Too Soon to Know,' a tune so bottomless all the music that followed can disappear into it with no sense that anything has been lost." I had never heard of "It's Too Soon to Know", but my difficulty with Marcus's enthusiasm for it is not that it would have been regarded as a tad overstated had he been talking about the Hammerklavier Sonata, but that, as with almost all of his populist devotions, what he is doing is extrapolating from "Wow!"

"Wow!" is what Marcus says again and again about the people and things he admires - the film The Manchurian Candidate, the blues musician Robert Johnson, the TV movie Dead Man's Curve, about two "surf and hot-rod music princes", Jan Berry and Dean Terrence - except that, because he is a critic who likes the sound of his own voice, he systematically, not to mention ectoplasmically, expands that "Wow!" into paragraph after paragraph of the higher guff.

That is the first problem with The Dustbin of History, a problem of idiom. The second is a problem of identity. The title is, of course, Trotsky's, from his excommunication of the Mensheviks: "Go where you belong from now on - into the dustbin of history!" Marcus admits in his introduction to a sympathy for, and fascination with, history's salon des refuses - "those people, acts and events that are casually left out of history or forcefully excluded from it". It is a wonderful subject for a book, and one's expectations are not at all disappointed by Marcus's first 80 pages, which contain fine essays on a now-forgotten hero of Tiananmen Square, on how it felt to experience the convulsions of May 1968, on Eric Ambler's political thrillers, and even on what really occurred at the Rolling Stones's Altamont concert in 1969, when a black teenager was stabbed to death by Hell's Angels hired to guard the stage.

Then, on page 80, one is confronted by an essay entitled "Dylan as Historian": the Dylan, needless to say, is Bob. Bob Dylan as one of history's "excluded"? And John Wayne, the subject of a later essay? And Susan Sontag? The Beat writers? Wim Wenders? Although, to be fair, the promised theme resurfaces here and there throughout the book (if there were an index of abstract concepts, the entry on "history" would fill several pages), the suspicion grows on one that The Dustbin of History is merely a collection of journalistic bric-a-brac that Marcus deemed unpublishable in these hard times without some defining, overarching subject to glue the whole baggy thing together. For 80 pages or so, he manages to keep up the pretence that this is a book about a compelling idea, then it all falls apart.

Is there nothing to salvage? Not much, I fear, for the idiom does not change even when Marcus shifts into accusatory mode. He is a master of "negative gush". His attack on Susan Sontag, devastating and not completely beside the point, is ruined by a final, astonishing dismissal of her as "fundamentally and unnaturally an un-American critic". (Joe McCarthy would have approved of that adjective "un-American", but even he might have balked at qualifying it with the adverb "unnaturally".) And his ire at her preoccupation with European cultural trends (he contrasts her, ludicrously, with Pauline Kael) leads him into firing off a cheap shot. "Sontag was raised in Arizona and California, but there is nothing in her voice or her sensibility to betray the fact, save perhaps the cowboy boots she sometimes wears." Is this man worth listening to?

In his introduction Marcus offers the reader an insight into the motivation behind his methodology: "I think criticism has a good deal to do with a willingness ... to bet too much on too small an object or occasion." I agree. The trouble is that the "too small an object" on which he himself too frequently bets is his own garrulity. For a lot of the time he is barking up the right tree, but barking nevertheless.

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little